Canadian Civil Society III – Partisans versus Impartiality

Canadian Civil Society III – Partisans versus Impartiality

by

Howard Adelman

This blog continues the discussion of the core values of the Canadian civil religion in contrast to the Stone- Trump ethos now governing the polis in the U.S.  In the previous two blogs, I dealt with the first five values: civility versus incivility; compassion versus passion; dignity versus indignation; diversity versus unity; and empathy versus insecurity. In this blog, I want to take up the last five antonyms:

Canada                                        U.S.A. (current ruling ethos)

  1. Impartial                           Partisan
  2. Egalitarian                        Inegalitarian
  3. Fairness                             Ruthless & even Unfair
  4. Freedom as a Goal          Freedom as Given
  5. False-consciousness        Humans as Falsifiers

Yesterday, at the final public session of a conference held at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto on Religion and Ethno-Nationalism in the Era of the Two World Wars, Victoria Barnett from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Professor Susannah Heschel from The Mandel Center at Dartmouth College were on the final panel moderated by Doris Bergen, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto.

A number of observations:

  1. The conference in Ottawa was held by people engaged in interfaith dialogue; the conference in Toronto was, in part, about people engaged in interfaith dialogue 75-100 years ago.
  2. The Ottawa conference, like the Toronto one, was about religion, but the former presumed a peaceable kingdom and did not focus on either ethno-nationalism or violence but rather the victims of both.
  3. While the Ottawa conference was about interfaith cooperation to do good, the Toronto conference primarily explored the role of religion in causing, contributing to or exacerbating violence.
  4. The Ottawa and Toronto conferences are both signs of an increasing interest developed over the last couple of decades in the role religion plays in politics in general and in either peace or conflict more specifically, filling in a correlational gap in scholarship that heretofore focused only on power, economics, ideology, nationalism, etc.
  5. While the Ottawa conference approached the issue of the relation of religion to the polity from the perspective of participant observers, the Toronto conference strived for detachment, but both did so within an ideal of impartiality that, in itself, seemed to belie an essential part of traditional religion, its commitment to the truth of partiality as expressed in any specific religion.
  6. Lurking in the background of the Toronto conference was the heavily quantitative use of the Minorities at Risk (MAR) data base at the University of Maryland initiated by Ted Gurr in the mid-eighties and used in Jonathan Fox’s Religion, Civilization, and Civil War or his edited volume, Religion, Politics, Society, & the State, and, most importantly, his own conclusion that religion was not a salient factor in violent conflicts. The figure cited at the conference was only 13%.
  7. The latter complemented my own studies referred to in the Ottawa conference that historical memory rather than faith was a main determinant of assisting refugees, suggesting that faith had a very limited role in fostering good works as well as violence.
  8. Victoria Barnett suggested two main streams for approaching the relationship of religion and power, that of interfaith dialogue so evident in the Ottawa meeting, and a more critical approach, one which has barely broken through into deep discussions of theological differences and the role of those differences in fomenting violence or the role of overlapping beliefs fostering good works.
  9. Susannah Heschel was very suspicious, no, dismissive, of any attempt in using religion to apply to secular systems of values. Though she restricted her asides to caricatures – football as a religion – she was clear that she wanted to limit the use of the term to social systems based on rules and practices that made reference to a superior being, though religions exist which do not.
  10. However, in listening to the discussion, I concluded that the distinction was not between religions confined to a connection with a superior being and the extension into realms of civil society, but between faith systems that were rooted in absolute certainty and the truth for which one was willing, not only to die but to kill, versus religions that brought to consciousness that which had been taken for granted and, therefore, left unexamined, the connection between absolutist beliefs and violence.

The core characteristic of traditional religion may be that it is rooted in an inherent bias. Therefore, how can I dub a set of values articulated as the best for a polis as a civil religion if one of those values is impartiality? Is interfaith dialogue only possible because of a willingness to set aside or bracket theological differences in the search for commonality, thereby surrendering the core of that which may give religion its sense of passionate commitment? What if violence is defined as the commitment and effort to achieve a higher good? If so, how can interfaith dialogue be peaceful if it tries to go beyond making space for the other and, instead, uses the space in between and among to engage with others over commitment, over truth, and over what is most important in offering one’s life as a sacrifice? Or is that simply the orientation of the dominant Western religions?

One might even go further. Is not the development of a civil religion the sign of that effort to reach for a beyond that has been a hallmark of all religions, but doing so by setting aside the inherent connection to violence? In fact, is not the post-enlightenment effort over the last one hundred and fifty years been to discover and articulate a set of values and norms which defend a common humanity as primary? Has that effort not developed rules about the employment of violence, as in just war theory and practice, that allow lions to lie down beside lambs? In other words, the very effort to strive for impartiality, the very effort to esteem the core values of science, may be the core civic value in overcoming the traditional partisanship, not only of religion, but of ethno-nationalism?

Which brings me to the issue of equality. In Jeffrey Omar Usman’s very long scholarly article, “Defining Religion: The Struggle to Define Religion under the First Amendment and the Contributions and Insights of Other Disciplines of Study Including Theology, Psychology, Sociology, the Arts and Anthropology” [note the explicit omission of politics and economics] published in The North Dakota Law Review (83:123, 123-223, 2007), he concluded as follows:

“whatever definition of religion is applied, it should be applied in a consistent manner, and though courts should act with caution in defining religion, they should do so without fear. It is readily apparent that religion is incredibly difficult to define; scholars and courts have stumbled and will continue to do so in approaching this extraordinarily complicated subject. In endeavoring to formulate the best possible definition, the most important elements of the continuing effort by judges and academics to define religion are: (1) adherence to equality (my bold and italics) as a guiding interpretative principle; (2) employing the definition in a consistent manner; and (3) being cautious but not so frightened that the courts retreat to so vague a definition that the term religion loses its meaning.”

Why equality? Why consistency? How do these two overarching values help prevent slipping into the mire of meaningless equivocation? Look at how Usman’s key elements of a religion, that must be expressed, articulated and be unequivocal, are mapped onto those articulated by Susannah Heschel.

  1. “A religious belief or practice under the First Amendment…should be an approach toward or duty imposed by an authority that is part of some reality or understanding that is beyond the ordinary and beyond the state.” (This is a wider frame than Heschel’s definition in terms of a superior being, but it entails the retention of the distinction between a sacred authority and the profane in relation to fundamental questions of existence, and the exclusion of beliefs that are just personal and not broadly communal. The rituals of football or the collection of memorabilia about a celebrity or even the pursuit of wealth ad infinitum, do not deal with the meaning of suffering and death and the existence of spiritual reality, what Hegel called the Geist.
  2. On the other hand, that authority beyond the ordinary, whether it be called divine or not, “can encompass both the divine and demonic, the creative and the destructive.” (Paul Tillich) [I will return to this at the end.]
  3. There is a distinction between the right of free speech, a much broader right independent of religion, and a guarantee of the free exercise of and the prohibition against an established
  4. To go further, and in an extract by the Supreme Court of the U.S, “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” The First Amendment states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, freedom from practicing religion is as important as freedom to practice one’s religion.
  5. When William James, one of the key founders of Pragmatism, in the nineteenth century wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience [note, experience is singular but religion is written as a plural noun], it is clear that, although there may be a singular ultimate concern, people experience life with a variety of competing and conflicting concerns through various experiences and, therefore, there should be no effort of the polity to give one set of concerns priority over another.

That is why the core sentiment expressed in the American First Amendment is so crucial in the construction of the values of the modern world. Impartiality, equality and fairness are at the centre of post-enlightenment religion rather than partisanship, inegalitarianism as well as ruthless and unfair practices characteristic of the profane realm and built into historic religions. The Stone-Trump doctrine raises the profane values of extreme partisanship, inegalitarianism and ruthless and unfair methods to advance a cause once seen to be core values of religion and ones removed from that core by the First Amendment and modern efforts to articulate a Civil Religion. It is a civil religion as demonic.

And the reason is simple. Whereas Hobbes and Locke made the fundamental mistake of presuming that freedom rather than equality was the fundamental given, and, therefore, allowed those who developed their ideas on this platform to conceive of the state as an instrument for squelching or confining that freedom, a modern civil religion views freedom as the holy grail, as a state that we should be dedicated to establishing for all humanity.

This brings me to my final set of antonyms, false-consciousness versus humans as falsifiers. The latter is easy to understand. Those who would raise the core of the profane to the level of the sacred are slaves to dishonesty, to using whatever is necessary to win, in business or in politics, as long as those efforts fall within the law, or, at least, fall within the law that can be used to send you to prison and deprive you of freedom – hence the effort to control the making of laws to expand the realm in which dishonesty can be used with impunity. Some would claim that sacred is even a non-issue for such people, but the passion of belief of a man like Roger Stone suggests otherwise.

Freedom, instead of providing a platform in which different groups can pursue the questions of the ultimate meaning of existence without interference by the state, is conceived as already pre-determined, as rooted in a law of nature: each individual exists simply to pursue his or her own well-being. Freedom equals the doctrine of possessive individualism. That is why all other belief systems can be used and abused, trampled upon and cast aside, in the pursuit of self interest.

In Friedrich Engels and other theorists, false consciousness was the use of people pursuing survival within an ideological and institutional framework that perpetuated rather than undermined inequality. It was the disease at the ideological base of capitalism. It is the base that forms the core of the Stone-Trump ideology in an effort to monopolize the conception of capitalism under the virtue of greed in the guise of free competition. However, it should be apparent to everyone that competition for recognition is not equivalent to competition over the acquisition of material goods ad infinitum, that competition in capitalism can be a virtue without raising greed to a high altar in the holy of holies.

No one who turns mendacity into a supreme virtue can even explore the conception of false consciousness. For the purveyors of this supreme lie allow for no other competing belief in their civic demonic religion. All humans are greedy. Period! The core of a civil religion is to unpack this false consciousness, not only in others, but in our own ideological conceptions and institutional preferences. Critical self-consciousness to uproot false consciousness has to be at the centre of a civilized civil religion.

It is these values of this demonic religion set in Catfish Row on the waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina, where a Black mammie takes care of the child of a good-lookin momma and rich and powerful father, that were satirized in George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that I heard a chorus sing at a concert last evening.

Summertime,

And the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’
And the cotton is high

Oh, Your daddy’s rich
And your mamma’s good lookin’
So hush little baby
Don’t you cry

One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky

But until that morning
There’s a’nothing can harm you
With your daddy and mammy standing by.

Then, among the Hebrew, Yiddish and other great songs, the choir sang “Blackbird” that expressed the ultimate goal of the new civic religion.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life,
You were only waiting for the moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.
All your life,
You were only waiting for the moment to be free.

Black bird fly, black bird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Black bird fly, black bird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

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