Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving: Politics, Religion, and Nationalism

I have kind of mentioned before that I am a big fan of the fall holidays, and that would include Thanksgiving. It is still interesting to note that this holiday marks an important anniversary in the wedding of American politics and religion. The idea that America is a "Christian nation" may, in certain respects, not be true. But the idea that the founding fathers were all deists who divorced political strategies from religious sentiment is false to a much greater degree. In fact, they used religious rhetoric for political purposes in much the same way that politicans do today. Things haven't changed all that much. In this way, the idea of America as a "Christian nation" may be true in a normative sense - in the role Christianity has actually played in the construction of narratives that constitute national identity. Yes, it is exclusive. But nationalism is always exclusive.

In the case of Thanksgiving, its first civil incarnation occurred when a national day of prayer was decreed by president Washington. This was during a time of increasing anti-federal sectarianism, and immediately following the Whiskey Rebellion. The national day of prayer was deployed in an effort to use clergy to promote nationalist/federalist messages, and indeed, the celebration mixed nationalism and Christianity quite harmoniously.

I will have to discuss religion in greater detail in the future, but for now I will make a few comments (as it relates to the above discussion) and allow that to suffice.

The concept of "religion" has not always and everywhere existed. The categories that we use to carve up the social order have a distinct history. The idea of "religion," as we currently understand it, was shaped through the reorganization of institutional domains that resulted in the modern world order. The way that we conceive of "religion" has everything to do with authority and the bases on which it is constructed. The idea that "religion" should be separated from other social institutions - politics, economics, education - is an ideology, and one that does not acknowledge either the socially constructed nature of these categories, or the complexity of their internal constitution and the blurriness of their boundaries. Case in point, the secular state itself was founded on principles of the "sacred man," and divinely bestowed human rights (all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..."). In their very foundations, "politics" cannot be separated from "religion."

Often "religion" is defined as a set of beliefs. Of course, that definition is inadequate even to encompass all that is placed within the domain of religion. For example, sets of symbols, ritual practice, interpretive and moral frameworks, certain ethics for conducting human behavior (interestingly, all elements of nationalism as well). It is as much concerned with the "here and now" and all the materiality of life as it is with the beyond and unseen.

It stands to reason, then, that many of the above elements - particularly moral and ethical principles and modes of interpretation - associated with a particular religion can either overlap or conflict with the moral/ethical/interpretive frameworks employed by "secular society" and nationalism. Practices and material elements of certain religions may be proscribed or differently valorized by the state and its legal system. Conversely, symbols and practices associated with nationalism may easily be appropriated by religious institutions, while the state can just as easily make use of symbols and practices belonging to a particular religion.

It is because of this more-than-latent potential for overlap and conflict that religion and politics can never be entirely separate.

(A similar argument can be made for the case of economics, if one is willing to admit, unlike classical economists, that the economy is often understood and framed in moral/ethical terms, and that it involves, at its heart, human relationships.)

So... Happy Anniversary American politics and religion!

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