Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

Why Are We Talking about Civil Religion Now?: Comments on "Civil Religion in Italy: A 'Mission Impossible'?" by Alessandro Ferrari

Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

Why Are We Talking about Civil Religion Now?: Comments on "Civil Religion in Italy: A 'Mission Impossible'?" by Alessandro Ferrari

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Crosses of various kinds have served to symbolize aspects of human culture and society over a time and space that both precedes and exceeds Christianity. The simplicity and evocative power of the meeting of two lines and their capacity to structure our imagination in various ways finds examples from all over the world and throughout human history.1 Crosses, like other simple shapes-circles, helixes, crescents, stars, spirals-derive their power, in part, from their capacity both to signify universal experiences and to carry highly specific references that root them in very particular religious and political histories. A cross can be at once a symbol of all meeting places, of the axis mundi, and also of highly particular religious meanings such as those attributed to the execution of one man in Roman Palestine in the first century of the common era. Meanings are always supplied by the viewer. They are not inherent in the object. A cross does not "mean" without a context.

Alessandro Ferrari, in his wonderfully interesting paper on civil religion in Italy for this symposium, notes what he sees as a persistent anomaly in secular Italy: the display of crucifixes2 in public school classrooms and the effort of the Italian courts to excuse their presence constitutionally.3 The crucifixes present a scandal of a sort, as he describes it, evidence of incomplete secularization. Interestingly, one of the First Amendment religion clause cases that was before the United States Supreme Court in its October 2009 term concerned public display of a cross.4 And it was only one of many recent cases in the United States challenging public display of a cross. Why do crosses continue to present themselves publicly and to present such a difficulty for the modern secular nation-state? Haven't the myths and symbols of religions been supplanted by the myths and symbols of nationalism? Has secularization failed?5 Or, has the cross been secularized? I will argue that the crosses and other religious symbols that continue to populate our imagination and our environment connect the universal and the particular in ways that the nation fails to, even while they cause offense to some, revealing, among other things, the limits of civil religion, as well as of secularism.

This symposium addresses itself cross-nationally to the problem of civil religions today. What are civil religions today? Do we need them? How are they related to "real" religion? How are they related to nations and nationalism? Although related genealogically to predecessor imperial and monarchical cults, modern civil religions are a feature of the nation-state. They supply the myths, rituals, and codes by which a particular country lives and celebrates its unity. They help to create those imagined communities of which we are members.6 They help government to govern by ensuring that the citizens of a particular country feel that they belong and understand that belonging as carrying certain cultural values and civic obligations. A civil religion does not lead to salvation, or nirvana, or eternal truth. It just enables ordered and bounded life on this earth. Or, so it is said. Civility, civilization, civil society-and religion-overlap in often uncomfortable ways. Civil religion might contain or locate some of the surplus desire that democracy cannot contain but it does that in service of state sovereignty. It supplies a need that is understood to have been created at the time of disestablishment and separation, but one that has been incompletely theorized.

For many Americans, I think, "civil religion" has come to denominate a thin, nationalistic deism believed necessary, and constitutionally permissible, for public ceremony and for the expression of patriotism, without much more. Civil religion is not regarded by most Americans to be a legitimate form of religion, but rather a bastard relation more to be curtly acknowledged than warmly embraced.7 This is so in large part because legitimate religion in the United States is understood not to be political. …

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