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.


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  • I am glad for the thoughts…

  • “no society can hope to survive (let alone thrive) without a center”

    Why not look at the very secular societies in Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand and see what their centers are…because they are not religion, yet those societies do thrive.
    No society needs religion.

  • As I read Pastor Dan, I kept thinking, “This is not new. This is not even close to new. Cultural anthropologists and mass psychologists have been on top of this since at least the 1930s.”

    Pastor Dan is reinventing the wheel, here, which I resent because I was sure I had cornered that market.

    What Dan is describing is a society that is losing shared values, myths, and even shared meaning in the very words it uses. If he wants to call “culture” “religion,” that’s fine by me, though I think it distorts the real issue, somewhat. I have no doubt that the rise of the radical religionists is a reaction to this fact of life, just as it was 200 years ago in the Great Awakening. Though most of them couldn’t express their fear in these terms, I’d say that they are terrified of a Snow-Crash world in which farflung networks interlace humans in ways devoid of loyalty to place, substituting loyalty to genre.

    If history continues to hold true, a drift towards less cultural/political cohesion leads to more strife. The Network Age may well be the new Feudal Age, albeit without territorial boundaries. People are right to be afraid, but they are wrong to believe that monotheistic, rules-based structures are the answer. In fact, they’re just one more wedge driven into a fracturing culture.

    There is a useful culture toward which we can return. We have not gone too far from it. We can, once again, embrace the Enlightenment and the notion that government serves the governed, and must adhere to the rule of law. We can revitalize the notion that nations should be great by being good, by doing good, and not by just being big and strong. In the US, Postmodernism gained great traction during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, many people found it very difficult to reconcile the cultural myths with the present realities.

    If we want to find our way back, we need to act as though the myths are true.

  • The idea of the Enlightenment as organizing civic mythology works fine for me, although we should note that the original Enlightenment was hardly a time of atheism. The brightest lights of the period believed in god – the Christian god, in many cases – and so to some extent we might not solve the problem that way.

    That quibble aside, though, your comment is most welcome. Lately, the part about the rule of law is especially compelling.

  • I guess my own reading on the Enlightenment differs a bit from yours. I freely admit that I am not an expert on the era. Yet, from what I read, the Enlightenment appears to be the least monotheistically religious time I can find in the colonies and in the fledgling US. There were a number of Deists/Theists. The Masons had gained an enormous foothold among colonial leaders. At that time, the Masons were squarely in the Enlightenment corner. As for Europe, the British Army and Navy tended to look askance at having priests/ministers anywhere near their troops. They were considered bad luck. The French Revolution was, of course, particularly anti-Church.

    I know that many writers of the era, especially in America, referenced the Almighty or “Divine Providence” or what have you, but I’ve read authors who insist that this was mostly, or maybe wholly in some cases, a convention, in the same way Cicero used rhetorical conventions in which he surely didn’t believe. Those books were pretty convincing. Having read a fair amount of Jefferson, I would not be at all surprised if, someday, we find an unpublished manuscript of his in which he repudiates monotheism.

    And we all know about Thomas Paine.

  • The idea of a community spirit as the ennobling core–a “center”–is a worthy one indeed. But I think the evolution of the consciousness lends itself more towards a bunch of interlocking mini-groups, each with their own center, working together for common goals.

    Think about the different networks you interact with and work with on a daily basis–some of these don’t cohere well with each other, but they have components that combine and fuse together for a larger purpose when you incite them. People like you and I, Sam, are network “hubs,” if you will, and through the efforts of ourselves and other force multipliers, we can propagate incredible deeds when we put our heads to it.

    I think America is evolving past the need for one single, giant, unifiying center, into a smaller, more localistic dynamic, where local communities of wildly differing makeups work together for larger goals. That, to me, is as much America as anything else I can imagine.

  • Martin:

    I agree with you about where America is headed, but I think it remains to be seen if this is workable. Nothing in human history that I know of, to date, would suggest that human beings are able to build stable societies without shared myths and values. If one defines a society, at least in part, as people living in close proximity to one another, then this presents certain problems: As I said above, a “Snow Crash” world.

    I simply don’t know if it will work. I am deeply skeptical about it.

  • We won’t know until we get there, I imagine. And bear in mind that much like the far-flung empires of millennia past, America’s size and breadth means many communities develop in relative isolation, creating very different social and cultural mores. Thanks to things like television, newspapers, and the Internet, we’ve developed a communal understanding of shared values, but that understanding can (and is) fracturing because of the growth of “idea channels” that cater to specific ideologies–like Faux News. 🙂

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