Saturday, February 18, 2012

Tea with Simon Critchley: The Separation of Church and State Is Impossible

Here is the article. Here is the book.

The way I understand the book's thesis, it has to do with political-theology -- the old saying politics is theology applied. You don't need any kind of traditional or orthodox understanding of the faith. Rather, Rousseau's civil religion or ceremonial deism will do. But the "system" has to have some kind of divine trump.

A taste:

The religious conservatives are right: there is a theology behind the American political system—only it isn’t Christianity. It’s deism, the faith most closely associated with the Enlightenment, which professes, as Critchley puts it, that “there’s a God, but a God that doesn’t do party tricks.” Even if no one calls himself a deist anymore, it lives on it the political systems that the Enlightenment inspired—especially our own. Liberal democracy, Critchley argues, is simply the political form of deism. Natural law and natural rights, so central to the American creed, are fundamentally theological concepts. Thomas Jefferson may have been a freethinking, Bible-revising iconoclast, but he wasn’t just being figurative when he wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that such rights are endowed by a Creator; that’s what deists believe. And even without prayer in schools, the deist creed is coded into every national ritual we have, from the courtroom to the ballpark.

Is there any way to participate in politics without getting religious? “I don’t think it should even be an aspiration,” Critchley told me. “If you look at a counterexample, the problem with the European Union is that it doesn’t have those rituals. It tried to bind a polity together through a constitution, but it was so weak. There’s been a total failure to craft something like a European identity—the problem hasn’t even been recognized. So we’re left with a unity which is simply monetary. And that seems to be screwed.”

I'm not sure if I would call it "deism" as opposed to "generic monotheism." As I have come to learn the civil religion or political theology of the American Founding is an uber-eccumenical generic monotheism where among others, Jews, Christians, Muslims and un-converted Great Spirit believing Native Americans all worship the same monotheistic God. AND further, much of what has been termed "deism" from this era is actually Providential, heterodox (non-Trinitarian) "Christianity." (I put "Christianity" in quotes because, to some, non-Trinitarianism and "Christianity" are mutually exclusive concepts.)


Anonymous said...

The usual nonsense
1) When you "political theology of the American Founding is an uber-eccumenical generic monotheism where among others..." you fool yourself.

This entire site is based on a wholly manufactured "history" informed by a set of supposition about colonial America meant to buttress up your own weird impulses toward yourself, the world and God (and I shall not call them "beliefs"). What it amounts to is a projection of neurosis onto the history of this nation and indeed Western Civilization as a whole.

You manage to finagle this self deception via the usual left wing sophistry and rhetorical games: cheery picking, mischaracterization, begging the question and a couple of score more of logical fallacies. (And it matters not if you are actually a Leftist for you are well inured to this art. In fact, I rather gather that you are unaware of what you are really up too yourself.)

You have in fact "learn" nothing about the the settling of this country or about "Religion". The whole reality of either quite escapes you. To hold that this nation peculiarly, or indeed the whole of European Civilization, was not deeply Chartists at the time of colonial America, or that the founders where not deeply immersed in the Christian faith, beliefs and world view, is just ludicrous. This is wildly indulging in fantasy and revisionism. The record, not to mention common sense, speaks otherwise. Digging about for some obscure texts or regurgitating hearsay to somehow reconstruct the "inner thoughts" of "the founders" is neither necessary or sufficient for you confabulations to actually obtain in the real world

Not once have I seen you make a compelling argument that characterizes either the nation or the founders as a whole in the periods in question.

You indulge in mere propaganda.

2) This hackneyed notion of "deism" is mostly a modern, Left wing attempt to revise history such to legitimize the history, traditions and values of our society. True, there were such creatures about in the age who had some sub set of these beliefs, but they are hardly typical, normative or influential. "deism" as you describe it is a modern invention. More to the point: if in fact our nation was not deeply Christian throughout all but the last 40 years, there would be no reason to do.

More strangley, you seem to think that deism, as a casual notion somehow stands outside of Christian belief. It does not. To label the various Confessions that came out of the Reformation as some how "non-christian" is, frankly, intellectually dishonest in the extreme. Either that, or is downright stupid.

3) It is comically absurd to think that the founders or the colonists believed that the American Indian "worships the same God". What a bizarre thing to say. They thought them heathens. It is also equally preposterous to imagine that the Indian tribes of the America had some sort of uniform and unitized belief in "the Great Spirit", much less a theology. You have been watching to many Kevin Costner movies, I fear.

Anonymous said...

4) For the very last time: The "Separation of Church and State" appears nowhere in the founding political documents of this country. It is found in nearly every quasi-socialist, cryto-socialist or outright socialist documents. The founder would be shocked indeed to see how this has been perverted by gangs like the Democrat Party.

The intent of the 1st Amendment was clearly meant to keep government out of religion, and the other way around. Clearly, it was an response to the bitter experience of the religious and political struggles of the Reformation which had reached their peak in the 30 years war, and, more proximate, the politicization of the Church of England from the Reformation onward. The meaning, intent and context could not be clearer, a meaning, BTW, that we wholly focused on the Judeo Christian Confessions. That is also might have protected Shintoists, Muslims or Buddhists is but a happy coincidence.

The Left (and you) have conflated one set of political beliefs with another, and have done so for nefarious purposes. Shame on the both of you. What you really need to do is figure out what happened in you past to give you such strange obsessions and the resulting intellectual dishonesty.

You sound like some sophomore in a college Rathskeller "discovering the people's history". You embarrass yourself.

Jonathan Rowe said...


LOL. It must kill you that I argue to the "Right" of the experts in the historical, political science, and literary academies. Think about the source of the article I'm referencing. You ever read Charles Taylor's "The Secular Age" and its chapter on Providential Deism?

It is comically absurd to think that the founders or the colonists believed that the American Indian "worships the same God". What a bizarre thing to say.

The only reason I say this is because George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and other lesser well known Founders REPEATEDLY, when speaking to the unconverted Natives, termed God "The Great Spirit." You, apparently, have a lot more reading to do.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Unfortunately, Critchley misses a key point in the history of ideas, crediting by default "natural law" [and thereby the foundation of liberal democracy] to deism and the Enlightenment.

I agree with this part
Every state, every government, he said, requires “something that sanctifies it.”
In part, what Critchley’s talking about is “civil religion,” a term Rousseau coined to describe all the mechanisms—symbols, rituals, relics, songs, ceremonies—that bind a polity together. In America, Critchley said, it consists of “things like the Pledge of Allegiance, the worship of the flag, the cult of the war dead, the various traditions and celebrations that make up the annual life of the republic.”

...but Dennis Prager is far more on target with his "American Trinity":

E pluribus unum
In God We Trust

..which is far more than a "ceremonial deism" and meaningless ritual.

jimmiraybob said...

Brother. When Critchley says, "The very idea of progress, that the future will be better than the past—which is the basic premise of American life—is a translation of the Christian idea of providence" then I have to roll my eyes. Another, everything is religion, correlation is causation guy. But then he's a philosopher so he's got that going for him, whereas I don't.

If only someone with a secret way-back machine could somehow communicate with a pre-Christian civilization where a belief in the promise of humanity and positive societal development was possible then we could get to the bottom of this. If only there was a way. Why o why did those people not think to write anything down?

And of course, the Founders certainly had no way to know anything beyond the Bible and it's happy cheery message of the goodness of humanity that was passed down by their Calvinist forefathers and foremothers before them. Good thing they didn't have any Pagan sources to bum them out.

Rolls eyes one more time for good measure.

[quote from The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog]

jimmiraybob said...

Jon - "But the 'system' has to have some kind of divine trump."

There's a review at Political Theology* that might shed some additional light, including:

"As such, faith is not related to belief in the existence of God but to an experience that is shared by agnostics, atheists and theists alike. Faith, we might say, is a/theistic, cutting across such distinctions."


"However, Critchley also suggests that the faith of those without faith in a particular religious tradition ‘reveals the true nature of faith’ and that it is perhaps more faithful precisely because it is faithless."


jimmiraybob said...

There is an audio of Critchley discussing his thesis at a site called BAM 150 Years*

His written introduction:

"Dear BAM blog readers,

Thanks to the hospitality of BAM, I had the great good fortune to launch my new book—The Faith of the Faithless—with a conversation with Cornel West on February 7th. It was a wonderful evening, full of joy in front of an attentive and very large audience."

To my delight it includes a prefatory comment on Funk (Parliament, George Clinton) and R&B (Otis Redding, Al Green) as a shared connection with West.


jimmiraybob said...

And, as a tease, at the Blam talk Critchley calls Pres Obama a Deist.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Thanks for the links. Very interesting.