Essay / Uncategorized

Joe Carter Must Find American Civil Religion

The erudite Joe Carter dislikes my views on civil religion. Here is my response.  I defer to no man in my dislike for Jean-Jacques Rousseau. First, he is a figure from French history not named Joan. We can therefore assume that he is a fuzzy minded hypocrite. Second, he was in fact a fuzzy minded hypocrite. So let’s have nothing to do with Jean-Jacques.I am also all in favor of knowing philosophical roots of ideas. In fact, that is my profession. But surely Mr. Carter nobody in rural West Virginia for the last one hundred and fifty years had anything like a glimmer of what Jean-Jacques Rousseau had in mind when they practiced civil religion?Like Burke and Aristotle I have a great dread of philosophy in politics. Philosophers are always looking for the Big Picture and Being Consistent, but human relations and government are an art and not a science. In this I agree with Aristotle and Burke and not with Plato or the French Guy. I am from the old tradition of “muddle through” and not from the “make it a consistent to the intellectuals” school of thought. In fact, in his quest for Philosophical Order in government, isn’t it Carter who betrays America’s Anglo-heritage for French “rigor.” Give me George III, mad is a hatter, rather than Napoleon with a mind as clear as crystal. Give me a nation with lots of old traditions and funny corners not all of which can be made orderly and I will show you a free state. Everyone knows they still pray in school in West Virginia and promote religion. Nobody cares much even if it is not (strictly speaking) legal. Actually stopping it would rend the very fabric of our state. It would be like asking Utah to actually treat the Mormon faith like “everything else.” It isn’t going to happen at a social cost we are willing to pay. Meanwhile we muddle through with leftists knowing that rural Utah will come with a cost and right-wingers knowing that they will pay a cost for the culture of Berkeley. Civil religion is like that in the actual US experience. We are overwhelmingly Christian and just about everyone treats the Divinity of civil religion as the Christian God. That is our mental image when we pray. We are allowed that mental image. In fact, in most places it is tacitly encouraged (muddle). Part of our liberty is an ability to understand “God” as being (mostly) the God mentioned in the Constitution (“in the year of Lord”) while allowing those who opt out (Jews and Moslems) enough latitude to do so since the main secular function of the deity is still served. We have many good citizens who are Jewish or Muslim and Americans accept that they understand “God” differently. Why? Because in the tradition of Burke and America our civil religion acts more as a limit on government and a tip of the hat to the origin of our liberties than as the Establishment of a Secular God. The God of Jews and Moslems is enough like the Christian god to fill that role. Can one be a good American and a Hindu? Yes, if he or she is willing to admit that there is a higher power (filled by the place holder name God) from whom rights come.  Can one be a good American and an atheist? Yes, if one is willing to accept that one has a world view inconsistent with the founding documents of the state. He or she will have to pretend in court that man has free will and in politics that there are rights that come from something Higher than government. If they can do that (and most atheists do in practice), then they are functional theists.Civil religion is therefore some of what Christians believe, but not all of it. It is like getting people to admit that Atlantis exists, but not forcing them to name the largest city. It is something . . . and it has a mostly protecting role that it can play for all persons . . . even those who dislike it.  

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