Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Sacral State   posted by Razib @ 11/02/2005 09:50:00 PM

Ross Douthat of The American Scene linked to my post A Prayer for Emperor, which was a reflection on the book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Unfortunately, the same confusion as to my intent keeps coming up: people seem to assume that I meant the title to literally suggest that the deification of the head of state was imminent. I sure as hell need to be more careful about titles! Of course, I was stupid in that I realize in hindsight that I have a particular understanding of the religio-political culture of the Roman state which others might not share, and I'm not too inclined on decomposing my thoughts on that now, or in the future (and I doubt any of you are inclined to read those thoughts if I did divulge them!). So, I thought I should restate what I actually meant. Consider a trichotomy.

  1. The "classic" church-state separation model which was dominant from the mid-19th century until the present day in the United States. In this situation, the various religious groups have commonalities, and a minimal "civil religion" is the norm which is accepted in public life. The dominant religions tend to emphasize creeds (beliefs) and prosaic and sacrally marginal forms of worship. Ornate rituals, liturgies and precise religio-legal injunctions are a minimal part of the range of religious practice.
  2. The established exclusive church model, which one can see in many parts of the Islamic world, and was once the norm in the Western world (roughly from Theodosius I until Westphalia). In this system even if there is a range of belief and folk practice, the public ritual space is monopolized forcefully by one religious group. All other groups lack state legitimacy.
  3. The established "loose" church model. A various times during the Roman Empire different cults were dominant in the public space. For example, the emperor Vespasian was a devotee of Isis. In the 3rd century various solar deities were ascendent. In the early to mid 4th century Christianity was dominant. But, this did not render all other cults illegitimate, nor did it exclude them from the public space. Note that Constantine's sons all held (ceremonially) titles which implied that they were the heads of traditional pagan state cults, even though they were Christian by profession and unbringing. It was only late in the 4th century that exclusive Christianity banished all other religious expression from the commanding heights of culture and the public fora (the last public elite pagan revival was quashed in 395).
I do not think there is any possibility that the United States can revert to #2. Ross makes a cogent point in terms of the mobilization of religion for politics theological illiteracy removes barriers of suspicion between groups of similar social persuasions. Nevertheless, politics is not religion in the end. #1 is problematic because religious pluralism has introduced traditions which emphasize form, practice and ritual to a far greater extent than Protestant denominations which have taken refuge under the 1st ammendment. Accommodating alternative belief is relatively painless, and banishing creedal recitations from the classroom is logically tenable. Accommodating every single expression of religious belief, practice and custom in the workplace, in schools or in public spaces is impossible. Even accommodating a moderate level of diversity might tax the system. For example, in the interests of religious equality shall we continue to add state sanctioned holidays to the current list?

Ultimately the state needs to favor some values. Where the line is drawn is up to the state, and the people. If the line is biased toward expansive accommodation, then it will extend the logic of #1 into other dimensions (i.e., beyond belief and the bare basics of neutrality in regards to funds and services). If on the other hand the state begins to favor a particular set of beliefs, then I suspect we will see #3, not #2. Instead of a Roman analogy, consider the Anglican church at the turn of the 20th century. Dissenters and Roman Catholicism (as well as Spiritualism, agnosticism, etc.) were all accepted as options within the culture, but Anglicanism was the elite and government norm. Today, that tradition continues de jure, though it has little force or implication. I suppose the next question would be: what religion would the future America choose? I'll take that on in the future....