Tea with Simon Critchley: The Separation of Church and State Is Impossible
The New Yorker (blog) February 15, 2012: by Rollo Romig
“Religion is the basis and Foundation of Government.” That’s something James Madison wrote, in 1785. Except he didn’t really write it—or, rather, he did write those words, but with a bunch of other words before and after “religion,” and the point he was getting at had to do with individual rights, not God in government. It’s the kind of out-of-context quotation that gets passed around the blogosphere by people who want to assert that the Founding Fathers were stateside apostles, who’d been guided to the idea of America by the light of a deep religious faith. Fortunately, for secularists, the quote is a sham.
But what if the religious conservatives are right? What if the secularist dream—a true separation of church and state—is actually impossible? What if politics requires religion in order to function? These are among the questions that the philosopher Simon Critchley works over in his new book, “The Faith of the Faithless,” which takes as its starting point a line that Oscar Wilde actually did write, from the depths of prison: “Everything to be true must become a religion.” For readers of Critchley’s earlier works, this avenue of inquiry may come as surprise. Critchley, after all, has written that philosophy begins in “religious disappointment”—or, more bluntly, “the death of God”—and believes that “the heart of the horror of the present” is the deep entanglement of religion into politics. Nonetheless, he’s concluded, “with no particular joy,” that the two are not meant to become untangled. All political forms, he writes, are best understood as sacred ideas in secular dress.
I sat down for tea with Critchley in his Brooklyn Heights brownstone last week to ask him what he meant. Is a truly secular politics even possible? “I don’t think there’s ever been any such thing as secularism,” Critchley told me. “Even if you look at things like social democratic forms of government, which would believe themselves entirely secular, they’re not. If you look at a country like Sweden, it has taken the moral teachings of Lutheranism and combined them with a form of utilitarian ethics into a form of social behavior, which people think of as just the way things are. But for me, different forms of political life are different forms of what’s sacred.” Every state, every government, he said, requires “something that sanctifies it.”
In part, what Critchley’s talking about is “civil religion,” a term Rousseau coined to describe all the mechanisms—symbols, rituals, relics, songs, ceremonies—that bind a polity together. In America, Critchley said, it consists of “things like the Pledge of Allegiance, the worship of the flag, the cult of the war dead, the various traditions and celebrations that make up the annual life of the republic.” (To witness American civil religion in full expression, look no further than Whitney Houston’s ecstatic performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV.)
Ours is a nation founded on a creed, the Declaration of Independence, and guided by a sacred text, the Constitution, which, as Critchley puts it, “you can’t be against—it’s just a question of how you’re gonna be for it.” And our history has long been presented to us in religious terms. As Michael Kammen writes in his epic study of how Americans interpret their tradition, “Mystic Chords of Memory,” historic sites such as Mount Vernon or colonial Williamsburg were conceived not as living classrooms or tourist traps but as “shrines,” as stops on a pilgrimage. But American civil religion really took hold—and, not coincidentally, America first became a coherent nation—with Abraham Lincoln. “Lincoln gave voice to the providential aspect of American civil religion,” Critchley told me, “the sense that the force of history is with the United States, and war was a necessary crucible out of which the new American identity had to be formed, and that was somehow also the will of God.” Lincoln was even a martyr, shot down on a Good Friday.
But isn’t this all just metaphor? Isn’t Critchley conflating religion with mere nationalism? To an extent, sure. But the connection is more direct than that. Political belief, Critchley argues further, isn’t just parallel to religious belief; politics as we know it is derived from religion. The concept of original sin, for example, “is not some outdated relic from the religious past,” Critchley writes, but is alive in any system of authoritarian rule—even the supposedly godless ones—in that they operate from the premise that “there is something essentially defective in human nature which requires a corrective.” Or look at anti-colonial politics: Critchley notes that Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” has its precedent in Saint Paul, who wrote of the early Christians as the “scum of the earth.” Even anarchism, the movement that brought us the slogan “no gods, no masters” (and the political form that Critchley finds most amenable), can be traced back to mystical Christian heretical movements such as the Movement of the Free Spirit.
Even secularism itself, Critchley maintains, is a religious myth, based as it is on a belief in progress. “The very idea of progress, that the future will be better than the past—which is the basic premise of American life—is a translation of the Christian idea of providence,” Critchley told me. “Most societies, for most of history, thought that history had a cyclical path, whereas Western society is defined by a linear idea of history, which really begins with Judaism and then finds its rearticulation in Christianity.” It’s a myth Obama drew on when he said that “we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for,” or that it’s possible to be on “the wrong side of history”—and, in doing so, gave American liberals their own shortlived moment of political hope (otherwise known as faith).
The religious conservatives are right: there is a theology behind the American political system—only it isn’t Christianity. It’s deism, the faith most closely associated with the Enlightenment, which professes, as Critchley puts it, that “there’s a God, but a God that doesn’t do party tricks.” Even if no one calls himself a deist anymore, it lives on it the political systems that the Enlightenment inspired—especially our own. Liberal democracy, Critchley argues, is simply the political form of deism. Natural law and natural rights, so central to the American creed, are fundamentally theological concepts. Thomas Jefferson may have been a freethinking, Bible-revising iconoclast, but he wasn’t just being figurative when he wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that such rights are endowed by a Creator; that’s what deists believe. And even without prayer in schools, the deist creed is coded into every national ritual we have, from the courtroom to the ballpark.
Is there any way to participate in politics without getting religious? “I don’t think it should even be an aspiration,” Critchley told me. “If you look at a counterexample, the problem with the European Union is that it doesn’t have those rituals. It tried to bind a polity together through a constitution, but it was so weak. There’s been a total failure to craft something like a European identity—the problem hasn’t even been recognized. So we’re left with a unity which is simply monetary. And that seems to be screwed.”
When politicians use religious rhetoric, many secular-minded Americans view it as either alarming superstition or mere pandering, a cheap and easy way to appeal to what remains a highly religious electorate. And when the Supreme Court considers nods to God on our coinage or in the Pledge of Allegiance, they typically rule that such religious sentiments are basically meaningless—the term they use is “ceremonial deism.” But what Critchley’s arguing, with some reluctance, is that religious rhetoric isn’t necessarily something an otherwise secular government indulges in opportunistically or by rote —it’s an essential part of how government actually works. Trying to do away with political theology, Critchley said, will just result in “another mutation, a new idea of sacredness.”
“The best one can hope for is a richer vocabulary of understanding these thing,” he told me. “You wouldn’t look at history in terms of some movement from the religious to the secular —you’d simply look at different societies in terms of how they articulate their religiosity. And that allows you to get around this secular-religious distinction, which causes all sorts of problems, between we reasonable secular people in the West and those crazy religious fanatics elsewhere who are trying to blow us up. We do believe in a different set of things. But they’re religious, too.”