Sunday, July 25, 2010

Denominationalism and Civil Religion Are the Complementary Halves of Modern Social Theology

The idea of a denomination is a brilliant achievement of American society. It is a distinctively modern idea - that varieties of the same religion, and even different religions, can freely compete within society.

There are two problems with this competition.

One is that it is not really a neutral standard, but really can only be fully embraced by people who do not think the differences between denominations matter. In other words, the denominational theory of religion works best for people who don't really believe in any denomination's religion.

The other problem is that the doctrine of denominational competition is not enough of a religious view to hold society together.

Modern societies have developed another distinctive religious view: civil religion. Civil religion was, originally, a religion of the (anti-Christian) state. The idea has broadened to mean the shared faith and symbols of the nation. Still, civil religion is most coherent as a cult that venerates the nation through the state, through patriotic myths, practices, and doctrines.

I had not fully appreciated before how much the ideas of denominationalism and civil religion go together. Really, they are two sides of the same coin. Denominationalism allows the old religions to live together in mutual toleration, if not respect. The price they pay is that each must accept an equal place within the new religion of the nation and its state.

This is an ingenious solution to the problem of religion in modern society. But it does require important modifications to all pre-modern faiths.


Barry Ensign-George said...

What is your preferred alternative?

How do you make sense of your own membership in a denomination (indeed, in many ways a classic example of the type), to which you have shown remarkable devotion?

Barry Ensign-George (even now in the midst of a dissertation working on a theological account of denomination!)

Barry Ensign-George said...


I'm back with more questions.

There's surely a theory of the societal role of . . . religion? Christianity? at work in your comments - "the doctrine of denominational competition is not enough of a religious view to hold society together" or "The price they pay is that each must accept an equal place within the new religion of the nation and its state."

Would you cash that out?

One part of this question is "what is your prefered alternative"? A state in which there is a religious religion which holds society together? Isn't any religion a civil religion when it is asked to play that role?

Another line of questions. Why does there have to be one religious group in order for religion to contribute to social well-being? Third spaces contribute to social well-being, and they come in a myriad of forms lacking any central organization. Why not so for religious groups?

Another line of questions. Denomination as a form of church for "people who do not think the differences between denominations matter." Huh? I accept that the Roman Catholic Church is within the Body of Christ. And I believe that the differences between the Roman Catholic church and the PCUSA make an important difference. Same with the UMC. And the Assemblies of God. And the Society of Friends (presumably you too think there's a difference there that makes a difference, no?). We're not members of those other denominations because the differences make a difference to us - presumably. And yet we regard them as Christian (I do). Why does this stance vitiate the social role of each of these denominations? How does that make me an adherent of "the new religion of the nation and its state"? This looks like a non sequitur: is that wrong?

One of the crucial issues at work in the denominations today is the notion that one can a) level a blanket critique of denomination in the name of some (generally unarticulated) notion of "the unity of the church"; and b) continue to live as a denomination, as if somehow it's still o.k. This kind of rhetoric always seems to be absent any hard, sharp self-examination (repentance?). Let me invite you to put yourself on the line (knowing that you'll be putting me and all the rest of us PCUSAers on the line at the same time - to which I say, be mindful (there's a lot at stake) and bring it on!). Does your (our) membership in the PCUSA necessarily make us adherents of that new (?) religion of nation and state?

Again, Barry