“Political Theology and the Substance of Civil Religion,” by Art Remillard
In 1989, sociologist James Mathisen argued that the discussion of American civil religion peaked in the early 1980s, and sharply declined thereafter. He suspected that it would soon be a relic, fondly remembered but rarely used. After all, Robert Bellah’s 1985 Habits of the Heart lacked any direct mention of civil religion. Bellah responded to Mathisen, explaining that he stopped using the term because he was tired of quibbling over definitions. He insisted that his recent scholarship had remained “very much concerned with the same substantive issues as my writings on civil religion” (Sociological Analysis 50.2).
Indeed, the discussion of civil religion is alive and well today, despite prognostications to the contrary. In recent years, some scholars have employed the term (see: Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation), while others have concentrated on its “substance.” In the latter group, we find Mark Lilla’s forthcoming, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West. An essay adapted from the book appears in a recent edition of the New York Times Magazine. Lilla gives a philosophical history of “political theology,” then explains how the “Great Separation” of politics and religion as imagined by Enlightenment philosophers has failed to materialize. He elaborates,
“The revival of political theology in the modern West is a humbling story. It reminds us that this way of thinking is not the preserve of any one culture or religion, nor does it belong solely to the past. It is an age-old habit of mind that can be reacquired by anyone who begins looking to the divine nexus of God, man and world to reveal the legitimate political order. This story also reminds us how political theology can be adapted to circumstances and reassert itself, even in the face of seemingly irresistible forces like modernization, secularization and democratization.”
This is a very compelling article, well worth the read. It will likely make readers think about current political dilemmas, and the religious “substance” therein.