Friday, July 17, 2009

Judaeo-Christian tradition, American civil religion, Anti-Semitism, Jeremiah Wright

Note: The following commentary was written on 18 June 2008, in the heat of the presidential campaign and all its controversies. Since I wrote this, I have been more vehement in my opposition to the notion of a Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is not only a cover for the worst crimes generally, but is specifically a cover-up of the anti-Semitic heritage of the United States and western civilization as a whole. Among other things, it is important to look at the American civil religion, not only as it revved up during the Cold War, but how it was used, dishonestly, in my view, in the anti-Nazi propaganda of World War II. Posters of that period are quite revealing: a picture of the dagger of Nazism piercing the Holy Bible, a testimonial from Joe Lewis saying we will win because God is on our side, etc. All of this was a cover-up of the real nature of the fascist threat and the complicity of Allied powers including the USA in racism, anti-Semitism, and fascism, including direct ideological, commercial, and technological ties between American big business and the Nazis, not to mention the vile history of the "Christian" nations in fostering all three of these scourges against humanity.

The most widely recognized refutation of the myth appears to be:
Cohen, Arthur A. The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition. Harper & Row, New York, 1970.

The Spring 2008 issue of the AAH Examiner [newsletter of African Americans for Humanism] is exceptionally topical, or so it seems due to the two articles on the Obama/Wright issue. I can't argue with Gerry Dantone's "Almost Everyone Should Leave Church." Mel Reeves' "Sacred Cows, Black Jesus, and Civil Religion", however, struck me as an argument with a number of gaps in it. I haven't studied the concept of civil religion in detail, but my impressionistic take on it, which is based on the conditions under which I grew up, was somewhat jarred by Reeves' argument.

My notion of American civil religion is extremely minimalistic, hence while I see the concept justifying a general national mythology, I don't immediately see it as justifying any particular action or state of affairs in American history.

This is because, while the public schools I attended in Buffalo taught us American exceptionalism, and they indeed taught us about Manifest Destiny, they fostered a certain doublethink whereby America could be glorified without justifying its arguably criminal actions of the past. Popular culture was also quite minimalistic, judging by my memories of television. American civil religion, even among the most liberal sectors of the population, was affected by McCarthyism and the Cold War, i.e. America's war against "godless communism". But this, too, was promoted in my neck of the woods in the most minimalist of ways. Eisenhower (before my conscious life began) talked about the Judaeo-Christian tradition, a notion that gained some currency as a result of World War II. Eisenhower, after all, had liberated the Nazi death camps, and it would have been most tasteless to refer to America as a Christian nation; so, playing it safe, he invoked this newly-forged concoction of a Judaeo-Christian tradition. I didn't know much about Eisenhower, as my earliest memory of politics is the Kennedy-Nixon race (but not of the controversy surrounding JFK's Catholicism, which I could not have understood at that age). But my experience of television was consistent with a minimalist conception. A telling example is an episode of the very liberal TV series The Twilight Zone, in which Burgess Meredith is condemned to death by a totalitarian state declaring the state has decreed that God does not exist, and Meredith's character defiantly declares that there is a God, and tranquilly awaits execution while reading the Bible. This is the type of civic religion I was exposed to.

Also, both education and popular culture encouraged a doublethink about American history. On the one hand, American exceptionalism, and on the other, occasional admissions of America's past crimes. There were a couple of TV docudramas even in the early '60s, one about Harriet Tubman, and cowboys-and-Indians lore notwithstanding, the injustices against the Indians were no secret. All of this was in accord with the dominant liberalism of the time.

So the American civil religion, as I understood it, was:
(1) America is exceptional;
(2) America is underwritten by the Judaeo-Christian tradition;
(3) America is great because we can confess and correct our mistakes; hence at the end of the day, the system works.
Somewhere along the line, disillusioned by all the ruckus of the late '60s, I concluded that all this was a load of crap. I don't recall a specific turning point, but by 1973 I opted out of the American mythos.

Given my indoctrination in a minimalist version of the American mythos, it would not be immediately apparent to me that Jeremiah Wright opposes the American civic religion. A more obvious candidate would be Malcolm X, who even predates this black liberation theology bullshit of the late '60s. But somehow I never thought to think of Malcolm X in this way. So evidently I did not thoroughly research just what the concept of civic religion entails. Or perhaps I just assumed that a religious person is not the one to oppose a civil religion.

One thing I have been questioning though, is this notion of a "Judaeo-Christian tradition". Its history has been outlined in this article, which I've planned to review:
Silk, Mark. "Notes on the Judaeo-Christian Tradition in America," American Quarterly, 36 (1984): 65-85.

The notion has been advocated and refuted by Jews and Christians of various political and theological persuasions. Some, but not even a majority, of objections came from militant secularists, such as Sidney Hook in the 1940s. There are several bases for objections to this notion, some based on theology and religion, some on sociopolitical considerations. The objection that interests me most is that the token inclusion of Judaism in the tradition is actually a mask for Christian anti-Semitism. I don't recall a specific allegation that Jewish adherence to this notion is a form of Uncle-Tomism, but that would be the logical corollary. And I concur with both propositions. The political resuscitation of redneck America under the banner of Reagan awakened a visceral hostility against Christian America that had not been a conscious issue for me.

But put that aside for now, while I return to the concept of American civil religion. It seems that the concept involves these factors:
(1) the mythos of America undergirded by religious principles;
(2) the mythos of America as a social-political entity—its exceptionalism, essential goodness, soundness, etc.;
(3) the relation between (1) and (2);
(4) the justification of American actions and policies, past and present, on the basis of this mythos.

It must be the inclusion of (4) in Reeves' argument that threw me for a loop, and I guess when I think of civil religion I mostly think of (1); i.e. obligatory religiosity in America.

Now the argument that a liberation theology in general challenges the American civil religion depends on what the latter implies politically. In Reeves' schema, Christian abolitionists opposing slavery would also oppose the American civil religion. I never thought of it this way, and while I'm not in principle opposed to this line of thinking, I don't find it compelling. I see Frederick Douglass challenging all the components of the civil religion characterized by Reeves. But I also see this tradition of dissent as very American.

There are after all, radical versions of Americanism. I'm most familiar with the secular ones, I haven't thought much about religious variants. Earl Robinson's "Ballad for Americans" is what we would today call multicultural. Ralph Ellison's Americanism was non-religious. Whatever religious or mystical beliefs held by black cultural figures I can think of, mostly jazz musicians, their expressions of Americanism don't appear to be predicated on any non-secular basis.

Anyway, I can see there are some holes in my knowledge of the meaning of the concept of civil religion. I gave a quick scrute to some Wikipedia and other articles as a first step in ameliorating the situation:

Wikipedia articles:
Civil religion
American civil religion

Marty, Martin E. "A Judeo-Christian Looks at the Judeo-Christian Tradition", The Christian Century, October 5, 1986, pp. 858-860.

In the end, Reeves appears to justify Wright, which I find unacceptable. Replacing one mythology with another works for bourgeois nationalists, but in the end does not serve human emancipation. Reeves was derelict in this regard. I was not shocked by Wright, as I've heard all this before, and I don't think he's totally crazy, but he is an obscurantist and crackpot in his own right, like any other black nationalist jackleg preacher jackass I've encountered over the decades. So I see no reason to defend Wright, but only to oppose the double standard.

It doesn't even take much of a civic religion to keep white Americans as clueless as they are. Obama notwithstanding, if you look at political discourse among average American citizens including journalists, even if they are liberal (whatever that means nowadays), they all talk as if white people are the only real people inhabiting this nation. Other groups are occasionally recognized as other groups, but not as if they enter into the personal reality of white people discussing politics.

No comments: