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From Civil to Political Religion

Interview with Marcela Cristi

« Return to From Civil to Political Religion

How would you define civil and political religion?

One may say, that both civil and political religions are substitute or surrogate religions that tend to ‘sacralize’ certain aspects of group life by means of rituals, collective ceremonies, etc. Civil religion represents a ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’ expression of a group’s life (whether it is the nation or any smaller collectivity). It refers to a set of taken-for-granted assumptions about one’s society or group, and to specific cultural beliefs that give identity or a self-definition to the group. Civil religion provides a world view or an ethos (i.e., a group’s understanding of itself), and reinforces group identity. In this sense, we can refer to civil religion as a cultural phenomenon. A political religion, by contrast, is a premeditated political ideology constructed by the state and its political leaders, which members of a collectivity are expected and, in some cases, even forced to accept. Political religions are primarily concerned with rights, duties and obligations, and they are intended to exert strong control over the citizenry. Organizing principles, understandings, ideas, required to regulate political life are imposed on people from the top down. A political religion is a consciously-manipulated and state-controlled political phenomenon.

What would determine the form that a civil religion may take?

The creation and maintenance of a civil religion depends on a confluence of contingent historical, cultural, and structural conditions. So, the form civil religion might take in a particular society depends, in large part, upon specific historical circumstances and social reality. This means that the cultural or ideological potential of civil religions is grounded in the political processes and the uses of civil religion by particular groups at particular times, and not in the stages of religious evolution as Bellah and his followers have argued.

Would you explain in more detail the political or civil character of civil religion?

Civil religion a la Rousseau (its political/ideological manifestation) implies a deliberate manipulation of religious themes, or of the myths of the nation, for strictly political aims. It requires state control and it demands citizens’ obedience. Civil religion a la Durkheim (its civil/cultural dimension), by contrast, appeals more to ‘common sense’ or taken-for-granted assumptions about one’s society or group. It does not require direct enforcement by external agencies of social control, and it often integrates cultural elements in an unofficial or semi-official way. This means, that the integration of self and society is more voluntaristic. No particular commitment or act of joining is necessary; no one is legally compelled to follow against his/her will the ideals of the civil creed; and no one can expect reprisals for choosing not to accept them. Civil religion, in its cultural dimension, exists, so to speak, at the threshold of consciousness. It is the result of a gradual and spontaneous elaboration, rather than of a conscious political determination. Symbols, rituals, feelings, beliefs, and values are far more important than ideas. So, the ratio of externally imposed force to voluntary compliance may be taken as an index of the type of civil religion under consideration. This means, as I mentioned before, that the political or civil character of civil religion is primarily determined by its particular structural location, either to the side of the state or to the side of civil society.

In Chapter Five you offer a case study: Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. How successful, would you say, was Pinochet’s attempt to fabricate civil religion to engineer support for his regime or to control the opposition?

First of all let me be clear about this. Although there is no doubt that Pinochet tried to create a civil religion and explain the Chilean historical experience of those years in terms of a civil religious discourse, his success in discouraging the opposition from emerging strong, was accomplished by military might, terror, torture, and the continued abuse of civil and human rights, rather than by the influence of his civil religious discourse. Pinochet effectively eliminated all alternative political ideologies and political dissension from public discourse and public sight. One has only to remember the many Disappeared. His quest to unify and strengthen the nation through a civil religious discourse was in this sense not successful at all. However, it is important to understand that I am not attempting to argue that civil religion played a prominent role in the coup or its aftermath. I am simply drawing attention to a political use of religious ideology that has been neglected, not only in the analysis of the Chilean situation, but in the analysis of American civil religion as well.

Could you give us some examples of Pinochet’s civil religious discourse?

Pinochet presented himself as a divinely appointed leader who was to usher his people out of the chaos, tyranny and disorder of the democratically elected government of socialist President, Salvador Allende. The fight against Marxism was presented as a kind of holy war, and any opposition to the military junta and its policies was a sign of anti-patriotic heresy requiring swift and severe punishment. Only a month after the military coup d’etat Pinochet announced that “the hand of God is here to save us,” a theme that he repeated like a litany on several occasions. Four years later, for instance, he insisted that whoever analyzed the ‘military intervention’ would necessarily come to the conclusion that “the hand of God was present at that time.” Statements such as “God give [him] faith in the destiny of Chile” and assigned him a noble and sublime mission were repeated in speeches, official publications, etc. In fact, if one reads his speeches and examines the ideological propaganda of that period, it is not difficult to see that they are filled with religious imagery and a language that has a distinctly ‘biblical ring,’ as Bellah would say. Pinochet sought to make his political dictatorship absolute, sacred, and hence legitimate. While he never succeeded in convincing the opposition, Pinochet’s civil religious discourse served to assure the military junta and their supporters of the righteousness of their rule, and the need to use a harsh hand to crush all and any opposition to win his ‘holy’ war. In this sense, his religious discourse was successful in uniting those on the right.

Is civil religion an exclusively national phenomenon?

Not necessarily. Civil religion may function at a group level, at the level of civil society, at the state level, and even at an international level. There is some reason to believe that new types of civil religion (in the Durkheimian fashion), transcending national boundaries, are in the process of being born. The globalizing trend with which we have closed the twentieth century, and international organizations such as Doctors Without Frontiers, Green Peace, Amnesty International, PEN International, seem to point in this direction. A new kind of international justice is emerging (Pinochet’s detention in London in October, 1998 is a case in point). Violators of human rights, from the left or from the right of the political spectrum, will no longer be free to travel abroad and visit foreign lands. International justice, it seems to me, is a ‘spontaneous’ phenomenon, born out of the need to create a more humane and just world. It is part of the international civil religion that both Durkheim (the religion of humanity) and Bellah (a world civil religion) hoped would emerge in the future. One cannot forget, however, that cases of political religions (manipulated by the state apparatus) are also always lurking in the background and ready to make their appearance wherever despotic governments or despotic tendencies are found.