The catechism of the citizen: politics, law and religion in, after, with and against Rousseau

By Simon Crhichley:

“(…) is politics conceivable without religion? The answer is obviously affirmative as the evidence of various secular political theories testifies. But is politics practicable without religion? That is the question. And that is the question that Rousseau’s thinking of politics faces. Can politics become effective as a way of shaping, motivating and mobilizing a people or peoples without some sort of dimension—if not foundation—that is religious, that is without some sort of appeal to transcendence, however substantive or otherwise that appeal might be? I do not think so. Or rather, I no longer think so. Thus, the exemplarity of Rousseau to my mind consists in the fact that he gives us the definitive expression of the modern conception of politics: that is, politics is the break with any conception of nature and natural law and has to be based in the concepts of popular sovereignty, association, rigorous equality and collective autonomy understood as the self-determination of a people. And yet, in order for this modern conception of politics to become effective it has to have a religious dimension, a moment of what the Romans used to call theologia civilis, civil theology. That is, the secularization that seems to define modern politics has to acknowledge a moment of what Emilio Gentile calls sacralization, the transformation of a political entity like a state, nation, class or party into a sacred entity, which means that it becomes transcendent, unchallengeable and intangible. So, can a political collectivity maintain itself in existence, that is, maintain its unity and identity, without a moment of the sacred, that is, without religion, rituals and something that we can only call belief? Once again, I do not think so. Might we not at least conceive of the possibility of redefining the secularization that is believed to be definitive of modernity with the idea of modern politics as a metamorphosis of sacralization, where modern forms of politics, whether liberal democracy, fascism, soviet communism, national socialism and the rest have to be grasped as new articulations and, indeed, mutations of the sacred? Before continuing, it should be noted that I have come to this conclusion with no particular joy, as someone with little enthusiasm (in the literal sense of the term) for religion, whether organized or disorganized. And I say this not simply in response to the chronic re-theologization of politics through which we are living, which makes this time certainly the darkest period in my lifetime, and arguably for much longer. At the heart of the horror of the present is the intrication of politics and religion, an intrication defined by violence, and this is what I would like to begin to think through. I want to do this not in order to break the connection between politics and religion, but to acknowledge the limitations of any completely secular leftist politics. It seems to me that the left has all too easily ceded the religious ground to the right and it is this ground that needs to be regained in a coherent, long-term and tenacious political war of position. As Gramsci famously wrote, ‘socialism is the religion that is needed to kill off Christianity’. As we will see presently, the relation of politics to religion and their intrication raises for me the question of the necessity of fiction, of both the seeming necessity for a divine fiction at the basis of politics and the possibility of what Wallace Stevens would call a supreme fiction in politics.”

Read if full at Continental Philosophy Review

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