Can the center hold?: a response to Pastor Dan
Pastor Dan has an absolutely must-read piece on faith and politics over at Street Prophets, and while I feel wholly inadequate for the task of matching the depth of his analysis, he raises a number of issues that got me to thinking. So to use a sports analogy, he’s just crushed an overhead at me, and I’m going to see if I can get a racquet on it in hopes of lobbing something weak back over the net.
For starters, his thoughts on the history and function of civil religion are spot-on, and as I consider how dramatically our culture is changing, they lead me to an obvious conundrum. On the one hand, Americans clearly need something unifying, some organizing social thread running through our increasingly diverse (and diverging) societal fabric. Something that serves as a new civic religion, if I might put it that way. On the other hand, it seems futile, in our fractured culture, to even hope for a cohering principle around which we can all gather. Yeats might observe, were he around today, that the center has not held, and yet no society can hope to survive (let alone thrive) without a center.
It seems obvious that the time when a religious trope could fill the need has passed, a point I think Pastor Dan’s analysis makes clear. Historically civil religion could safely stand on generally shared Christian (or Judeo-Christian) ideologies, iconography and imagery because America was overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian. Now, though, these assumptions are challenged at every turn by growing numbers of non-Abrahamic religious adherents, a swelling Islamic population and an increasingly emboldened community of atheists. When I go to a public event and they begin with a prayer, I assure you, they’re not praying to a god who’s cool with Wiccans. (Note how the image above fails to include a pentacle, for instance.) If you take the holy text of the god being prayed to literally, in fact, the prayer is being offered to a deity who’s on record as saying that Wiccans should be killed on the spot.
So if these other groups seem sensitive, consider:
- Polls show the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian ranging as high as 85% or beyond.
- The president is a Christian…
- …as is the VP.
- The Speaker of the House is Catholic…
- …and the Senate Majority Leader is Mormon.
- Well over 90% of our Congressional representatives are Christian, with a majority of the remainder being Jewish.
- The Supreme Court features seven Christians and two Jews.
- All of our major presidential candidates in both major parties.
- Almost all of our past presidents; depending on how you count Unitarians, you have to go all the way back to Lincoln (ironically enough, the founder of the GOP) to even find one to debate over;
- Hell, even sports franchises are starting to build their operations around the evangelical litmus test.
- It seems unlikely that a similar review of the legislatures and courthouses in the 50 states would reveal too much variation from this overpowering Judeo-Christian norm.
As Pastor Dan notes, these dynamics have engendered cynical faith-based power plays by certain of our politicians, and if those on the outside feel a tad paranoid, that’s probably to be expected.
However, even this oversimplifies, because at the same time non-Christians are challenging Christian-based civil expressions, there’s a raging war within Christianity over the soul of the religion. I wish all Christians were like Pastor Dan, but for every one of him there seems to be a dozen Pat Robertsons and maybe even a Fred Phelps or two. So it feels to me (a guy who grew up Southern Baptist in the working-class rural South) that while there have always been significant disagreements from denomination to denomination, our dominant religion is today more fragmented and at odds with itself than I can remember it ever being before.
So let’s acknowledge that whatever center America may have in the future, it’s not likely to be religious in nature. However, at the risk of sounding condescending, I firmly believe that we need a cohering civic “religion” of some sort. Something ennobling, something that calls us to our higher selves, that emphasizes our connection to each other and to our collective identity. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris explains that there’s nothing that can be accomplished through religion that can’t be accomplished without religion, and this is more than true. However, that kind of rationalism can be a hard road for most people. The world is insanely complicated and very few people have the wherwithall to parse even the complexities that lie close to home. We can choose to view people as ignorant sheep, in the manner of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, or we can acknowledge the simple fact that even our most brilliant people are usually overrun when they step too far away from their areas of expertise.
In any case, one need only look at recent elections to see that there’s a powerful need for something to believe in. And my question is whether there’s any possibility of us ever evolving (at least in my lifetime) something to replace the dysfunctional civic religion of our past? Civil religion worked better when our culture was more homogenous, but as I argue in a piece I wrote a few years back for Intelligent Agent, the Modernist monolith has fallen, Postmodernism has destroyed all vestiges of universal meaning, and we’re now edging into the opening act of the Network Age.
For better or worse, contemporary culture is network culture, and it’s important to understand that network culture is by nature distributed culture. Modernism was about centralization, but the Network is decentralized – it is ubiquitous and omnipresent, although no less rigorously structured. Our relationships with institutions were once conducted around the site of the monolith – the bank, the church, the school, the county courthouse, these were all physical places and to transact business with the agency in question, you had to transport yourself to the physical address of the institution. In today’s corporate lingo, we might say that these official relationships were “institution-centric.” Networked, distributed culture, though, is “citizen-centric” (though we’d do more justice to the actual character of the relationship with the term “customer-centric”). The locus of these organizational interactions depends less on the address of the building where the offices are and more on our IP addresses. The institution is everywhere there’s a terminal, a critical distinction in understanding that the Network Age is polylithic in nature. This suggests profound implications for the makeup of organizations, because now you can be an active participant in any number of social activities without having to centralize yourself. A congregation of 1000 people can share a worship service from 1000 separate locations, for example.
Put another way, the symbol of the age of civic religion was the monolith. The symbol of the Postmodern was the bulldozer. And now the large, unified central hub with its equally unitary organizing principles (Lyotard’s “metanarratives“) has been replaced by a distributed network of nodes. Not one large thing, but lots of small ones. Homogeneity replaced by rampant, explosive diversity – of race, of creed, of cultural practice, of religion, of everything.
We need a center, but is a center possible? If not, what is to become of us?
My thanks to Pastor Dan, and my apologies for the scattered nature of my thoughts here. Hopefully I have somehow arrived at a worthy question.