Co-opting Secular Religion

It has often been noted that, in the United States, politics is our national religion.

This is something my co-blogger Walker Wright covered at Difficult Run back in 2013, citing Eran Shalev:

Through pseudo-biblicism the Bible became a living text, an ongoing scriptural venture which complemented and foritified notions of national chosenness and mission. This transformation occurred within a poisoned political culture which created “two parallel imagined communities,” namely the two political parties—the Federalists and the Republicans—that denied each other’s legitimacy. This disposition…created a political culture governed by a grammar of combat, which entailed a “politics of anxious extremes.” It fostered the intense employment and further construction of biblical politics, each side depicting the other as wrong-doing “Adamites” or “Jeffersonites.” …The pseudo-biblical language thus wove the Bible into American life and sanctified the young nation. American politics were transformed, in texts largely devoid of references to God, into the new religion of the republic.

I came across another example of that sentiment this year, when reading Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. (Which I loved.) In it, he writes:

In building a modern state and overcoming clientelism, the United States had one big advantage over many contemporary developing countries: from the first days of the republic, it had a strong national identity that was rooted less in ethnicity or religion than in a set of political values centering around loyalty to its own democratic institutions. Americans in some sense worshiped their constitution, which embodied universalistic values, making the assimilation of new, culturally different immigrants relatively easy.

There’s a lot we could talk about in this quote, but here’s one idea I want to focus on in brief. If the United States has a political–and, in a sense, a secular–national religion, than one way to co-opt that religion and re-infuse theism into a specifically and authentically American viewpoint is to claim that the Constitution itself is actually a divine document in some sense.

Which, of course, is precisely the claim that Mormons have long made.

Note: I inadvertently published an unfinished version of this post (missing the Evan Shalev quote) earlier today. Apologies for the confusion.

3 comments for “Co-opting Secular Religion

  1. MH
    1
    January 9, 2017 at 11:01 am

    “…it had a strong national identity that was rooted less in ethnicity or religion than in a set of political values centering around loyalty to its own democratic institutions. Americans in some sense worshiped their constitution, which embodied universalistic values, making the assimilation of new, culturally different immigrants relatively easy.”

    But all throughout American history there have been significant, powerful movements—from Know Nothing anti-Catholicism to those today who think Latinos and Muslims, because of the political cultures of their countries of origin, will corrupt democracy—that interpret the Constitution’s provisions as racially and religiously grounded to the exclusion of the non-white (whatever that means at any given moment) and the non-Protestant.

    An alternative way of looking at this, then: because of the universalistic language of the Constitution, American political religion is relatively easily co-optable. “New, culturally different immigrants” could wield the ideals of the Constitution and other founding documents to push for equal voice and treatment, despite their exclusion from the groups the Constitution (in context) originally protected. Mormons co-opted Americanism in a unique way.

  2. Clark Goble
    2
    January 10, 2017 at 1:02 am

    That’s pretty interesting. There’s actually a reasonably well known law article (at least known enough that I’d read it – and I’m no lawyer) by Thomas C. Grey called “The Constitution as Scripture.” Since I’m no lawyer I don’t know how well regarded it is in legal circles. But it makes the argument that in terms of hermeneutics the constitution’s closest analogue is how people read scripture.

    I should hasten to add that the author uses this to tease out the place of supplements to the text, much as Catholics have tradition and even the Protestants who were more strict textualists often didn’t want to lose the Catholic traditions. But there’s also the very Mormon idea that “revelation is neither the written scripture nor the oral traditions; both scripture and tradition are only human accounts of the true revelation, which is the ‘christ-event,’ the ‘Word made flesh.” Thus scripture becomes words of finite men responding to the manifestation of God. It becomes metaphor to say what can’t be said literally.

    Of course I suspect most Mormons, who are apt to take up the types of originalism or textualism popularized in conservative thought since Reagan. might have some discomfort with this. And of course perhaps that approach to scriptural exegesis as well. Yet in an other sense how we read scripture (and constitution) are socially structured by our social traditions. However from the very beginning of the Republic there was a measure of constitution worship. Rather than have a king, we have law as our king with the constitution as its ultimate symbol. As the article notes:

    (a) judicial review requires that judges enforce the Constitution; (b) the Constitution stands for the American essence; therefore, (c) judicial review requires judges o discern and enforce the American essence.

    The problem is obvious for Mormons, what is the hidden essence of the Constitution to which we’re to be truer than the words trying to represent it? And is that valid since of course untempered it allows any level of judicial activism.

  3. Professor Lockhart
    3
    January 10, 2017 at 8:45 am

    There’s a lot to unpack in the phrase American essence. But surely the conclusion that judicial review requires discerning and enforcing American essence is blunted by the the quote below.

    “[Supreme Court Judge] Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”

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