The priest in the civil religion

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While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of “the American Way of Life,” few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America. This article argues not only that there is such a thing, but also that this religion-or perhaps better, this religious dimension-has its own seriousness and integrity and requires the same care in understanding that any other religion does.

— Robert Bellah, Civil Religion in America

Without Gods, no oaths may stand,” is the substance one of Aristophenes’ arguments — a false one perhaps — against Socrates, immortalized in his satirical play “The Clouds.” The Masons, though perhaps not believing Aristophenes’ accusation itself did understand his point. The point being, that when men with no interest in helping you agree to help you, if you expect them to keep their promise, there must be something that binds them to it. The Romans and Greeks very explicitly believed in the social technology of religion — even if they held in contempt various aspects of it.

Atheists do spend some time in apology against this point, since it would seem to them perhaps to be a ‘cheap argument’ like Pascal’s Wager is considered to be. The gist is that we religious folks are shoehorning religious superstition in on the technicality that without it, contracts that cannot be backed up with force become impossible. The arguments against this are numerous; personal anecdotes, kinds of agreements between kin, etc. However even Atheists would acknowledge that the principle of outside force — a third party of some sort — is necessary to ensure vows are fulfilled. Arguing one’s own personal nobility or praxis of kingroups is not a solution to the problem of a polyglot nation needing to ensure plundering is not routine.

To this end, the Masons had a clever idea; they would be ambiguous about a monotheism, and thereby ensure that each man (who in their time was usually religious) would be bound to his understanding of God in his oath. Men who did not believe in a God would not qualify, since they could not be bound to keep their word by the force of this one God, and in their time this would allow a large swath of men to participate, similar to how the polytheists ‘made room’ for different groups’ gods by including them in or rationalizing them to the pantheon. Even though the pattern is the reverse (many to one instead of one to many) the concept is the same: let each man keep his god. When dealing with strict monotheists, ‘making room for others’ gods’ by multiplication would require some mental gymnastics that even the Aztecs would envy.

Though the modern obverse of the United States Seal says “New Order of the Ages” the original was not immanent in character but transcendent. It is depicted above: “With God’s Favor, Everlasting.” Both are likely influenced by the Masonic genius for European social technology (the original seal seems to be Mason-free); though the earlier model reflects a more Christian and more orthodox attitude: “God willing.”

What happened in the interim? Did America lose its faith? Or is that possibly the thing never was Christian, in the sense that the Masons never were really monotheists; Socrates seems the most innocent of deception in all of this: as Moldbug put it:

Socrates also had a fine old time corrupting the youth of Athens, and what was he corrupting them with? Not what you think, pervert. In a word: hatefacts and crimethink. (Specifically, Socrates was spreading seditious lies about democracy.)

And Socrates was not one to make illusions that he supported democracy, but having ticked off the wrong people was sufficient to have his level of heterodoxy questioned and found wanting. It is instructive that neither the United States Government or the Masons are on trial and about to receive the death sentence.

In the case of the latter (The Masons) secrecy has always been explicit, though in America, unlike in 19th Century Italy, being a Mason has not been something it was necessary to conceal. The rub has always been that because they keep their activities secret (and most of us project our love of personal secrecy and desire to get away with crimes onto this convenient scapegoat) that they have been suspected of everything under the sun. The man who cannot talk cannot defend himself, of course. Just because he cannot defend himself doesn’t mean he isn’t guilty, but without his records it will be hard to pin down exactly what he did and didn’t do — not really an issue for scapegoating of course. (In original scapegoating, the scapegoat had committed no crimes at all, it was just an ordinary goat. But it ‘became criminal’ we might say, to remove the crimes that could not be ferreted out by human justice.) The question as to whether the Masons have actually intentionally set themselves up to be a scapegoat is outside of this essay; but seems oddly to play into the game of scapegoating the Masons.

But it is the former with which we are most interested. If our government was never Christian, how did it conceal this fact from so many people? With a seal that says “New Order of the Ages” and never explicitly mentions Jesus Christ, it doesn’t seem very Christian… but then again, it has never credibly denied that it was Christian either… It just appears to have backslid a bit. In fact, all of its presidents have been practicing Christians in some capacity (nominality is not unexpected in imperial figures) and for a time nearly all of its citizens were believably Christians as well.

There is blame given to the Masons for this, no doubt, but this is like blaming the Japanese for a man being killed with a katana. The technology may have been invented there, but technology is technique, and those who admire it may use it elsewhere. And so it is with our “One Nation Under God” – a social technology designed to bind each person to a personal understanding and oath, while avoiding questions of the specifics of such instances of God; this system is not Under God in the sense of a monarch receiving his crown from a priest or bishop, but in a personal sense of many personal instances of a similar God which is often the case in Protestant milieu. What Protestantism suggests in its conflicts the United States government has made explicit; a God above each man but not the same visible one above everyone together. The God above them is purely conceptual, and all the better; for if he were suddenly to make his will known it would of course be very inconvenient to the United States government. (History shows that God very often acts inconveniently towards human government.)

But does this mean then, that our government is actually secular? Bellah does not think so, and I think once one moves outside of the idea of religion or faith equating to a devoted monotheism, it is apparent that all of the trappings of religion are present indeed.

*****

Recently the Poetess Maya Angelou (nee Marguerite Johnson) passed away. Often called a ‘Poet Laureate’ (though never serving in the official position of one) she is very emblematic of the American Civil Religion itself. When we reflect upon great religions we find much of their significant texts are poetic; not merely in the sense of Ovid recounting legend in verse, but closer to the sense that the Psalms are strange and visionary:

From the womb from before the morning star have I begotten thee;
The Lord has sworn and shall not repent
Thou art priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.

These works, like many others, do not rhyme and probably never did. Some older forms of poetry were rhythmic (such as Ephrem the Syrian’s Hymns on Paradise) but all obeyed rules that both restrict the poetry itself and also reflect the attitude and mind of the people (and not just the poet) — from whence it came. Some of the rules are lost to us even as the poems persist, which is another way of saying that the cultures which birthed them are lost to us.

If we look at the roles within religions of different important persons, we find some interesting things. We see for instance that singing and song tend to have two functions or places: one is high and the other is low. The high song is religious in nature while the low song is common and mean. Even the great Symphony Ode to Joy has in it a religious character as much as Handel’s Messiah does, even if it is not explicit. The Ode itself, a work in devotion to, manifests some of the character of religion that may be hidden in those whose expressions of it are muted, non-existent, or suppressed. The desire to raise national songs is a religious desire, but we have to wonder to what heaven the incense rises whose god is only conceptual?

Secondly, we see that instruction itself is intrinsically intertwined with religion. While in our time since the loss of theology as the ‘mother of the sciences’ there has been some explicit secularization of learning, the nexus of meaning that drives learning and instruction is religious at least in part, and like music it has two parts: the practical and the visionary. The practical (once embodied in the phrase, Readin’ Ritin’, Rithmatic) is earthy and based on fulfilling necessities. It should go without saying that learning to read and write in a literate society (where one needs reading and writing to hold down anything other than a day labor job) is a necessity. But the visionary aspect has always been religious in nature; this may account for why theoretical physicists end up being religious or in some way Christian; they reach the edge of the practical and move into the visionary, whose meaning is religious in nature. In the secularization of learning two things can happen: One — the religion’s object changes from a transcendent object (such as God) to an immanent object (the self, money) or Two — the religious aspect retreats into more occult, theoretical, impractical and speculative areas, leaving the main both less charged and less meaningful.

Another aspect of learning is mentoring; though this is different than instruction and pertains more to help with inner struggles. Sometimes the role is combined with that of teacher (such as with some tutors like The Fox in Till We Have Faces) but this role has two parts and a similar relationship between them. Firstly, the mentor gives practical direction; should I take this job? Should I enter this profession? But deeper, the mentoring touches upon spiritual topics such as the state of the soul. In orthodox forms of Christianity this relationship has a long and very deep tradition, with both monastic and lay forms. In Orthodoxy, the role of Confessor is special and is not necessarily granted to all priests. In this sense, the mentor is more of a guide than an instructor.

In Protestant churches, and among those who are very nominal or non-religious, these religious categories (high music, visionary learning, soul guiding) do not cease to exist. In the former these roles are mitigated by loss of the force of tradition: high music (like Carlton Pearson’s above) may become mingled with low music or appeal specifically to a narrow segment of spiritual types (usually the Passional or the Devotional), visionary learning gets confused about what the occult is or means and what its dangers are, and soul guiding may only happen through a sermon. But what is there for those outside of these churches?

I would argue that by and large, American popular music has acquired a religious character, that of high music, to most Americans now. The switchover seems to happen around the time of the Beatles, where if you look at the ‘fervor’ of music in the prior 50 years it seems — bland. The reason is that you’re only seeing half the music; Sousa’s marches and high church hymns and such must be included to get a full picture. And the picture is of a much more Apollonian society than the one that follows it.

Poetry is of course all tied up in this, since all lyrics, being constrained by the meter of the music in some fashion, resolve to verse. And in this, we find that poetry serves mostly the role of a caged bird (apropos for Angelou) — it is a kept form, lest it escape and run rampant. To think what that might have meant is to contemplate if Jeffers had ascended to fame. All Revolutionaries, our founders included, instinctively fear the form, though they respect it. Revolutionary poets cannot stick to a particular form, they say because they must remain creative, or because they keep tinkering with it because it doesn’t do what they want it to. They wish to remain in control.

The focal point for all of this activity is the altar, in whatever form it takes, for the ‘culture’ is rooted in the ‘cult.’ And the figure who besides offering sacrifices often sings, teaches, and mentors is the priest.

*****

If you look at a figure like Oprah, who considered Angelou her mentor, you see an incarnation of the role of the soul guide. In this way, Oprah has an almost priest-like role in the civil religion; promoting the necessary equality and vague but friendly visionary knowledge borrowed from the prophets (self help?). Bellah quotes Eisenhower, who in a sense is merely quoting the founders: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith — and I don’t care what it is.” There is, like in the situation of the Masons, a need for equal footing among religions for this civic religion to exist. Figures like Oprah, and before her (though less actively so) Angelou keep a priestly role in this civil religion through promotion of equality (among other things) necessary for it to persist.

Indeed, it is certain that the way texts such as “Still I Rise” are accepted is similar to the way “Amazing Grace” functions: as a high song, a guide and even a visionary text. In this way, you can see that poetry is, among other things, an intriguing piece of social technology even as it is a primitive technology (speech, writing, etc.). Angelou does not appear to have been a Christian; her themes thus are not intermingled with an attempt to reconcile a high religious thought with hard experience (such as you might see in Chesterton or Hopkins) and are given to reflecting in a more raw way the natural religion of America itself.

It is certain that her personal history played a large role in the themes of her poetry, and so in a quotidian sense we might address them and defend them in that context. However, to do so would be to disrespect them as poems, for when they acquire a social or visionary dimension, they detach from the person specifically, and this is, according to Polanyi, when they truly become ‘art.‘ To wit, to say that her Still I Rise is just about the abuse she experienced, and to criticize it, is tantamount to denying or excusing that abuse, and belittling the work.

Rousseau wrote “that the civil religion pertained to the existence of God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance. All other religious opinions are outside the cognizance of the state and may be freely held by citizens.” (Bellah) This defines the religion negatively, of course; and what we are searching for is the clues to the positive aspects of this religion. A cursory review of some of Angelou’s poems (as is here) can teach one a lot about this civil religion, its ultimate object, and what it is, in some sense, thinking. There is also the question of what it is becoming.

In the absence of a tangible God, as one Thomas discovered in the Resurrected Christ, it tends to seek tangibility in one of two places: self, and money. The battle for equality in Angelou and in many others was tantamount to a battle for self respect and for economic gain; a little discussed detail in the liberation of Israel from the bondage of Egypt is their plundering of Egyptian goods. In his Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa tells the Christian that as he escapes the bondage of the world (Egypt) he should plunder its goods (knowledge for gold and silver). This interpretation and its typology that reflect a more sophisticated, learned and transcendent vision were not available to American blacks (or evidently even to our founders); but the type is an archetype and its pattern will in some way be followed.

Of course, everyone knows what happened next.

Oprah's gifts: The sacrifices aren't going to minister themselves

Oprah’s gifts: The sacrifices aren’t going to minister themselves, dudes

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