Over the past few days, Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech has been accessed millions of times on YouTube and dissected in dozens of articles. Understandably, most of the analyses have focused on race. That, after all, was its central theme.
Or was it? In this posting, I would like to draw attention to three other, more submerged themes in the speech that have received little if any notice so far: class, nation, and covenant. Not that these themes are disconnected from race. On the contrary, it is by subtly injecting themes of class, patriotism, and covenant into the debate that Obama proposes to engage his critics, secure the Democratic nomination, transcend the Reagan coalition, and win back the White House. The stakes, then, are as high as could be.
Whether he succeeds in the latter endeavors will depend on whether he succeeds on the first front: defusing the controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright and calming the fears of white middle-class voters that he is just another angry, black, man – a Black Panther in sheep’s clothing. Should he succeed, and face John McCain this fall, the “More Perfect Union” speech and right-wing responses to it provide a clear sense of the terms of engagement: civil religion vs. crusader nationalism.
Civil Religion: Socio-Historical Conditions of Possibility
Before examining these alternatives in more detail, I would like to frame the choice in broad terms. Very broad terms. I begin with the Axial Age breakthrough. As many readers of this blog will know, the Axial Age concept was coined by Karl Jaspers. It is bounded at by the appearance of The Buddha, continues through the development of Classical Hinduism, Confucianism, Second Temple Judaism and Christianity and closes with the death of Mohammed. Its unity derives from a set of parallel developments that occurred in and around the great empires of classical Eurasia, from China through South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean basin. These developments included: 1) the postulation of a transcendent or supra-mundane reality that was superior to, and discontinuous with, the sensible and the mundane; 2) the emergence of a new class of priestly intellectuals who had considerable material and symbolic autonomy from the state and its rulers; 3) the emergence of trans-local religious movements that crosscut existing ethnic and political boundaries.
As Max Weber – and Thomas Mann – recognized over a century ago, the Axial Age breakthrough shattered the ontological unity of the world, above all, the unity of state and cult, thereby introducing a deep and irresoluble tension between politics and religion that is one of the fundamental features of the last two millennia of world history. The depth of the tension derives from the fact that religious and political elites and institutions have much to gain by allying with one another and will therefore be inclined to engage in quid pro quos of one sort or another, like, for instance, legitimation for protection. The irresolubility of the tension derives from the fact that their means and their ends are fundamentally at odds with one another: ultimate truth and otherworldly salvation, on the one hand, and physical violence and worldly power on the other.
To say that the tensions are logically irresoluble does not mean that they are practically irresoluble. Indeed, Weber identified one, relatively stable equilibrium point, which he referred to as an “organic social ethics.” They involved folding a vertical social imaginary (e.g., “feudalism”) into an enchanted cosmic imaginary, such that the distribution of power and the division of labor within society were aligned with religious vocations and duties. The Medieval Christian formula of the three orders – laboratories, oratores et bellatores – represents one example.
The Tension Refigured: Secularism, Civil Religion and Religious Nationalism
In modern societies, however, the equilibrium of the organic social ethic is no longer viable. Vertical social imaginaries have been discredited and supplanted by the horizontal social imaginaries of the democratic polity and the national community. Vertical cosmic imaginaries have been supplanted by unmediated religions of personal faith and inner experience.
What forms does the tension take today?
In the context of Western, democratic, nation-states, there have been three main solutions to the “church-state problem”: liberal secularism, civil religion and religious nationalism. By liberal secularism, I mean a juridico-legal system that disestablishes churches and privatizes religion. (For purposes of the present analysis, I am treating republican secularism, such as one finds in France or Turkey, as an extreme variant of liberal secularism, of the sort that exists within the Atlantic world.) By civil religion, I mean a sacralization of the democratic polity and a celebration of the sovereign people that borrows heavily from theistic language and ritual. By religious nationalism, finally, I mean a sacralization of the national state and the election of the common people that glorifies blood sacrifice and rejects the restraints of the covenant.
Religious Nationalism and Civil Religion in American Life
The history of the democratic experiment in the United States can be narrated as an oscillation between these three “solutions” or, more precisely, as an ongoing competition between them waged by an ever-changing cast of politicians, parties and movements. These three solutions are, in fact, one way of defining left and right in American politics. The Democratic Party has typically embraced liberal secularism (Jefferson) or civil religion (Kennedy). The Republican Party has typically embraced civil religion (Lincoln) or religious nationalism, Bush the Lesser). Civil religion, then, is the “vital center” of the American tradition.
Insofar as the present political conjuncture involves a choice between civil religion and religious nationalism – I would like to dwell on them further and say a few words about the particular form that they have taken in the American context. Both stem from the same root: the Old Testament narrative of the Ancient Israelites. (Indeed, this is likely the central root of Western nationalism tout court, but that is another story.) However, they draw on very different parts of that narrative and yield very different results.
Simplifying greatly, one could argue that the American version of religious nationalism is governed primarily by the category of chosen-ness and derives its story-line from the Pentateuch, particularly the bloody struggles between the Jewish people and their philistine enemies. What is missing from this story are the ethical restraints imposed by the covenant. Rather than responsible and autonomous moral agents, the chosen people become the passive instruments of a jealous and angry God, who equates justice with vengeance. The covenant becomes a contract — a contract of the Sicilian variety. In short, a license to kill, with impunity and without regret. In this telling, the history of America is a story of sacred violence, waged on the frontier and in the world, by a blameless people on behalf of a divine cause. As Robert Bellah has soberly noted, chosen-ness without covenant is a signpost to hell – the hellish jungles of Viet Nam and the scorching sands of Iraq.
Indeed, in its present inception, as represented by George W. Bush, religious nationalism is, increasingly, neither. It is so denuded of Christian ethics that it barely warrants the name. The flag has not been placed alongside the cross, but above the cross, figuratively and, often enough, literally, as well. The orienting principles have been honor, might, power and expedience, not humility, forgiveness, reconciliation and constancy. Nor is it clear that this new dispensation can be accurately described as a form of nationalism any more, insofar as it is oriented not towards national defense, so much as imperial offense. Let us call this pseudo-religious nationalism.
As Jewett and Laurence have recently argued in their book, Captain America and Crusade Against Evil, pseudo-religious nationalism has also given rise to a secular mutant variety, which they dub the American monomyth. Its paradigmatic embodiment is the comic-book superhero and his television offspring. “In the modern superhero story of the American monomyth…helpless communities are redeemed by lone savior figures who are never integrated into their societies and never marry at the story’s end.” The monomyth “shows a democratic face in that the protagonist is an Everyman, yet has a pop-fascist dimension in that these unelected, law-transcending figures exercise superpowers to overcome foes.” These tales “typically express frustration with the limitations of constitutional government and with its allied ideals of reconciliation and compromise. These stories show that, when confronted with genuine evil, democratic institutions and the due process of law always fail. In the face of such a threat democracy can be saved only by someone with courage and strength enough to transcend the legal order so that the source of evil can be destroyed.” Think Dick Cheney channeling Jack Bauer. Let us call the unholy alliance of pseudo-Christian nationalism and the Captain America complex crusader nationalism.
Against this background, the outrage of the right at the prophetic denunciations of the Reverend Wright suddenly appears in a new light. Recall the words that have received the most airtime and sparked the great outrage: “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes three-strike laws and wants them to sing God Bless America. No! No No! God damn America … for killing innocent people. God damn America for threatening citizens as less than humans. God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and supreme.” As many of his defenders have noted, this and other statements by Wright statements are wholly within the covenant logic. When the Chosen people violate the covenant, God will punish them. But right-wing patriotism, in its pseudo-Christian and secular variants, does not allow for this possibility. It assumes that America has been chosen once and for all, and that it has a monopoly on God’s blessings.
As E.J. Dionne Jr. notes in a recent editorial in the Washington Post, the rhetoric of Martin Luther King – one of America’s secular saints and its only black one – could be every bit as prophetic in tone as Wright’s. Consider what “King said about the Vietnam War at his own Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Feb. 4, 1968: ‘God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war. … And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation. But God has a way of even putting nations in their place.’ King then predicted this response from the Almighty: ‘And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.'”
This is not to imply that all conservative Christians who have allied themselves with the pseudo-Christians and Captain Americas have completely sloughed off the two-way logic of the covenant. None other than Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (in)famously claimed that 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were divine punishment for Roe v. Wade. However, those who still see the covenant as a two-way transaction, implying both blessings and sufferings, operate with a minimalistic and individualistic version of Christian ethics focused solely on pelvic issues and bereft of prophetic calls for social justice.
The comparison with Falwell and Robertson also reveals another important aspect of crusader nationalism: its Faustian pact with racial divisiveness. Why do conservatives not hold the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons of the world to the same standard? Clearly, there is a double standard at work here. It is acceptable for a white preacher to speak in the angry voice of a prophet; it is not acceptable for black preacher to do so. Indeed, this is now the central tactic in the campaign of personal destruction being waged against Barack Obama by the right-wing noise machine: to make him into an “angry, black man.” It’s been road-tested by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. It will be part of the endless loop of the fall campaign.
Nor is this new. Crusader nationalism and racial division are really two sides of the same coin. If crusader nationalism is the bond, or one of the bonds, that holds defense conservatives and religious conservatives together, racial division is the wedge that was used to separate the “Reagan Democrats” from the New Deal coalition. The first step in the construction of the Reagan coalition was, of course, the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon, the use of carefully coded race-baiting to alienate working-class whites from the Democratic party. From Nixon’s allusions to “states rights” and “law and order” through Reagan’s “welfare queens” and Bush Sr.’s “Willie Horton” ad, this has been a staple of Republican campaigns for over three decades.
To make a new Democratic coalition, one must therefore unmake the Reagan coalition. The first step is racial reconciliation. But if racial solidarity is to be deconstructed, what will take its place? That is the question to which Obama’s speech is an answer. And his answer is civil religion.
Obama’s Gambit: Civil Religion
While crusader nationalism rests on a denuded notion of divine election, civil religion is anchored in a secularized notion of covenant. In this vision, the covenant is not a license to kill one’s enemies; it is a promise to live towards one’s principles. These are not religious principles in the strict sense. Rather, they are political principles with a transcendent orientation and strong parallels to religious principles: social justice, civic duty, human rights, and so on. Not Biblical principles, then, but principles for which one can find a Biblical warrant. The warrants are not to be found in the bloody battle-scenes of the Pentateuch, however, but in the righteous voices of the prophets and the principles of the new kingdom announced by Jesus Christ – a kingdom that is not of this world but that is always at hand.
As defined by Bellah in his seminal essay on the subject, civil religion is civil in a dual sense. First, it is civic rather than universal. It is a religion of a bounded, earthly community, not an encompassing, divine community. Second, it involves civility, that is, strong norms of tolerance and restraint and thoroughgoing acceptance of pluralism.
We are now in a better position to understand the political gambit contained in Obama’s speech. Insofar as the Republican coalition relies on racial antagonism, unmaking it requires racial reconciliation. But that is only a first step. The second step is to reconfigure the party landscape around class to establish an alliance between the economically underprivileged and the culturally privileged, between those bereft of economic capital (black and white), and those rich in cultural capital (the “latte liberals”). Of course, the language of class is verboten in American public discourse. And Obama does not use it. Instead, in an Edwards moment, Obama argues that “the real culprits of the middle class squeeze ” are “a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.” Here, he invokes the approved language of populism, pitting ordinary people against greedy corporations and Washington lobbyists, against economic exploiters and pseudo-intellectuals.
This language has a second advantage as well. Not only does it allow him to elide the forbidden language of “class warfare”; it also allows him to invoke the language of democratic sovereignty and national identity. For “the people” is a term that plays on two registers: class and nation. In this way, demands for social justice are implicitly linked with claims to popular sovereignty and patriotism. And rejection of those demands appears as un-democratic and un-American.
As Todd Gitlin noted long ago, one of the greatest political handicaps that has limited the liberal left over the last three decades is its renunciation of the language of patriotism and national identity. In burning the American flag, both figuratively and literally, the left allowed the right to seize it up and drape it around their shoulders. I would add to this a second limitation: the full-throated embrace of liberal secularism by the intellectual allies of the Democratic party. In my view, this position is both illegitimate and misguided. Illegitimate insofar as the insistence that religious reasons be excluded from the public square is at odds with core liberal principles of freedom of conscience and expression. Misguided insofar as America remains, for better or worse, a highly religious country in the conventional sense of that term. For both those reasons, liberal secularism is not the proper rallying cry for a new, Democratic majority. Neither, of course, is religious nationalism. That leaves us with civil religion. And it is Obama’s genius to have recognized this.
Let us look at the sort of civil religion that he proposes. Beginning with his victory speech in Iowa, Obama has sought to recast and recapture the language of patriotism and national identity by offering a vision of America as a nation of principles rather than a nation of power. In his speech on race, Obama echoed Lincoln and King in speaking of the Declaration and the Constitution as national covenants that spell out the sacred principles on which America was founded and to which it must hold true. He thereby redefined patriotism in terms of civic engagement, rather than military engagement.
These words have brought chills and tears to many of his supporters, myself included. Why? Because they – we — have been told that we are no longer real Americans, and seen America transformed into something we no longer wish to identify with: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Katrina, preemptive war, warrantless wiretapping, etc. etc.. We should listen to these emotions because they tell us something profound and important about politics, namely, that political solidarity cannot be based solely on shared interests and that political allegiances are not based solely on rational choices.
Neither, however, can it be based on diverse identities, on “celebrating diversity.” There is nothing wrong with celebrating diversity, of course. But these celebrations tend to be short. The long celebrations are celebrations of particularity. Celebrating diversity is not an effective means of building an enduring political coalition in a culturally diverse, nation such as the US. Common principles and collective rituals are necessary.
One of the great, unremarked advantages of the Republican coalition over the last three decades has been its ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Apart from a few Jewish and black neo-conservatives — the Bill Kristols and Ken Blackwells — it is overwhelmingly white and evangelical. One of the great, unremarked difficulties that has confronted the Democratic party from Jackson onwards is constructing a coalition of the excluded and the marginalized: immigrants, African-Americans, the white working classes and intellectuals. And that is Obama’s gambit: “to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”