A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion

By Michele Dillon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
Civil Societyand Civil Religion as Mutually Dependent
N. J. Demerath III

In a world teeming with violence, oppression, and depravity, it is little wonder that religion should be seen as a solution. Whether as prayer, theology, or saintly inspiration, religion has been both a first and last hope in confronting social ills. But religion is also involved in more secular responses. As a major contributor to what has been termed “civil society, ” it can make a social and political difference in two respects. First, at the macro level, religion's various organizations and institutions can play a direct role in the public arena by challenging governmental shortcomings and depredations. Second, at the micro level, religion can foster a sense of “social capital” by giving its lay participants practice in, and encouragement for, participating in wider social and political circles, whether as mere voters or intense activists.

At least this is a theory that has found support in country after country around the globe since the 1980s. To cite just a few examples, the Catholic Church was instrumental in unseating both Brazil's military regime and Poland's Communist state (Glenn 2001); very different Muslim movements have opposed and toppled entrenched governments in Indonesia, and religion has both opposed and been opposed by the state in Iran. Buddhist organizations have been a thorn in the side of political elites in both China and Thailand, and Hindus are demanding changes in the world's largest democracy, India. Certainly U.S. religion offers its own examples of religion in the polis.

But even theories with such worldwide support have a tendency to leave loose ends dangling. In what follows, I want to point out a few of these ends and tie them up with a cord fashioned from “civil religion” – a concept that suggests yet another way in which religion is implicated in the political world. Basically, I will argue that there is an inherent ambiguity within the concept of “civil society, ” that its political hopefulness rests more on ideology than evidence, and that if civil society is to reach the desired ends, it must operate within a cultural climate heavily shaped by civil religion.


CIVIL SOCIETY AND A SOCIETY THAT IS CIVIL

Good theory can be subverted by bad terminology, or in this case, a term that has two distinct meanings, both of which have deep scholarly roots in eighteenth-century German and Scottish social thought.

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