Some years ago, I read about Glenn Beck's complaining about the deportment of the athletes during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner before the Super Bowl:
In a secular age, it's hard for most cosmopolitan types to understand why Glenn Beck gets so upset about things like this. I think I get it, but I'm going to give one of my long-winded explanations to provide some context to explain what I think is going on. Doing so also gives me a platform to talk about a couple of other things as well, one of which is why the secular left has become so anemic as a political force. In doing so I'm going to lean heavily on Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, chapter 12--"The Age of Mobilization".
In the pre-Reformation Europe, the world still had an enchantment about it--some things were sacred and some very much were not. But it was a rather vertical, static sense of the sacred. The sacred was experienced in special times during the cycle of the seasons, in sacred places, and in sacred ritual actions. The sacred was sharply distinguished from the profane, and profane behavior in a sacred time or place was more than a breach of decorum--it was sacrilegious.
Today secular cosmopolitans and, I'd say, most believers have lost any sense of the intensity of experience that was associated with the sacred--or, for that matter, the sacrilegious. Comedians keep trying to push past the last vestiges of an old sense of taboo skewering what's left of any vestigial sacred cows, but it's all rather inconsequential. They think they are lion tamers in their imaginations of themselves, when in fact in a reversal of the Monty Python sketch, they are really dealing with anteaters.
And with Glenn Beck you have a kind of throwback: he's someone who articulates a nostalgia for the lost sacred--and that's the part I get, kind of, because I, too, feel that loss. But Taylor illuminates something that I as someone who grew up in a pre-Vatican Catholic world (I was born in 1950, graduated 8th grade in '64 and high school in '68) had very little sense of--the sacred rituals of American civil religion. We Catholics had our own definition and way of experiencing the sacred and the sacrilegious, and all the Protestant versions of it (with which I associated the rituals of civil religion) seemed rather pallid, a kind of wannabe sacred that really didn't cut the mustard. It was all so much going through the motions. The various rituals of American civil religion always seemed kind of silly and unserious to me, the way the Shriners play at being some kind of initiatory mystery cult--they're acting out a collective fantasy that has lost any real connection to the living spiritual forces that gave these rituals their original shape.
So here's where Taylor helped me understand something I didn't before. I had only a passing acquaintance with Robert Bellah's work on civil religion in the 70s--it didn't really interest me because it had little to do with what I believed to be a vital spiritual future. But that work is important if you want to understand what's going on in American society today, and I'm more interested in that now than I was then. I see now that there was a moment when American civil religion really had valid sacred power, where the rituals weren't empty or without reference to something noble. And I understand how it functioned effectively to replace the experience of the lost sense of the sacred that pervaded the collective imagination in the ancien regime:
In an enchanted world, there is an obvious way in which God can be present in society; in the loci of the sacred. And the political society can be closely connected to these, and can itself be thought to exist on a higher plane. Ernst Kantoriowicz tells us that one of the first uses of the term 'mystical body' in European history referred to the French kingdom. The king himself could be one of the links between the planes, represented respectively by the king's mortal and undying bodies. . . .
This is a description of what we'll call the old-school sacred polity. But this model began to crumble after the Reformation for lots of complex reasons that are beyond the scope of what I want to write about here. But three very important factors were (1) the religious fragmentation of Christendom that broke apart its organic sense of modeling a hierarchical cosmos, coupled with (2) the post-Copernican understanding of the cosmos that supplanted the Ptolemaic hierarchical scheme, and (3) the project by both Protestant and Catholic counter-Reformation elites to purify religious practice and belief by purging the pagan vestiges of popular religion, which were essential for maintaining a sense of the world's enchantment.
Educated ecclesial elites were among the most aggressive in trying to stamp out all that superstitious enchantment; nevertheless, it continued, even in the Protestant countries, well into the 19th Century. In Catholic countries there was what Taylor calls the baroque compromise, which allowed for a little of the old mystery and spiritual exuberance, but it was definitely 'new school'. I experienced as a child the last gasp of that baroque ecclesial mentality. The old-school practices of the heath, that had been largely accepted and reframed in the pre-Reformation Christian social imagination, were now taboo.
But despite the resistance to these changes by these heathen heathdwellers, a new notion of the sacred began to take hold of the imaginations of the educated elites, especially in the Protestant countries. Here's Taylor on this shift:
Now with advancing disenchantment, especially in Protestant societies, another model took shape, with relation both to the cosmos and the polity. In this the notion of Design was crucial. To take the cosmos, there was a shift from the enchanted world to a cosmos conceived in a conformity with post-Newtonian science, in which there is absolutely no question of higher meanings being expressed in the universe around us. But there is still, with someone like Newton himself, for instance, a strong sense that the universe declares the glory of God. . . . Now the presence of God no longer lies in the sacred, because this category fades in a disenchanted world. But he can be thought to be no less powerfully present through His Design.
So before getting to our more intensely late-20th century experience of secularism, there was an intermediary stage that was very much at the center of the American project. It was carried primarily by what I have written about here as the whiggish spirit for which the Puritans and other northern Calvinists were the chief bearers. The sacred wasn't something experienced in sacred space so much as it was experienced in a kind of sacred time--or perhaps more accurately in a sense of Providentially ordained historical purposes. This is what I'll call the new-school sacred polity. Its citizens belonged to a society that was developing, moving at the cutting edge history toward fulfillment of divinely ordained purposes.
One's experience of the sacred correlated with this sense of living one's life as a free individual, but in a free individualism that was attuned to the evolving effort to fulfill that plan, and in doing so to be on the right side of history:
The presence of God in the cosmos is matched by another idea: His presence in the polity. Here an analogous change takes place. The divine isn't there in a King who straddles the planes. But it can be present to the extent that we build a society which plainly follows God's design. This can be filled in with an idea of moral order which is seen as established by God, in the way invoked, for instance, in the American Declaration of Independence: Men have been created equal, and have been endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.
The idea of a moral order which is expressed in this Declaration, and which has since become dominant in our world, is what I have been calling the Modern Moral Order. It is quite different from the orders which preceded it. Its members are disembedded individuals who come to associate together. The design underlying the association is that each, in pursuing his or her own purpose in life, acts to benefit others mutually. It calls for a society structured for mutual benefit, in which each respects the rights of others, and offers them mutual help of certain kinds.
But in the earlier days, when the plan was understood as Providential and the order seen as Natural Law, which is the same as the law of God, building a society which fulfills these requirements was seen as fulfilling the design of God. To live in such a society was to live in one where God was present, not at all in the way that belonged to the enchanted world, through the sacred, but because we were following His design. God is present as the designer of the way we live. We see ourselves, to quote a famous phrase, as "one people under God".
This is the basis for American exceptionalism that was felt especially strongly in the 19th century. Lincoln was an exemplar in his sense of the nation's providential mission, and his vision and his prodigious ability to articulate it have made him the architect of America's second founding. He articulated what so many Americans came to believe--that America was the world's "last best hope". Not because it was flawless, but because in the American soul there were these better angels working to accomplish in a more perfect union a providentially ordained design. Lincoln--who was no churchgoer--more than any other prominent American I can think of had a profound sense of America as sacred polity in the new school sense. He was the St. Paul, so to speak, of American civil religion--not its founder, but its most eloquent evangelist.
So this sense of higher national purpose comprised two elements: first, the sense that there was something providential in the American project to the degree that it was progressively moving toward a greater realization of this higher purpose or design, that it was in this sense a project of the nation's better angels; second, a collective sense that while we are a self-reliant, freedom-loving people, we are also good neighbors, that we have as individuals a vested, mutual interest in the welfare of the whole society--that we all have a shared hope for a better American future.
This idea of moving toward a more perfect realization of a divine order was was not a possibility in the collective social imagination of the old-school sacred polity. The order was already established, and people lived virtuous lives in conformity with it, or they lived dissolute, disordered, sinful lives out of conformity with it. But in the new-school sacred polity it became a commonplace, especially for the more "whiggish" factions in the new American republic, that the American providential purpose was to realize more perfectly over time the ideals articulated in the Declaration, and in doing so to be a light to the nations. And to a large degree, and for a long time, America was that.
Sure, the nation had its dark side. There has always been a violent, rapacious aspect to the American character, but it was balanced by this other side, these better angels, this feeling for a providential destiny, and for the hope of a society ruled by decency and a spirit of mutual help. This sense in those who bore the nation's better angels empowered them with a zeal that is hard for progressives today to imagine or embrace. Just read the lyrics to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to get a feel for it if you need some reminding.
It's hard to think of American evangelicalism as being a force for progressive change, but it was. The last time we saw it was in Martin Luther King's rhetoric that drew deeply and powerfully from this now submerged sense of the new school sacred polity. And that's the last time we saw any real significant change in this country. I'd argue that without an appeal to the new school sacred polity, nothing significant gets done. I'd like to say that if Lincoln was the American sacred polity's St. Paul, then MLK was its St. Augustine. Augustine's imagination of the world and God's relationship to it dominated Europe for over a thousand years--would that MLK's did so as well.
But for most educated Americans now it's too hard to believe that America has a providential role to be at the cutting edge of history, or to think of America as Lincoln did as the world's last best hope. People mouth the words from time to time, but it doesn't resonate. That's what was different, though, about Obama. When he used the language of the sacred polity, it resonated, and it awakened what Lincoln called our better angels.
I think this was the key to Obama's mystique during his campaign, and is the reason why for so many of us he is now such a crushing disappointment. During the campaign, he awakened that latent sense of America's sacred providential calling, he roused those better angels. But when they reported to work the day after his inauguration, he told them to go home. He told them that America is a game played by insiders, that it was back to business as usual and that he would govern in a way that was in its substance, if not its style, in continuity with everything decent Americans hated about what had happened to the country since the invasion of Iraq.
That, IMO, was Obama's great failure--not to recognize the opportunity that was afforded him, that these angels with his leadership could have accomplished significant progress toward the change we all long for, whether we consciously recognize it or not. But Obama so far has disregarded them, and he has given new life and restored legitimacy to the forces of regression, which were on their heels in 2008. That's what's so infuriating--this sense of missed opportunity. And so now we're told by all the jaded types that those of us who believe in those better angels were foolish ever to think they exist. I insist that we were not. And I insist that nothing changes until those angels are roused and put to work.
The culture war in America since the 70s is a war between two competing forms of nostalgia--between those nostalgic for a sacred, providential sense of America's purpose--the cultural right--and those nostalgic for the lost, collective spirit mutual help--mainly progressives on the cultural left. The odd thing about this culture war is that both sides need the aspects in the other they oppose. It's as if the American soul were riven in two, and in its division cannot stand. They each in their way flip and flop impotently, gasping for breath like fish on a dock. We're left with impotence, stalemate, frustration--the best people at best mustering a kind of diffident goodwill, and the worst a barbaric ferocity that commands the field.
The cultural right is all about a longing for this static sacred with little sense of what I described above as the national project of our better angels--it is on the whole remarkably mean spirited and small minded. And the cultural left is all about social progress without any sense of history's having a sacred or providential dimension. And that's why, I'd argue, progressives are so weak. They lack the force of deeply inspired conviction. They don't really believe in the better angels, except maybe as a quaint, air-quoted metaphor, so they would never think to call upon them.
Progressives on the cultural left don't "get" what Lincoln and MLK "got". They don't understand that in order to resist the enormous power of the barbaric forces that now dominate in our political and economic sphere, there has to be a deeply felt spiritual counterforce that resistance can draw from.
So what's the takeaway here? Someone like Glenn Beck recognizes on an unconscious level that something is missing--a feeling for the sacred that all of us whether we realize it or not deeply long for, but he doesn't know where to find it. He looks vainly for it in a preservation of dessicated forms rather than in a recovery of the broad-minded generous spirit Lincoln helped us to imagine. These forms without their originating animating spirit are zombie forms, possessed in his case by paranoid demons and the delusional thinking that follows from such a possession.
This kind of extremist right wing conservative embraces a fantasy sacred, one that has no existence or force except to reinforce his delusional thinking. By their fruits you will know them. Progressives, on the other hand, reject any possibility for experiencing the sacred, and so don't, and so on the whole lack the collective will to oppose the barbarians except to write nasty things about them in their blogs. And so we're at this impasse. And the barbaric forces rule until somehow or other the better angels find their footing in some kind of social movement that understands the power they have to make the difference.
We must at some point retrieve this sense of a sacred national purpose in the way that Lincoln and MLK understood it. And to recognize once again the difference between the sacred and the sacrilegious, and that there is nothing sacred about markets; they are profane neutral. Nevertheless there are some market behaviors, like the kind of thing we've seen done by Wall Street, that are downright sacrilegious--deep, appalling, abject affronts to what in our collective sense of decency and common national purpose. If there is anybody on the current political scene today who eloquently articulates his disgust at that sacrilege, with the loss of the spirit of mutual help that should be the throbbing heart of a renewed sense of our sacred polity, it is the secular Jew, Bernie Sanders.
I fear that if a movement inspired by the nation's better angels does not arise, we will eventually be thrown into a dialectic of barbarism, one barbarian faction seeking to supplant the reigning barbarian in an endless cycle of political king of the hill. We were supposed to be better than that--and at times we have been, but we're in a part of the cycle now in which we have no sense of our national purpose because we have no sense anymore of our better angels and of the spirit of mutual help.
I guess the question is whether the game is lost or whether we can at some point recover what we've lost. I'm pessimistic, but not without hope.
[Ed. note: This is a repost, with some light editing of the original that appeared February 11, 2011]