Civil Religion in Political Thought: Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America
Beiner, Ronald, Journal of Church and State
Civil Religion in Political Thought: Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America. Edited by Ronald Weed and John von Heyking. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010. 357pp. $79.95.
Let's start by noting a substantial ambiguity in the meaning of the term civil religion. In his "Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion," Montesquieu celebrated the Romans for their exemplary capacity to "put the gods in submission to politics," and to "fashion religion for the sake of the state" as opposed to a disposition of "the state for the sake of religion." This captures very directly the sense of civil religion as the political appropriation or political instrumentalization of actual world religions. This is the dominant signification of the term when one refers, for instance, to the civil religion of Machiavelli or Hobbes or Rousseau. Civil religion means something quite different in the influential work of sociologist Robert Bellah; he defines it as a kind of religion substitute suppiled by the polity's own rites, rituals, and rhetoric. This second meaning is conveyed quite well by Wilfred M. McClay in his foreword to Civil Religion in Political Thought, when he associates civil religion with "the glue that binds together a society through well-established symbols, rituals, celebrations" (such as the ecumenical services that typically figure in Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada) and deems it "a highest common denominator" appealing to citizens of diverse faiths (pp. vii-viii). In its ambitious scope, the Weed and von Heyking volume tends to span these two meanings.
Leaving aside civil religion in the sense popularized by Bellah, one encounters in the history of Western political philosophy a fascinating set of debates -commencing with Augustine's famous critique of the civil theology of Varro (or even, as the instructive chapters by V. Bradley Lewis and Matthias Riedl suggest, preceding Augustine)concerning the competing imperatives of the needs of the city and the claims made upon human beings by religion. As the editors concede in a footnote, many relevant texts in the history of Western theory have been left out of the survey offered in chapters 1-8; but rather than complaining about omissions, we should be grateful for just how much gets covered (and for the theoretical richness of the commentaries). Lewis argues that the Platonic civil religion in The Laws is aimed not only at enhancing civic unity and civic friendship but also at giving expression to, and attempting to manage, "the meliminable tension between philosophy and the city" (p. 45). David J. Bobb (chapter 3) recapitulates the AugustineVarro debate, but Riedl helpfully shows that Varro was not the only pagan trying to defend Roman civil religion by appealing to its utility, just as Augustine was not the only Christian trying to rebut …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Civil Religion in Political Thought: Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America. Contributors: Beiner, Ronald - Author. Journal title: Journal of Church and State. Volume: 53. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2011. Page number: 472+. © 1999 J.M. Dawson Studies in Church and State. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.