One of the chief purposes of my book on Civil Religion was to give an account of why certain great thinkers in the political theory canon who were ferociously anticlerical were nonetheless drawn to the civil religion idea as a desirable theoretical project. Leaving aside ancient antecedents, this project extends roughly from Machiavelli to Hobbes to Rousseau, and constitutes a significant chapter in the history of political philosophy. This theme is developed at length in my book, but a short encapsulation would go something like this: For thinkers for whom Christianity and the other major religions seemed far too deeply entrenched both in human psychology and in the requirements of social life for a secular society really to be imaginable at all, the political appropriation of religion seemed to offer a viable opening gambit in the endeavor to domesticate religion for political purposes. Ancient polities had seemed to do this in a civically beneficial way, and the hope was to reduce Christianity to a kind of civil cult instrumentalized to the needs of the commonwealth no less than the pagan cults had been. James Harrington offers an excellent illustration of how this project became central to the tradition of republican political thought. Harrington wrote: “It hath been a maxim with legislators not to give checks unto the present superstition, but to make the best use of it, as that which is always most powerful with the people.” And insofar as Hobbes was committed to this project no less than Machiavelli and Rousseau were, it is possible to regard Hobbes as an unintentional but still important contributor to the republican tradition. However, as the secularizing Enlightenment gained pace, this civil religion notion started to look redundant, and was displaced by other, bolder strategies for domesticating religion. Hence civil religion presented itself as an attractive strategy precisely to thinkers who were deeply fearful of the damage that churches and priests could do to the commonwealth but who were skeptical about disciplining religion by means other than civil religion. These civil-religion types – Hobbes, Harrington, Spinoza – were the ones who blasted the heavy artillery against clerical oppression, softening up the opposition for later moderate liberals like Locke. It was Harrington, a theorist of civil religion, who coined the term “priestcraft.”
For the republican tradition (Machiavelli, Harrington, Rousseau), the purpose of civil religion was both to domesticate religion and to mobilize people to be more robust citizens; for Hobbes, the purpose of civil religion was strictly to domesticate religion. In writing my book, I had assumed that civil religion was no longer a theoretical option – perhaps with the exception of Straussian theorists (including Leo Strauss himself) who pretend to be more pious than they really are. With the bolder and more radical challenge put to Biblical religion during the Enlightenment, the kind of odd theorizing pursued by Machiavelli and Hobbes and Harrington and Rousseau no longer had a point (although, as I’ve suggested in my book, Nietzsche quixotically attempted to revive a kind of civil religion theorizing, precisely on account of his unhappiness with the effects of the secularizing Enlightenment). However, I’ve since come to think that while civil religion no longer exists as a way of doing political theory in the way that it did at an earlier phase of the theory canon, I was perhaps overly hasty in pronouncing it obsolete. A University of Toronto colleague of mine, Ran Hirschl, has published a brilliant book, entitled Constitutional Theocracy, showing persuasively that in many contemporary Islamic societies, the state exerts itself to seize the political-theological initiative — by practicing a form of constitutional politics that defines civic requirements as pronouncements of Islamic law — and does so precisely in order to domesticate Islamic politics within their societies and subordinate it to state imperatives. (We can call it “Islamic Erastianism”!) This is exactly a kind of politics of civil religion, so even if I was right that civil religion has become intellectually redundant, at least within the Western tradition, that doesn’t mean that it has necessarily lost its relevance for the contemporary practice of politics.
Civil religion is a notable theme within our tradition of political thought because many of the leading thinkers of modernity – Machiavelli, Hobbes, Harrington, Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, Montesquieu, Rousseau – came to the view that religion poses a decisive political problem, and were determined to seek out a variety of strategies for domesticating religion politically. Civil religion in its essence means that religion is too dangerous to be left in the hands of churches and priests, and since it cannot be simply conjured away, it ought to be deposited in the hands of the state (which would put religion to good civic purposes and guarantee religious toleration among all citizens). Not all of the thinkers listed above embraced this particular strategy (i.e., the Erastian strategy), but certainly many of them did. This line of thinking may no longer have the intellectual relevance it once did (and again, it’s possible that I was too hasty in coming to that conclusion); but the problem that elicited civil religion theorizing certainly has lost none of its contemporary relevance. That is why we continue to read, or ought to continue to read, the theorists who defined the civil religion tradition. The theorists of civil religion have many things to teach us, but perhaps the most important is the perennialness of theocracy as a political possibility. They thought that theocracy has the potential to be the most dangerous form of politics, and there’s no reason to believe that we are now securely sheltered from that danger. If theocracy is still a possibility (and contemporary Egypt suggests that it is), then civil-religion theorizing retains its relevance.
Needless to say, reflection on the history of political philosophy offers no magic solutions to our own 21st-century predicaments and dilemmas. Those, we’ll have to solve on the basis of our own political and intellectual resources; we can’t simply read these off from some ancient text. But reading the canon can at least remind us that such predicaments and dilemmas didn’t arise yesterday. They are coeval with political society, and inserting ourselves into a long tradition of philosophical debate and reflection can bring that fact home to us, and thereby help enrich the store of wisdom we’ll need to solve our problems (or at least wrestle with them).
Ronald Beiner is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1982 he published an edition of Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (foreign-language editions have appeared or are forthcoming in 15 other languages). He is the author of Political Judgment (1983); What’s the Matter with Liberalism? (1992); Philosophy in a Time of Lost Spirit (1997); Liberalism, Nationalism, Citizenship (2003); and most recently, Civil Religion (2011). His other edited or co-edited books include Democratic Theory and Technological Society (1988); Kant and Political Philosophy (1993); Theorizing Citizenship (1995); Theorizing Nationalism (1999); Canadian Political Philosophy (2001); and Judgment, Imagination, and Politics (2001).