“Civil Religion & the Cult of the Dead”
(From Major Wars and Regional Responses in Australia and New Zealand)
By Judy Hemming and Michael McKinley
“Civil Religion & the Cult of the Dead: the General Case,”a section of
Hemming & McKinley’s important paper, appears below, condensed and edited.
Click here for the complete paper with references.
Dr. Judy Hemming is a Lecturer in the International Studies and International Development Programme at the University of Canberra.

Dr. Michael McKinley
is a Visiting Research Fellow at the College of Arts and Sciences at The Australian National University and author of Economic Globalisation as Religious War: Tragic Convergence.
By way of a philosophical gathering, the relevant facts with I propose to start with are:
  1. that civilization itself is founded on violence;
  2. that political collectivities which emphasis self-interest and collective egoism are inherently brutal;
  3. that “a nation is a group of people united by a common mistake regarding its origins and a collective hostility towards its neighbors;”
  4. that nationalism is, ultimately, a “community of blood;”
  5. that we are all embedded in violence and, to a greater or lesser extent, benefit from it, and
  6. that “government is impossible without a religion—that is, without a body of common assumptions.”

These factors underlie a search for, and an elaboration of that which is at the core of security culture—namely the methods by which a nation’s security is pursued and achieved through requiring its citizens to fight, kill, and perhaps, to die. Foreign and defense policy may be politely, if disingenuously configured in monetary terms, but the reserve currency of a nation is always its people; more precisely, the number and quality of disposable bodies it possesses.

It is not an exaggeration to align the theory and practice of security culture with William Lloyd Warner’s “Cult of the Dead” via the suspecting glance he extends in the direction of the Christian liturgies of Easter and Holy Week. Notwithstanding the promise of eternal life after death which these celebrate, he questions the need for “continually remembering and re-enacting the great tragedy that their God was made to suffer when he was on earth,” and concludes that the promise is but part of a larger explanation.

Those that are emotionally satisfied by this “terror-filled drama”

Not only receive vicarious satisfaction from his tragedy but, because they also unconsciously identify with the killers, can express their deep hatred of, and their desire to kill, their brothers and other members of the Christian human collectivities.

Moreover, their hatred is directed against themselves and what they are as moral beings by self-righteously loving their God and killing him, they can hate others and themselves and, through ritual usage, identify first with the hated human figures and later with the loved and valued God to forgive themselves for their hatreds and efficaciously release their feelings of guilt and self- condemnation.

Regarding the deadly consequences of war in pursuit of national security, ritual usage becomes ritual forgiveness. According to Warner, this is best observed on days of national commemoration such as, in the United States, Memorial Day; but the lessons are portable. The day itself “is a cult of the dead which organizes and integrates the various faiths and ethnic and class groups into a sacred unity.”

Moreover, its principle themes are those of the “sacrifice of the soldier dead for the living, and the obligation of the living to sacrifice their individual purposes for the good of the group—so that they too can perform their spiritual obligations.” In the final analysis, the anxieties man has about death are confronted with a “system of sacred beliefs about death which give the individuals involved and the collectivity of individuals a feeling of well-being.”

At play here is IR’s disciplined amnesia: consider, the famous frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan—a foundational text for IR Realists:

It depicts the head and torso of a mustachioed man with long hair, wearing a crown, whose arms are outstretched seemingly in a form of welcoming embrace. Close examination reveals that the man’s torso and arms are composed of tiny individual people, crowded together each looking to the head of the Leviathan. Its significance is reprised in “Obedience as Desire:”

  1. Our relationship to “society” is psychosomatic: imagining our own body as bound to the sovereign’s body.
  2. Attachment seeks power: fusion of one’s own body with a body imagined to be omnipotent.
  3. “Obedience” is the price: inability to resist the sovereign’s will.
  4. A “docile body” is one that imagines itself as physically bound to the sovereign’s body (politic).

And it thrives, ironically or paradoxically, where the writ of Modernity is thought to have dispelled such primitivism, as Stephen Greenblatt’s review of Michael Rogin’s ‘Ronald Reagan,’ the Movie brings to our attention:

Rogin suggests that President Reagan, like Nixon before him, has skillfully exploited a still more venerable matrix of political symbolism, the association of the leader’s physical body with the health of the nation. This association, which Rogin traces back to the late Medieval doctrine of the King’s Two Bodies, has been turned to novel use through the publicity machine that has been Reagan’s hallmark: the state is merged with the President’s body but the President’s body becomes a media event, a Hollywood fantasy.

Even Reagan’s intestinal polyps were given elaborate media treatment, with the publication of the detailed results of the Presidential proctoscopy and television coverage (complete with animated diagrams) of his illness and recuperation from surgery. Vice-President Bush, always eager to emulate his hero, has released for publication the results of his most recent rectal examination, duly printed in the New York Times. The American public needs to be reassured that the country will be governed for another four years by a healthy asshole.

As profane as this may be against the religious identity of the nation it is, as Paul Kahn and others have observed, nothing less than the atavistic return of the “the people” as the “mystical body of Christ”—a transformation wherein the will of the people supplants the monarch and assumes the status of the mystical corpus of the state. It is not a body politic to be slighted, opposed, dissented from, or accused of irrationality in its decisions and purposes.

Given this, and where security is at stake, the instinctive question: security—from what, for whom, to protect what, and by what means? Is repressed. The very concept is Orwellian in these terms. Which begs another question, posed by Honi Fern Haber, who asks whether this is just a case of terroristic structures masquerading as security?