From Civil to Political Religion: The Intersection of Culture, Religion and Politics

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9780889203686: From Civil to Political Religion: The Intersection of Culture, Religion and Politics

Prompted by the shattering of the bonds between religion and the political order brought about by the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau devised a “new” religion (civil religion) to be used by the state as a way of enforcing civic unity. Emile Durkheim, by contrast, conceived civil religion to be a spontaneous phenomenon arising from society itself ― a non-coercive force expressing the self-identify or self-definition of a people. In 1967, the American sociologist Robert Bellah rediscovered the concept and applied it to American society in its Durkheimian form.

Ever since Bellah’s publication, most authors have sought to explain civil religion in terms of an alleged “spontaneous” integrative role for society. They have emphasized the religious and cultural dimension of the concept, but failed to give due consideration to its political-ideological foundations. Thus, the coercive potential of civil religion has received little attention or has been wrongly relegated to Third World countries.

Cristi provides a critique of the civil religion thesis, and identifies the most basic deficiencies of literature on this topic. By contrasting Bellah’s Durkheimian conception with Rousseau’s original formulation, the author discloses the dubious conceptual and empirical basis of the former. She demonstrates the need to rethink Bellah’s thesis in the light of a reinterpretation of Rousseau’s and Durkheim’s classical approaches, and substantiates her critique with a brief comparative survey of state-directed civil religions, and with an informative case study of civil religion in Pinochet’s Chile.

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About the Author:

Marcela Cristi is an assistant professor of sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University.

From Library Journal:

Responding to the rupture between religion and the political order, 18th-century political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau devised a "new" religion civil religion by which the state could impose civic unity. Later thinkers, most notably Emile Durkheim and Robert Bellah, tended to view civil religion as a spontaneous, noncoercive expression of popular self-identity. In this postmodern critique of the Durkheim-Bellah position, Cristi (sociology, Univ. of Waterloo) dismisses the empirical supports upon which it is based, arguing that it does not adequately address issues of power dynamics because the values that a given civil religion supports may not be those of the people but only those of the most powerful and influential. For instance, American civil religion does not necessarily reflect the values of marginal members of the society (e.g., African Americans, Aboriginal peoples, Hispanics). To support her position, Cristi provides a brief survey of nonspontaneous, state-directed civil religions, most notably in Pinochet's Chile. Her method is not new, but its application to civil religion in America and elsewhere is provocative. Recommended for academic libraries. Christopher Brennan, SUNY at Brockport

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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