What is the Civil Religion of the Orthodox? Models of Relgion and Society

Philip Gorski, Professor at Yale offers three attitudes at the immanent frame toward the relationship of religion and state in America.

Liberal secularists believe that the religious and political spheres should be radically separated; religious nationalists believe that they should be tightly integrated; and civil religionists believe that they should be overlapping but independent.
The governing metaphor of religious nationalism in the United States is blood: blood as in blood sacrifice on the battlefield, and blood as in the blood purity of the nation. The deep roots of this tradition are to be found in the bloody wars and priestly sacrifices portrayed in the Hebrew Bible.

The governing metaphor of liberal secularism is autonomy: autonomy as in individual choice and institutional separation. The deep roots of this tradition are to be found in the atomistic and anti-religious creed of the Epicureans. Faint echoes of it can be found in, say, the writings of Thomas Jefferson.. Its most complete—and virulent—expressions today are Randian libertarianism on the right and soft-Nietzschean post-modernism on the left.

The governing metaphor of civil religion, finally, is covenant: covenant as in collective commitment to a set of sacred principles and collective responsibility for their realization. The deep roots of this tradition are to be found in the Biblical covenants between the Ancient Israelites and their God. Its more immediate roots can be traced to the New England Puritans

For the religious nationalist, America is a “Christian nation” or, perhaps, a “Judeo-Christian nation.” In this vision, religious and political communities should be coterminous.

For the radical secularist, America is a liberal society comprised of autonomous individuals. In this vision, religious and political communities ought to be completely distinct.

For the civil religionist, finally, America is a moral community that seeks to balance solidarity and pluralism. In this vision, the religious and political communities inevitably overlap with one another.

Now how would this apply to the Orthodox community? They seem to use the religious nationalism model when dealing with Israeli society. But it seems that the majority of Centrist Orthodoxy follows liberal secularism in America. Why? They keep their religion and their Americanism bifurcated. Yet, there are selected groups and rabbis in the community that do accept civil religion. But which? On the other hand, some parts are beginning to identify with American religious nationalism and identify with Republican or Christian right values.

Can we conceptualize the community not as right and left but based on which of these three models they follow? Or to keep things closer to the way people think now- which model does Open Orthodoxy follow? (The latter may be a much harder question than it looks.) Which does the yeshivah world follow?  How about a supporter of AIPAC? Which does Chabad follow? Which does Aish Hatorah follow taking into account their production of the movie “Obsession” on their view of terrorism? Or do the  various blogs follow? And in these distinctions, one’s age and generation does matter and will change the results. Among orthodoxy, who is a libertarian, who a covnant thinker of values, and who a nationalist? Does it change the conception of orthodoxy?

The religion of the 1950’s was a Judeo-Christian covenant. At the end of the 1970’s Robert Bellah reoriented everyone and said civil religion was empty. “Writing amidst the collective funk of the mid-1970s, Bellah famously concluded that the American civil religion was an empty and broken shell” And it led many clergy to preach that one must turn to religion to reclaim society. Without religion one has the vacuous worship of the self. What does it mean when rabbis in 2009 are still saying that religion will save you from “Sheilaism”?

When Rav Soloveitchik writes in Confrontation that “it is quite legitimate to speak of a Judeo-Christian tradition…However, when we shift the focus from the dimension of culture to that of faith… the whole idea of a tradition of faiths and the continuum of revealed doctrines…is utterly absurd…” In the 1950’s he seems to follow the civil religion model? But does Lonley Man of Faith agree? Which of the three is he associated with now?
I was asked in the comments on an earlier post: How does all this evangelicalism relate to the thinking of thinkers like Taylor and Habermas. Gorski offer an answer:

.Now, there are plenty of people… who would disagree that civil religion is a necessary means to this end. First, there are non-theistic neo-Kantian rationalists—such as Rawls, Habermas, and Audi—who would be somewhat uneasy about the religious dimension of civil religion. Then, there are theistic neo-Aristotelian confessionalists—such as MacIntyre, Yoder, and Hauerwas—who would be somewhat uneasy about the civil dimension of civil religion. But each critique supplies an answer to the other.

Among Orthodox, are they more worried about the civil or the religion in American civil religion?

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill · All Rights Reserved

3 responses to “What is the Civil Religion of the Orthodox? Models of Relgion and Society

  1. You are asking a question of how people view themselves within the context of these categories. The problem is that most Orthodox Jews, including many in leadership positions, lack the background in political theory to even understand your post let alone to be able to answer it for themselves.

    I would add a wrinkle into the mix. Where does one draw the line, to use Hannah Arendt, between the political and social spheres? Someone like me could end up in different categories depending on where you draw the line. I may not like Ayn Rand’s social philosophy, but I am a political libertarian, who wants the government out of all things that do not involve people causing other people direct physical harm. Someone like me would be trying to take things like school and health care and take them from the political to the social sphere and I believe in a strong social sphere with a civic religion. I admire people like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and his advocacy for a strong shared social space with the religious beliefs that span the spectrum of a multicultural society. I support such a civic religion, but would not have the government play any direct role.

    • Izgad wrote: You are asking a question of how people view themselves within the context of these categories. The problem is that most Orthodox Jews, including many in leadership positions, lack the background in political theory to even understand your post let alone to be able to answer it for themselves.

      LOL. No, it is not important whether the people are conscious of the categories. This is a sociological exercise: based on observed behavior, what can we say about where these people fit in best?

      I think that while Open Orthodoxy strongly leans towards Liberal Secularism, generally, the rest of the Orthodox do not. However, before lumping everyone mostly into the Civil Religion sphere, and arguing why, let me just point out what I believe is obvious. This taxonomy is not about how religion is experienced, nor about how religious enclaves culturally present themselves, but rather about how religion interfaces with official or general public life.

      There were (and still are) those for whom civil religion is their religion. That model was predominant in Judaism of the 1950s, and is indeed passé. However, as far as how we see or wish to see society in general evolve, I would say that except for Open Orthodoxy and the most insular Chassidim, all other Orthodox Jews fall into the Civil Religion category, except as relating to Israel, as the blog owner pointed out.

      Let me show a few examples: Chabad erecting menorot in public squares. They are not content with large menorot in the Batei Chabad front yards and on the roof tops of their mitzvah tanks, but want menorot even on the lawn of important public institutions. Another, more meaningful example: across the board Orthodox opposition to homosexual marriage. It is noteworthy that even some very yeshivish and very chassidic activists recently got into that, too, as could be seen in the debates leading up to the latest vote in New Jersey. And of course, there is a strong feeling among most Orthodox in favor of school vouchers. The more left wing MO also like to demonstrate in favor of causes, such as workers’ immigrants’ and refugees’ rights, and they language is often unmistakably religious.
      [edit by siteowner]

  2. i think gorski’s framing needs some attunement.
    for example, liberal secularists do (and can) not emerge from a secularism that parallels religion. rather, as mark taylor has shown pretty clearly, there is a whole stream of protestantism that feeds into the modern day notion of the secular, as in hegel, et al.

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