Political Space and Nation-Worship

I have long contended that liberal nations like the United States by their nature demand a kind of worship.  William T. Cavanaugh, in his essay From One City to Two offers U.S. Flaga simple indictment of why this is true by contrasting the nature of the church with the nature of liberal polity.  For any sized group, the problem of the one and the many needs to be resolved.  In a group of pure individuals, there is no “group” to speak of; only a collection of persons.  In a group where individuality cannot be expressed, there is again no “group,” only a collective.

For Cavanaugh, the church overcomes the problem of the one and the many through mutual participation the unifying head of the church: Christ.  But how can a nation founded on the doctrines of liberalism (basically: you can do whatever you want except impede on others’ rights to do whatever they want) overcome the problem of the one and the many?  Cavanaugh writes,

In the body of Christ, the many are gathered into one by means of each one’s participation in the head of the body, who is Christ. The body of Christ has a transcendent reference, which, according to Paul, allows for diversity within unity (1 Cor. 12), since the interval between each one and God allows for a diversity of ways of participation in God’s life. How will the modern liberal nation-state resolve the question of the one and the many in the body politic if participation in Christ is no longer the common goal? Liberalism is said to allow for a greater pluralism of ends: there are no longer two cities – the followers of Christ and the “world” – but one city with a diversity of individuals, each with the freedom to choose his or her own ends, whether to worship no god, one god, or twenty. But the longing for unity persists, along with the fear that diversity will produce conflict and tear the body politic apart. In the absence of a transcendent telos, plurality is not simply a promise but a threat, one that must be met by an even greater pull toward unity.  But what could be the source of unity in a nation-state of diverse ends without a transcendent reference to participation in any single god? It can only be that the nation-state becomes an end in itself, a kind of transcendent reference needed to bind the many to each other.

This leads many social commentators to label Christianity as “dangerous” to the liberal social order, to the degree that Christians refuse to allow such a liberalism to underwrite their own beliefs.  Cavanaugh here cites Martin Marty’s recent text Politics, Religion, and the Common Good where Marty examines the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1940s who were violently abused by nationalists for refusing to salute the American flag.  Oddly, Marty uses this story to illustrate the dangers of religion in the public square, rather than the dangers of nationalism.

For liberals like Martin Marty, religions are divisive because they ask for a loyalty to something outside the one, in this case the U.S. itself.  The same critique could be applied to a local loyalty that values state or town over country; the same intractable debate we have between federal and state governments.  The same critique could be applied to indigenous tribes, who value their tribe loyalty (understandably) far above loyalty to the U.S. government.  But all of these critiques depend on a specific understanding of the “political space.”

In this arrangement, America consists of on nation-state, with one “public square” and one “common good” (48).  Again, the many are subordinated to the one.  Marty quotes with approval, “A republic prospers when many voices speak,” and of course Marty believes religion is important as one such voice.  However, when it comes to the common good, the many voices must give way to the unifying consensus.

Cavanaugh summarizes, “When space is configured this way, the unity of the one city will tend to overtake the multiple commitments of civil society, and the division of goods between eternal and temporal will not hold. The nation-state itself becomes a kind of religion.”

In an upcoming post, I will examine Cavanaugh’s alternative construction of social space.  For now, I’ll leave off with a couple of questions.  Do you agree with Cavanaugh that the problem of the one and the many demands that the state install itself as an object of devotion?  What real-world examples can you cite?  How else could we understand public space, if not as a single public square, with a single common good to which all mediating points of view must be subordinated?

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2 responses to “Political Space and Nation-Worship

  1. michelle1barrett

    I agree that there must be a uniting goal, something that we can all strive for, but does that goal have to be the state. Can’t it just be the betterment of people?

    • I think that’s precisely the problem. Everyone agrees with goals like the betterment of people, but cannot agree what that means in concrete terms, or even on what basis to arrive at such a consensus. We have rival conceptions of the good (and hence what it means to better ourselves), as well as rival conceptions of justice with which to judge means of such betterment(s). Does the betterment of people, for instance, permit the gross inequality of income and ownership? Does bettering people now include compensation in the present for inequalities springing from past injustices such as slavery and genocide? Does the betterment of the situations of people allow for free access to abortion, or are the unborn considered people whose betterment is our goal as well?

      The disagreements are obvious, but the difficulty of agreeing is to some degree hidden. A really challenging summary comes from Alisdair MacIntyre’s “Whose Justice, Which Rationality,” where he opens,

      The fact of disagreement frequently go unacknowledged, disguised by a rhetoric of consensus. And when on some single, if complex, issue, as in the struggle over the Vietnam war or in the debates over abortion, the illusions of consensus on questions of justice and practical rationality are for the moment fractured, the expression of radical disagreement is institutionalized in such a way as to abstract that single issue from those background contexts of different and incompatible beliefs from which such disagreements arise.

      So what is left but to subordinate all these various conceptions of the good and strategies for getting us there into one project called America?

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