(…Continued from yesterday’s post.)
It might seem strange that a supposedly secular society would be so concerned with the use of its cultural symbols as to codify their exclusivity into law, especially when those symbols themselves appeal to universal values like equality and freedom. The evocation and use of cultural symbols has more traditionally been understood as the realm of mythology and religion, and here we see how religion, shading into philosophical ideology, fades further into political philosophy and politics, with no hard and fast line between them.
This flexibility of cultural symbols in creating and shaping our political system and the very laws of our government reminds us not to grow too comfortable with ideas of “secular” government being easy to define, let alone simple to realize. Personally, I have often wondered if “secular” government as we understand it in the West may not simply be a new and more recent kind of civil religion, based on its own particular mythos and set of practices and taboos. David W. Ingle and Carolyn Marvin argue as much in their research into totemism and blood sacrifice in their modern manifestations in United States political and social discourse. In his recent book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, Bron Taylor skirts a similar theory in his exploration of environmentalism, and its expression through political activism and eco-terrorism, as constituting a form of nature spirituality in contemporary American society.
The implications of civil religion may often be overlooked by minority religious traditions such as Paganism, even while we see the potential conflict between “secular” civil religion and alternative spiritualities unrolling on the global stage, expressed best in the conflict between “the West” and Islam. More than a few Americans now claim, as Pat Robertson stated in 2007, that Islam “isn’t really a religion, but a political movement.” Such statements rely on a strict dichotomy between political ideologies, and “real religions” — which can coexist peacefully with the civil religion of Western liberal capitalism, either because their social expressions are sufficiently in line with its own, or because they offer no coherent, cohesive vision of community religious life as an alternative. In a “secular” civil religion that associates itself with the cultural symbols of freedom and equality, and in particular with freedom of religion, those religious worldviews that conflict with or threaten Western liberal capitalism are redefined as “political” ideologies instead. Since, as we’ve seen, religion, philosophy and politics make up more of a continuum rather than a set of distinct categories, this strategy works fairly well. Even defenders of Islam often respond with arguments about why Islam, rather than presenting an alternative socio-cultural approach, can be incorporated into the overarching civil religion of the West — that Muslims can be ordinary consumer capitalists like you and me proves that their worldview is a “real religion,” not a political philosophy.
But the nature of religion can hardly avoid some political implications. Praxis-centered, “embodied” and/or nature spiritualities, perhaps even more than faith-based, doctrinally-focused religions, must eventually turn to questions of how spiritual ideas express themselves in and through community. For now, Pagan traditions exist in such a small minority that they are hardly considered a threat to any but the most rabid fundamentalists, and certainly not a viable alternative to the socio-political structures of the United States. For the most part, Pagan traditions benefit from appeals to “secular” politics, where protections for religious minorities are enshrined in theory, if not always upheld in practice.
On the other hand, experimentation with alternative forms of community creation, identity and structure have been part of modern Paganism almost since the beginning. Revival Druidry traditions of today have their roots in the social clubs and workers’ unions of Britain in the 1800s, which concerned themselves primarily with providing both financial and social support to workers and their families. In the United States, goddess traditions grew up together with the feminist movement in the ’60s and ’70s, experimenting with matriarchal, non-heirarchical and anarchistic models of community organization. The Druid Network recently succeeded in gaining religious charity status under UK law without having to compromise its explicitly-stated anarchistic organizational structure. Conversations in the Pagan community have focused for several decades now on questions about the relationship between community support and infrastructure, and the commodification of religious tools and services, sometimes playing a role in conflicts such as the recent Feri/Faery schism.
With all of this history to consider — not to mention the growing concern among nature-centered Pagans about the potentially environmentally devastating consequences of consumer capitalist practices — it would be naive not to wonder about the future of Paganism and its relationship to the civil religion of the United States. Indeed, one form that this relationship might take is already beginning to express itself, as some Pagans appropriate cultural symbols associated with American patriotism and identity, incorporating them into overtly religious contexts. Worship of the “revealed goddess” Columbia on the Fourth of July and treatment of the U.S. Constitution as a sacred text, for instance, are two examples of the blending of Pagan spirituality with American civil religion. (Keep your eyes peeled — as we enter the warm, sunny summer months of outdoor picnics and barbecues — for more examples of the increasing coincidence between Pagan seasonal festivals and American patriotic holidays.)
The use of political symbols in religious contexts may seem to be just a quirk of modern Pagan spirituality, an intentional revival of more ancient concepts of community and tribe. But as the case of the Liberty Dollar and the existence of Title 18§486 in U.S. law both illustrate, such religio-political overlap lurks just beneath the surface of secular society as well. Though for now Pagan traditions may be “mostly harmless” and even at times benignly supportive of American civil religion, we may do well to remember the lessons of ecology. The poisonous monarch does not benefit from a dilution of its associative power. And the United States government can, and will, exact a high price from those who are too successful in utilizing its symbols for their own purposes.