The concept of Civil Religion is relatively new on the scale of human history, as are many of its features. It is most frequently applied to the 20th century communist regimes in China and the Soviet Union, but it can apply to any modern secular State. With the rise of secularism the ages old union of religion and politics was broken. This presented a problem to the philosophical legitimacy of the State, suddenly lacking a divine mandate, or otherwise theological justification for maintaining its power. Civil religion was simply the replacement of an outdated tool of oppression by governing elites.
According to John Esposito, who wrote in Religions in Asia Today referring to the communist Chinese regime, “a civil religion is based on a sacred narrative of the state’s founding, in which the development of the state is portrayed as a just, moral enterprise…” .1 It is a new way of being religious because the “believers” are no longer worshipping unknowable deities that rely totally on faith for their existence. The “holy day” is no longer in reverence to a God, but a concrete National holiday that marks the founding of the Nation itself. In the sake of Communist china, God was replaced by Chairman Mao Zedong. It was slightly more difficult to institute civil religion in the Western post enlightenment world, but it is here. God has been replaced by the notion of Democracy. No longer do we fight wars to spread the word of Christ, but to spread to word of Democracy.
Despite the new labels and sacred mythologies it is also a very old way of being religious. Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book might have a different message than the Roman Catholic Church’s interpretation of the Bible, but the purpose it serves in society is identical. In the same way that Church’s disseminated hymnals the Nation-state has an anthem known by every child product of its National public schools and performed live before every nationally televised sporting event. The similar nature of civil and traditional religion does not lie in the actual content or philosophy. It lies in the way in which a society’s governing elite take advantage of such a persuasive, widely-held belief system.
I have posited before that it was not religion serving as the root cause for so many wars as most historians claim, but that it was the State’s misuse and abuse of the power vacuum that exists between the illiterate faithful masses, and the clergy. In an era that people are looking more and more to themselves for spiritual or religious awareness, the traditional model of religion is no longer an effective tool to be hijacked by the State. The ability of civil religions to coexist alongside the technological and scientific advances of the modern era is evidence in favor of this theory.
by Adam Alcorn, Founder/Editor, the Humane Condition
Contact me on twitter @AdamBlacksburg or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
- Esposito, John L., Darrell J. Fasching, and Todd Vernon Lewis. “Globalization From New to New Age Religions.” Religions of Asia today. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 385 – 422. Print.