The New Civil Religion

Stick with me through this first part. I promise it’s going somewhere.

In the middle of the 18th century, Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote an important book on political philosophy called The Social Contract which still influences political theory today. Rousseau disagreed with many of the most popular political theories that went before him from thinkers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. he disagreed especially with the sentiment that people had to chose whether to be ruled or to be free. He believed that men can be both ruled and free if they rule themselves. A people can be truly free if it retains sovereignty over itself. Rousseau calls the collective of citizens the Sovereign. This collective expresses the general will of the people which each individual is obliged to obey. In this way a people is free (because they are governing), but they are also ruled (because they are in submission to the general will of the people). I’ll spare you any more details beyond this point. The book is at times extremely insightful and at other times surprisingly naïve and contradictory.

In the last pages of the book, Rousseau reflects on religion in civil societies. This is the inspiration for this post. Rousseau was a person with a complicated spiritual history. He despised atheism, but he also had little respect for organized religion. He was a Calvinist by birth. In his youth, he rejected Calvinism to become Catholic before becoming Calvinist again. These conversions were likely more the product of immediate material needs than they were the result of genuine spiritual conviction.

Rousseau rightly observes that there is no such thing as a purely secular state. “No state has ever been founded without religion as its base.” A civil religion is necessary for the foundation and the cohesion of a people. Christianity, he says, does not work as a civil religion for a few different reasons. First, Christianity is too spiritual, focusing only on the things of heaven to the exclusion of political concerns. Second, Christianity lends itself to tyranny because of the importance of submission in Christian ethics. Third, Christianity is too judgmental towards those who don’t share in the faith. I could offer pushback to each of those assumptions, but that’s not really the purpose of this post. Instead, I will let Rousseau say in his own words what the ideal civil religion would look like.

There is thus a profession of faith which is purely civil and of which it is the sovereign’s function to determine the articles, not strictly as religious dogmas, but as sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to be either a good citizen or a loyal subject. Without being able to oblige anyone to believe these articles, the sovereign can banish from the state anyone who does not believe them; banish him not for impiety but as an antisocial being, as one unable sincerely to love law and justice, or to sacrifice, if need be, his life to his duty. If anyone, after having publicly acknowledged these same dogmas, behaves as if he did not believe in them, then let him be put to death, for he has committed the greatest crime, that of lying before the law.

Notice that what is important in civil religion is not the specific religious dogma. In fact, Rousseau says in the same section that the actual dogmas of a civil religion should be “few in number, expressed precisely and without explanations or commentaries.” Rousseau believed these simple dogmas should reflect generic theism, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why this would have to be the case. The civil religion could just as easily reflect non-theistic beliefs because the purpose of civil religion isn’t the dogma itself. The purpose is social cohesion. Following the civil religion makes you a good citizen. A person who does not believe in the dogmas of civil religion can be justifiably banished (cancelled?) or even killed but not because of “impiety” but because he is antisocial. The greatest crime is not heresy. The greatest crime is “lying before the law.” In other words, it doesn’t really matter what one actually believes privately so long as socially he is complying with the civil religion. (It’s hard not to hear echoes of the early chapters of Daniel here.)

In the same section where Rousseau is outlining the positive dogmas of civil religion, he also mentions the negative dogmas – or really dogma because there is only one. “As for the negative dogmas, I would limit them to a single one: no intolerance. Intolerance is something which belongs to the religions we have rejected.” Civil religion must not tolerate intolerance. He takes it even further. To the person who claims that they can hold theologically intolerant positions while still living sociably in a tolerant society, Rousseau strongly disagrees. No intolerance can be tolerated.

In my opinion, those who distinguish between civil and theological intolerance are mistaken. These two forms of intolerance are inseparable. It is impossible to live in peace with people one believes to be damned; to love them would be to hate the God who punishes them; it is an absolute duty either to redeem or to torture them.

By now, you can maybe guess where I’m going with this. It is impossible not to notice that we have in the western world a new-ish civil religion which looks an awful lot like the civil religion describes by Rousseau. The month of June has become synonymous with a relentless propaganda campaign for Pride. Corporations and governments alike fall into lockstep during the month of June to publicly declare their support for Pride.*The rainbow is everywhere you look from corporate logos, to baseball uniforms, to governmental buildings. There are educational campaigns and public celebrations. If you don’t participate in the celebrations, you may find yourself in need of the educational campaigns. Pride is no longer really about advocacy, the rights have already been won at the highest judicial levels. Pride isn’t even about the celebration of “alternative lifestyles,” alternative lifestyles are so celebrated in our nation that an ordinary gay man like Pete Buttigieg is met with a collective yawn. Pride is no longer about a subversive counter-culture. Pride is now big business with a massive reach. Over 4 million people participated in Pride events in New York City in 2019. You’d be hard pressed to find any event in a major city with more widespread participation than Pride.

I know I sound provocative when I say this, but really it is just a matter of fact. Pride is our new civil religion.** There is plenty of evidence to support this claim. Consider that the US government decided to hang a Pride flag on the US embassy in the Vatican. Those who hung the flag knew that they were making a religious statement, not merely a political one. Or consider Pride’s recent interest in the education of young children. Early Pride events were intentionally the opposite of “family friendly,” but now June is full of all sorts of family friendly events. In some parts of the country, preschoolers are educated about sexuality and Pride. Drag shows are offered at school-sponsored events. NYC schools reportedly spent 200 thousand dollars on drag shows for kids. Parenting websites like think that good parents should absolutely take their kids to a Pride parade. Why the sudden emphasis on introducing children to Pride? Well, every religion catechizes children. Why should we expect anything different from our civil religion? Children are the most fertile soil for converts.

And then there is the example of Sarah Spain. Sarah Spain hosts a radio show on ESPN Radio. She is also a regular guest on various ESPN shows and podcasts. In a recent episode of ESPN’s afternoon show Around the Horn, she was asked to comment on a story related to the Tampa Bay Rays. Normally the Rays don’t make much national news. They aren’t a particularly popular baseball team even in their own city. But this day they had made headlines, not because of anything that happened on the field, but because of their uniforms. Five players – all pitchers – chose not to wear the team’s special uniforms celebrating Pride. They chose to abstain for explicitly religious reasons. Sarah Spain was not pleased.

In one way, this is kind of grimly humorous. We are living in a world where, with complete seriousness, we have made an absurd Seinfeld episode reality. This one clip captures pretty well Rousseau’s vision of the civil religion. The one thing that isn’t allowed is intolerance. Any “religious exemption” is BS. You are not allowed to be theologically intolerant because there are civil consequences to your intolerance. Notice that what is important to Spain is not that these players actually believe in the importance of Pride. I’m sure she would like each of these players to experience a genuine conversion, but she is most concerned about social solidarity. You are being anti-social by not embracing the images of the civil religion and thus you are causing harm. A good citizen conforms his individual will to the general will regardless of his personal feelings. Spain isn’t going as far as Rousseau and calling for the execution of these conscientious objectors, but she wouldn’t mind that they would be publicly shamed and cancelled for their indiscretions. Perhaps even a banishment in the form of a suspension is necessary until they are made to comply.

The amount of pushback that Spain and ESPN received (ESPN has removed the video from their web site) might tell us that perhaps this civil religion isn’t quite as powerful as we suspect. Or maybe it isn’t actually a civil religion at all. There is still quite a large percentage of the population who have heard “the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music” and have remained unimpressed. I don’t agree with that interpretation. Think about it this way. Try to imagine any prominent person in our culture – outside of those right-wing partisans bigots whom everyone would expect to be contrarian – standing up and saying something, anything negative about Pride. It’s hard to imagine an entertainer, a corporate leader, or a celebrity saying the slightest world of criticism publicly. They are all uniform and in lock step. They are good citizens. That’s why the case of the Tampa pitchers was so egregious. These are athletes in the public eye. They should know better. This is also why everyone else on the show simply nodded in somber agreement. Everyone knows what the orthodoxy is. Everyone knows what is expected.

So what do we do about this? Well, let me be perfectly clear what we don’t do. We don’t embrace hatred and animosity for gay people. One can resist civil religion without leaning in to hatred. One can resist civil religion without rejecting our call to love. I think what we can actually do was modeled by these pitchers. They knew their principles, and they stood for those principles together. They didn’t make a big deal out of it. They didn’t condemn those who didn’t join them. They weren’t ranting and raving about their #resistance. They were simply quietly faithful. Now, it didn’t exempt them from animosity and condemnation. Even other professing Christians attacked them on social media. Shamefully. Faithful presence will always put us at some risk, but faithful presence is nevertheless the only appropriate posture for a Christian to take to any civil religion.

*At least in the western world.

**Anticipating an objection here. I’m open to the possibility that we are, like Athens, a very religious people with multiple civil religions in competition with each other.

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