Rod Dreher’s new book was reviewed (negatively), and Dreher quotes an Australian reader’s comments on that review, who argues that the reviewer’s picture of secular democracy is one of the great problems of liberalism: that we’re going to get there one day—that we’re going to realize the great vision of the ideal.
And then people like Bruenig who say… you can accomplish your goals through politics, you have more political power than you realize.
What that…group just don’t get (partly because you Americans have postmillennialism deep in your DNA, whatever your faith and theological commitments are, and so you really do think that history’s arc bends towards justice, and so you are so insufferably pollyannaish that you think all stories can have a happy ending if we just tried harder. I’m not sure there has ever been a culture as resistant to being theologians of the cross rather than theologians of glory as Americans) is that their advice is going to make another part of the problem worse under your diagnosis. Throwing oneself even harder into rituals of social life in a democracy on democracy’s terms will just increase the catechizing and formative effects of those rituals and liturgies.
It might be useful to quote a substantially longer segment from the Australian correspondent Dreher quoted from. All of the bold emphasis is going to be added:
The liberal-democratic order is founded on suspending the question of whether God exists or not (and has authority over human life) and relegating that to the level of personal opinion. This means that democracy itself functions as though atheism is metaphysically true—there is no God whose demands on people must be embraced—but gives people the freedom to shape their own lives around theism (or deism, or polytheism etc). In the short term this is a great solution to the problem of religious wars, by simply punting ultimate questions of morality and metaphysics and seeking to create a society where people can live together despite deep differences.
The problem is that this arrangement is unstable for two reasons. First, living in a western democracy catechizes people into practical atheism. Because the underpinnings of society forecloses the question of God and makes material reality the ultimate horizon, then society itself is run on atheistic presuppositions. The more you invest in being a good citizen and are part of democratic public life, the more you are shaped by the rituals of democratic life into thinking, dreaming, desiring, acting, as an atheist.
Second, as democracy goes on its horizons are increasingly limited to the individual and the state—the individual as the reason and justification of all social life, and the state as the ultimate horizon of human experience and life, accountable and subordinate to nothing beyond it. Hence why ‘government is just the word we use for things we do together’ is thought to be just common sense, and why politics is considered to be *the* vehicle for human flourishing. Everything is politics, because politics is the final horizon that shapes the conditions for individual liberty.
But making everything base around the individual will (almost) inevitably make everything be reduced down to hedonism—happiness through pleasurable experiences, and the pursuit of wealth and social status that preserves the maximum kind of individual freedom that liberalism recognizes and esteems. Increasingly democracy gains confidence in its metaphysical position (this world is the only meaningful horizon) and begins to move from a naked public square to enacting its vision of the good that expresses that metaphysical position (the good life has to be justified entirely within the constraints of this life).
As a consequence increasingly democracy actively seeks to form people as little more than worker-bees, consumers, and pleasure seekers and begins to use its authority to maringalize and harass those groups that seek to create a social life that catechizes people into a different vision of the good life based on different metaphysics. That is increasingly incomprehensible to them—simultaneously irrational and abusive. At most it can be permitted as an individual choice, but not at the level of a social choice within democracy – unless the group basically removes itself from broader social life almost completely (the Amish option). It also fuels new wars of religions—really weird ones because they are so secular, where the goal is to impose our practical atheism and vision of the good life on the world—killing people to bring our version of the triumph of the individual, to promote hedonism, to push countries towards democracy. These are crusades fuelled by the same underlying convictions that give rise to more overt religious wars.
Let's interrupt the lengthy quote at this point to propose that what secularists will probably fail to understand is that you can have a civic religion that can function pretty easily without an explicit deity. The Democratic and Republican parties have managed to pull this off in the last century, formulating civic religions in which the practical "god" is the ideology or platform of the respective parties. Walter A. McDougall might be a bit of a crackpot but since Promised Land, Crusader State he's been proposing that American foreign policy has been stymied by the ways in which American civic religions have guided foreign policy toward (you may have guessed this) an American crusader state. What McDougall may have a point about, though, is in the proposal that, regardless of the formal distinctions between red and blue parties, since the Wilson era U.S. has operated with a campaign of cultural imperialism that may formally look different from colonialism and imperialism as practiced by the European powers but that is not necessarily functionally or informally different.
In other words the ideological platforms of the red and blue state voters fulfills the telos of civic religion regardless of whether or not any formally named deities are invoked.
Now someone predicted that once modern technocratic societies embraced propaganda wholeheartedly that even ostensibly democratic societies would functionally become totalitarian cultures.
PROPAGANDA: THE FORMATION OF MEN'S ATTITUDES
Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 1965 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
... Once democracy becomes the object of propaganda, it also becomes totalitarian, authoritarian, and exclusive as dictatorship.
... This really is the ultimate problem: democracy is not just a certain form of political organization or simply an ideology--it is, first of all, a certain view of life and a form of behavior. If democracy were only a form of political organization, there would be no problem; propaganda could adjust to it. ... But if democracy is a way of life, composed of tolerance, respect, degree, choice, diversity, and so on, all propaganda that acts on behavior and feelings and transforms them in depth turns man into someone who can no longer support democracy because he no longer follows democratic behavior.
But the creation of the etiological myth leads to an obligation on the part of democracy to become religious. It can no longer be secular but must create its religion. Besides, the creation of a religion is one of the indispensable elements of effective propaganda. [emphasis added] The content of this religion is of little importance; these feelings are used to integrate the masses into the national collective. We must not delude ourselves: when one speaks to us of "massive democracy" and "democratic participation," these are only veiled terms that mean "religion." Participation and unanimity have always been characteristics of religious societies, and only of religious societies. [emphasis added]
... A man who lives in a democratic society and who is subjected to propaganda is being drained of the democratic content itself--of the style of democratic life, understanding of others, respect for minorities, re-examination of his own opinions, absence of dogmatism. The means employed to spread democratic ideas makes the citizen, psychologically, a totalitarian man. The only difference between him and a Nazi is that he is a "totalitarian man with democratic convictions," but those convictions do not change his behavior in the least. Such contradiction is in no way felt by the individual for whom democracy has become a myth and a set of democratic imperatives, merely stimuli that activate conditioned reflexes. The word democracy, having become a simple incitation, no longer has anything to do with democratic behavior. And the citizen can repeat indefinitely "the sacred formulas of democracy" while acting like a storm trooper. [emphasis added]
McDougall's proposal that American foreign policy has been guided by civic religion seems like a deliberately provocative claim. It is one, of course. What makes American civic religions only slightly unique is that the god is not necessarily a personal god or an infinite god but a god in the form of a principle. At this point, well, why not throw in some comments from Emil Brunner:
Whether he adored his totem animal or the gods of the sun, the moon and the stars ; whether by the practice of magic he tries to gain control of supernatural forces; whether by the practices of asceticism and of Yoga he achieves union with the 'Wholly-Other'; or whether in union with his fellow-countrymen he brings a solemn sacrifice to the high gods, or somewhere in solitude he approaches the Ground of all being in mystical contemplation; one thing remains the same, namely, that just as man is homo faber, so also he is homo religious. He is this even when he renounces all mythology, all ideas of a supernatural being, and becomes an agnostic or an atheist. The dimension of the infinite, of the absolute, of the unconditioned, is not empty for any human being, even when he has cut himself adrift from all traditional religious ideas. If he no longer has any personal gods, all the more surely he has one or more impersonal gods-something which he regards as taboo, something which may not be touched at any cost, whether it be his Communism or his Nationalism, his civilization or 'life.' 'Man always has God or an idol.' [emphasis added]...
Or, in more contemporary American terms, the god may be the Democratic or Republican party platforms as totalizing visions of ideal human flourishing. Now perhaps in lieu of a simply identifiable external adversary such as we had in the Cold War or World War II we're stuck with the power of propaganda transforming our own neighbors, friends and family into political adversaries whose sin is not worshipping the same god we do. And as can be readily observed in blue state and red stat partisans who profess to be Christians the ease with which Americans bend the scriptures to the ends of justifying their preferred political means hardly merits a detailed explanation in a simple blog post.
In other words, Ellul anticipated what could be euphemistically regarded as the soft totalitarianism of people on the internet. Once the anxiety and dread of the Cold War has been translated from a clash of civilizations between the United States and the Soviet Union into competing visions on the part of Democratic and Republican partisans as to what the future of the United States is going to be the culture of pervasive propaganda hasn't gone away, it's merely been translated into a post-Cold War context. The partisans deploy propagandistic methods in ways that establish the competing visions of the ideal America as the basis of the totalizing conflict between two ultimately totalitarian visions of what American life should look like. The Trump voter and the Clinton voter have this totalitarian mindset in common regardless of what differences they may regard as essential and obvious between themselves and their ideological adversaries, in spite of the fact that their ideological adversaries are, strictly speaking, fellow citizens of the United States.
Which gets us back to the comments about a review of Dreher's book. It may be easier to unpack what's being proposed if we keep in mind two basic theories about contemporary American political discourse: 1) contemporary left and right ideologies exist along a spectrum of formal differentiation on position that are not necessarily different on the issue of totalitarian commitment to whatever the position of X may be within that spectrum and 2) this is so because these respective positions have transformed everything into the explicitly political because that is what civic religions (as Ellul described them) necessarily do.
Bruenig’s review shows just hard it is for people inside that framework to see it in these terms—even as an empathic and imaginative act of walking in someone else’s shoes for a mile. She’s a good reviewer, and been thoughtful and fair, but she just can’t ‘get it’. Precisely the points at where she thinks your positions are incoherent are the places where she needs to grasp them in order to have any chance of getting your position as a whole. What she fixates on is the political dimension because that’s the ultimate horizon for democratically shaped people. [emphasis original] The idea that you might somehow contribute to the common good by disengaging from politics a bit and putting something non-political up as the ultimate horizon of social life just can’t even be heard.
Because (like most of your other critics) seem to think the only problem to be addressed is the last one—the implementation of an ethical vision of the good life arising out of a metaphysics through the agency of state coercion—their reaction falls into two camps. The group you tend to lose your temper with and call ‘jacobins’—who say, nothing must impede the enshrining of an atheistic and hedonistic vision of the liberated individual as the framework of our social life, and any dissent is asking for special legal privileges that are irrational and abusive. And then people like Bruenig who say—too pessimistic, you can accomplish your goals through politics, you have more political power than you realize.
What that latter group just don’t get (partly because you Americans have postmillennialism deep in your DNA, whatever your faith and theological commitments are, and so you really do think that history’s arc bends towards justice, and so you are so insufferably pollyannaish that you think all stories can have a happy ending if we just tried harder. I’m not sure there has ever been a culture as resistant to being theologians of the cross rather than theologians of glory as Americans) is that their advice is going to make another part of the problem worse under your diagnosis. Throwing oneself even harder into rituals of social life in a democracy on democracy’s terms will just increase the catechizing and formative effects of those rituals and liturgies. [bold emphasis added, italic emphasis original ] You might shift the external pressure of the state trying to forcibly encode its view of the good life, but at the cost of being subverted from within. That’s the key part of your analysis that they just seem unable to get their heads around at this point in the conversation.
Which could be a way of saying that the postmillennialist colonialism and the imperialism that has gone with it on the red and blue sides of the same American civic religion "looks" different to the partisans who have chosen which side of the store they want to shop on, but for those who are not in the store, so to speak, they can see that all the partisans are shopping at the same store. I began to get this impression twenty years ago seeing the culture wars play out. I came to regard the religious right and their adversaries as both fighting a battle over not whether or not the United States would deploy cultural imperialism across the planet but merely what kind of cultural imperialism the empire should champion. That postmillennialist sense of obligation to remake the world into the shape of something more in line with the ideals of the American way of life might be so potent it inspired even an atheist like Christopher Hitchens to sign on to it for a while in the way he backed Gulf War 2.
In a postlude essay to the 1994 reprint of his book Music, The Arts, And Ideas Leonard B. Meyer sketched out the thought that as we continue in a world in which there is no belief in life after death or a resurrection from the dead that a baseline historical optimism would no longer be the shared human experience. Instead, as Meyer put it:
MUSIC, THE ARTS, AND IDEAS
Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
Though we have lost faith in a shining future, the past is still available. Not, however, the past resulting from historical research, but a past emanating from ethno-mythic fabrication. [emphasis added]
As each subculture creates its own past--magnifying its virtues, glorying in its victories, sharpening its grievances, and savoring its animosities--it defines its individuality. In so doing, it intensifies and specifies its differences from other subcultures. The search for past roots leads to the isolation of subcultures, an isolation "rationalized" by ideology. That is, the valuing of ethnic identity and community can in part be understood as a very late manifestation of Romanticism in which national cohesion is depreciated as a conventional, arbitrary creation, whereas ethnic relationships are prized as a result of natural, quasi-biological constraints. [emphasis added]
Subcultural, and especially ethnic, isolation is heightened by a vision of the future characterized by uncertainty and hazard. Put the other way around: belief in inherent historical progress directs attention to common cultural goals; and when goals are shared (as they are, for instance, in combat or in team sports) ethnic differences become irrelevant. In the absence of shared goals grounded in a vision of a better future, differences are heightened and the result is interpersonal insecurity and tension. We become uncertain how to behave, or, more precisely, about how others will respond to our behavioral norms. And so we seek the security of our own kind, of ethnic commonality. ...
The isolation of subcultures from one another is exacerbated not only by the vast increase in specialization, characteristic of late twentieth century culture, but by an overabundance of information in each area of specialization. ...
The consequences of rampant pluralism are not the same for all realms of culture. In the realms of action--of political, religious, social, and commercial economic behavior--options often appear to be mutually exclusive. Though possible in theory, compromise is hard to come by precisely because positions are conceptualized (and publicized in the media) as matters of principle. For their "Committed" partisans, pro-life and pro-choice positions are incompatible; lower taxes are taken to preclude increased social services; the goals of ecology are evidently at odds with those of commerces; and advocates of the death penalty cannot be reconciled with those who oppose it. The political, economic, and ideological differences between subcultural groups (Israel vs. Arab nations, Serbs vs. Muslims and Croats, tribal rivalries within Africa, and so on) cannot readily be resolved. And these conflicts and rivalries will be intensified by the shortage of resources that results from a combination of the plundering of land with an enormous increase in population.
Meyer went on to propose that pluralism in the arts was possible and perhaps even desirable because, entirely unlike political battles, the stakes were so ultimately low. He mused as to whether or not the emergence of critical theory had, in part, the role of elevating the arts to being described as having enough political or social content to matter enough so as to be debated as if the arts were at the same level of impact on the human condition as political or economic or religious debates. To put it indelicately, Meyer wondered whether the popularity of critical theory in the United States had something to do with artists and arts critics wanting what they do to matter as if it had any genuinely political significance in practical terms. Since the arts, as subjects of commerce and the investment of discretionary income, are for "wants" rather than demonstrable "needs", it's tough to make the case that what artists can do now in the age of Trump amounts to anything much different from what they did in earlier eras, custom-build artistic experiences of things we don't exactly need but that we very much want.
But a more important observation Meyer made is to suggest that without a belief in life after death or resurrection, and with the supplemental realization that we have something like a global cultural awareness at the "top" of human social and intellectual achievement, the zero-sum game nature of competition for resources and how to distribute or access the resources of the world will only get worse.
So in a way we could propose, contrary to Dreher's correspondent, that liberalism did not exactly table the question of whether or not a god or gods exist. It sublimated the question of what the divine will (if any) might be into civic religion. The trouble with this gambit is that it only works when the civic religion in question is sufficiently inclusive enough and vague enough (per McDougall) to invite a super-majority of those able to participate in a democratic republic to join in. To the extent that the Religious Right and the Religious Left debate these points within the formally Christian community is the extent to which this debate about the true civic religion can play out in other settings. perhaps atheists will not debate whether Jesus would be red state or blue state but the debate on the true civic religion is transmuted into a debate about the Founding Fathers as the apostles of the United States civic religion.
But for non-Americans, or for Americans who are able to step (however briefly) outside the mainstream of the Western liberal idiom, this is a debate between two modes of a common civic religion that may or may not recognize itself as such.
The trouble with reinventing Jesus in the image of your red state or blue state form of American civic religion is that there's a decent chance that the Jesus you end up worshipping isn't necessarily Jesus at all. Americans may have simply reinvented Christ to be an American patriot in the way that Enlightenment thinkers in Europe reinvented Christian doctrines into being a license for their particular colonialist or imperialist agendas.
Now there could be a post on Meyer's thoughts on the question of pastiche eclecticism and pluralism in the arts as arguably the signal challenge of our era but that is probably best saved for some other post.