Civil Religion and Security Culture
Michael McKinley
Dr. Michael McKinley is a Visiting Research Fellow at the College of Arts and Sciences at The Australian National University.
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If traditionally we understand the nation-state, through Weber, as the “legitimized exercise of force over territorial boundaries within which a population has been pacified,” then—because nations frequently lack “the commonality of sentiment shared by members of a language group, ethnicity, or living space”—the fundamental commonality is actually “the shared memory of blood sacrifice, periodically renewed.”

The nation, therefore:

is the memory of the last sacrifice that counts for living believers. Though the sovereign nation, or nation-state, is an agreement about killing rules that compels citizens to sacrifice themselves for the group, the felt nation makes them want to.

The creation of sentiments strong enough to hold the group together periodically requires the willing deaths of a significant portion of its members. The lifeblood of these members is shed by means of a ritual, [and] the most powerful enactment of this ritual is war—[which] leads us to define the nation as the memory of the last sacrifice.(1)

For many, those of a modernist cast of mind especially, this is nothing less than a form of servile idolatry. But this is to miss the point about the existential shortcomings of modernity, and the consolations of religion. Foremost is the desire to see an ordered universe, and certainly not one that is monstrously indifferent to humanity. This need, which social scientists often deny, President Eisenhower epitomized in 1952 with the statement: “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.”

Some system of belief is essential in order to effect: (1) a justification and consolation for the most wrenching human tragedies, especially mortality; (2) a guide to one’s dignity of place and meaning in the cosmos, especially in view of personal inadequacy and the need for expiation; and (3) a primary bond of social cohesion expressed in rituals or ceremonies that connect human beings to each and the sacred.(2)

Such a system is not necessarily a sectarian faith, or even theological. Indeed, it might be independent of them. But as Peter Berger reminds us, in the final analysis it depends on the “credibility of the banners it puts in the hands of men as they stand before death, or more accurately, as they walk, inevitably toward it.”(3)

If the nuances identified by Clifford Geertz are incorporated—namely, that the system will be symbolically coherent (with an apparent empirical basis)(4), potent and long-lasting in the unique but nevertheless realistic motivations it creates—then patriotism and its synonym, nationalism, is a religion, a Civil Religion that “determines who may kill and what for, how boundaries are formed, and what national identity is.”(5)

What Marvin and Ingle refer to as the “violent character of genuine religion”(6) is no more than a reminder of the warning found in Lucretius: the practice of religion leads people to practice evil).(7) This being so, it is appropriate to ask what, precisely, this might involve.

Notwithstanding the warning, two immediate requirements are apparent. The first is that the god of the civil religion is exactly that—the God. The civil religion is monotheistic, a conceptual inheritance from Judaism.(8) In the history of the nation state, this allows for the proclamation that the God in question is definitive: “the one true supreme God” of Christianity’s founding as the new Israel.

Richard Tarnas recalls:

[He was] the Maker of the universe, the Lord of history, the omniscient King of Kings whose unequalled reality and power justly commanded the allegiance of all nations and all mankind.

In the history of the people of Israel, that God had entered decisively into the world, spoken his Word through the prophets, and called forth humanity to its divine destiny; what would be born of Israel would have world-historic significance.(9)

In sum, this is an exclusive God, the worship of whom bestows exclusive truths and exclusive knowledge, the benefit of which is the resolution of all claims resulting from pre-Christian religious pluralism—if, and only if, He is recognised as the “authentic source of salvation.”

Indeed, where pluralism in race, class, and creed, had created rootless and dispossessed populations, promise was at hand:

Christianity offered mankind a universal home, an enduring community and clearly defined way of life, all of which possessed a scriptural and institutional guarantee of cosmic validity.(10)

Because Christian monotheism defines itself so exclusively, it is commanded to reject and repudiate all other gods and their concomitant religions, which, by definition, are false.

In the practice of the civil religion, the distinction is between Christian truth and pagan idolatry—the idolatrous and the true; the inherent intolerance of belief systems which give “meaning, identity, and orientation to non-Christian others.(11) In this world devoid of mutual respect, but rather full of conflict and violence, the reality is an historical ethic of “live and let die.”(12)

The death of belief in false gods can be effected by outright recognition, or by deep and genuine gestures which indicate a conversion process. One way or the other, recognition is mandatory. And it is a reciprocal arrangement: as the converted recognize the truth, so too are they recognized.

The choice is stark and precludes agnosticism, indifference to religion and adherence to the old ways. Not to recognize the civil religion is to grievously offend the covenant with the nation—because it entails a refusal to subscribe to the minimum illusion that legitimates sacrifice. One risks being an outcast from the nation’s “security culture.”

Security culture and national identity, in this light, are constructions, and intertwined. More than this, they are privileged constructions that establish an orthodoxy which, contrary to the old Quaker mission, speak social, political and economic power to truth.

Security is inseparable from that other nation-state invocation—the national, or vital interest—and both enjoy the benefits that obfuscation brings to justify the use of force in politics. Where once national and alliance debate concerned defense, and thus the ability to withstand an attack by a known, territorial rival or enemy, the move to the portmanteau term, security, encouraged the proliferation of anxieties concerning every aspect of life, and thus of so-called national security budgets to allay them.

Too little thought has been given to the possibility that, even in the absence of enemies, the human condition for the great majority of people might still be, for a host of reasons, one of uncertainty, fear, and at best only fleeting happiness.

Psychology nevertheless had its victory and national security is now thought to include at least strategic, social, political, economic, ethnic, ideological, religious, and gender security. “Security” seems to represent, in a phrase, a sense of perpetual well-being. More accurately, the term describes an impossible state of clarity, invulnerability—and immortality.

At no stage in the articulation of national security is it thought germane to ask just how this state of affairs could be brought about; at what cost, and why, and under what conditions it should continue. Instead, what so often reigns is a subterfuge, as Simone Weil wrote some seventy years ago: What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war.

The immediate requirement is that national narratives and discussions of war have to be privileged. Discourse in this context accords with the brief definition of “rule-governed knowledge.” Certain texts are “elected” on the grounds of bearing witness to those dominant, or “preferred meanings”—that establish an apparently transparent, unmediated historical reality.(13)

Notwithstanding contending narratives, usually at the margins, the dominant discourse is by definition consensually agreed, and care is taken to ensure that, as befits a custom made garment of singular importance based on myth, fraying seams are reinforced and loose threads removed by whatever means available.

This is discourse in action: the deliberate forgetting of social and political events, aided and abetted by those whose interests are served by the persistent evasion of reality—so as to constitute a security culture fundamentalism of noxious certitude and consoling balm against uncertainty and angst, for the credulous.

The resulting state of mind denies paradox and ambiguity and borders on, where it does not spill over, into a fascist certainty which insists, inter alia, “that the death of our own does not originate with ourselves, [but] is a reluctant response to violence that originates beyond group borders, that is, with others.”(14)

In a phrase, this is a sacralizing project. However, that which is sacred extends beyond the Divine Being, and the sacraments of Christian faith, to “objects and phases of life of special reverence arising from religions in general.”(15)

For Emile Durkheim, this project revolved around the construction of a “totem system,” defined as a “symbolically coherent, deeply primitive, powerfully religious enterprise organized around a violent identity-crystallizing mechanism.” The totem itself is both the emblem of the state’s agreement to be a state, and the foundation of the national security identity. In Durkheim’s words: “It is at once the symbol of the God and of the society.”(16)

Exactly what it is depends on the history of the nation-state in question. Popular understandings of beliefs, flags, events, places and personages naturally are at the fore. In each and every case, they may only be approached, but never fully comprehended. They are, ultimately, “unknowable, untouchable, and unviewable.” Under certain conditions, they effect consubstantiation whereby the totem’s power is transferred to other persons and things—so that they, too, enjoy its holy status. Marvin and Ingle remind us: “It is not like religion; it is religion.”(17)

Mary Douglas has argued that the greatest respect is paid to the self-delusion that the nation-state is not a social and political construct—but something independent of its creators’ understanding of it: a thing with an autonomous existence.(18) Thus embraced, the nation is in perpetual communicant with the totem. Should it be threatened, or worse, defeated, great restorative sacrifice will be required to prevent its extinction. It is no exaggeration to say that this would be experienced literally as “the death of God.”

(1) Marvin, C. and Ingle, D.W. Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 3-4 (hereafter cited as Marvin and Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation.

(2) Kelly, GA. Politics and Religious Consciousness in America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1984, 11, as cited in Marvin and Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, 1999, 16.

(3) As cited, ibid, 1.

(4) Geertz, C. “Religion as a Cultural System, “in The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973, 90, as cited in Marvin and Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, 1999, 18.

(5) Ibid, 10-11.

(6) De Rerum Natura, Book I, 101.

(7) Christianity is not alone in over-determining the civil religion and other faiths can be cited in relation to the same phenomenon – for example, Islam, and the official description of some countries as “Islamic Republics.”

(8) Tarnas, R. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Book, 1991, 97 and 104.

(9) Ibid, 110.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Hanegraaff, W. “Idolatry,” Revista de Estudos da Religião, No 4 / 2005 / 81.<http://www.pucsp.br/rever/rv4_2005/p_hanegraaff.pdf > Accessed on 28 October 2009.

(12) Hollweck, T. “The God Question: Jan Assmann’s ‘The Mosaic Distinction’ and the Return of the Repressed,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Hilton Chicago and Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, Ill., 2 September 2004.

(13) Turner, G. National Fictions: Literature, Film, and the Construction of Australian Narrative. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1986, 6-9 and 107.

(14) Marvin and Ingle, op. cit. p. 12.

(15) Warner, op. cit. p. 5.

(16) Durkheim, E. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, translated by Joseph W. Swain. George Allen & Unwin, 1915; New York: Free Press, 206, as cited in Marvin & Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, 1999, 10-11.

(17) Marvin and Ingle, op. cit. p. 31 and 39.

(18) Douglas, M. Implicit Meanings. London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1975, xiv, as cited in Marvin and Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, 1999, 39; also 26-38.