Civil Religion

In one of my earlier postings I gave a short theoretical introduction to political theology. In this posting I will unfold the concept of civil religion.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book The Social Contract formulates the idea of how people should get together and form a society. The book -- first published in 1762 -- also discusses the role of civil religion in society.

For Rousseau man is born free but in order to preserve himself he has to join with others. This union happens in a social contract and the society thereby constituted becomes the foundation of the general will. The general will ensures that all the people remain free and no one will subjugate the others. According to Rousseau people form the sovereign entity and enact the laws. However, Rousseau separates the government from the people: the job of the government is to implement the general will.

However Rousseau sees it as problematic how a man could accept that the sovereign entity is not led by a ruler who would have received his mandate straight from God. To solve this problem he formulates the concept of civil religion. Civil religion is not about religion as such -- actually it is a way to diminish the role of religion in society. Rousseau makes clear distinction between the civil religion and the private religion. The latter should be out of reach of the government and everybody's private matter as long as it does not conflict with civil religion.

Rousseau makes clear that Christianity will not work as a civil religion or as a bonding element. According to him Christians are too submissive and it would be too easy for one to dominate over others. Christians perform their duties for the sovereign entity, but it is not really this world they are interested in -- it is the next one they are preparing themselves for.

For Rousseau civil religion is the "cement" of society, a factor that keeps people together. Civil religion is a way of thinking that promotes a feeling of unity among the people. Values and 'grand narratives' are carried forward over generations forming the feeling of oneness and belonging.



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