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Open To Thinking: Rancher Bundy, civil religion in US
A recurring column
by Nick Patricca
2014-05-07

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In his 1762 treatise 'The Social Contract' Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents the principles necessary to construct legitimate political authority in the modern world, a world that had lost or destroyed the traditional foundations for government. In Book 8, he presents the idea of a 'civil religion,' a religion that the state should endorse to promote good citizenship. Rousseau's civil religion preaches: 1 ) the existence of a supreme deity that exercises some providential control over history and nature; 2 ) an afterlife in which virtue is rewarded and vice is punished; 3 ) an active tolerance by the state of all religions as long as their practices do not interfere with the core values of the nation-state.

In essence, Rousseau argues that the political authority of the modern nation-state requires a civil religion to make legitimate and to justify its right to govern its citizens.

In his 1967 essay 'Civil Religion in America,' the sociologist Robert N. Bellah explores the concept of civil religion as it manifests itself in the USA. For Bellah, the basic elements of our civil religion are: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution as the sacred scriptures ( sometimes Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is added to this list ); the War of Independence and the Civil War as the sacred events; Chosen People, Promised Land ( Exodus ), New Jerusalem, Sacrificial Death and Re-Birth as the sacred themes; Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln as the high priests; and Liberty, Democracy, and Free Enterprise as the core rights of citizenship. And, of course, Thanksgiving is our civic holy day officially established by Washington October 3, 1789.

In the 20th century, communism and fascism, among other isms, developed civil religion into what Emilio Gentile, Walter Benjamin, and others call 'political religion,' an ideology that the state employs as an official state religion in order to control and motivate its citizens, and to suppress dissent. Interestingly, another form of political religion has developed in our contemporary USA society. This type of political religion is not used by the state to impose its will on its citizens; rather, these political religions are used by various groups within our nation to justify their understandings of the sacred elements of our dominant civil religion. Understandings they are willing to defend by dying for them or killing for them: the classic hallmarks of a religion.

Let's examine a current extreme example: Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy believes he has a constitutional right to graze his 900 cattle on federal land. On April 12, 2014 hundreds of self-proclaimed 'militia' rallied in Bunkersville, Nevada, to support the rights of rancher Bundy. These armed women and men mustered to defend Bundy's 'constitutional rights': to pursue his happiness through ranching, to exercise his freedom through the use of federal lands for grazing, and to protect his property ( cattle ) through force of arms if necessary.

Bundy uses USA land managed by the Bureau of Land Management ( BLM ) of our federal government to graze his cattle. The BLM alleges that Bundy now owes 1.1 million in grazing fees. According to various reports in the media, Rancher Bundy says alternately either that he does not recognize the federal government or that he does not recognize the federal government's ownership of the land. He also adds that in the past ( prior to 1993 ) he paid the fees to the BLM as management fees not as grazing fees. He now claims the BLM are not proper managers. To make a states rights point, Bundy affirms that he abides by all laws and regulations of the sovereign state of Nevada.

Some unkind critics of Bundy have observed that his motive for not paying the grazing fees might not be driven by principle but by the fact that he has not been able to make a living as a rancher for some time. Several of Bundy's supporters countered this complaint with this most intriguing logic: Bundy has a constitutional right to be a money-losing cattle man because it is his way of life and the constitution guarantees his right to pursue his happiness as he sees fit.

The words 'Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness' do not appear in our Constitution; they appear in our Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, in many versions of our civil religion, these words are perceived and used as sacred text, as gospel equivalent to Constitutional text.

Though Locke, and many other philosophers, posit the protection of 'life, liberty, and property' to be the principle functions of government, it is unique to us citizens of the United States to proclaim 'the pursuit of happiness' as a function of government.

The Bundy affair has many dimensions. The one most interesting to me is this: the pursuit of happiness as a principle of political authority and legitimacy.

© nicholas.patricca@gmail.com

Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.


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