In 1912, in the publication of his work Elementary Forms of the Religious Life ( Les formes Ã©lÃ©mentaires de la vie religieuse ), the French sociologist Emile Durkheim codified some of the best thinking from the 19th century about the social functions of religion.
Focusing on primitive ( or primal ) cultures in the hope of gaining a clearer grasp of these functions, Durkheim observed how the stories and rituals of a religion establish the unity of a society, give identity to the individual within society, initiate the individual into his/her role in the society, educate the people as a whole into the meaning and mission of the society. Of course, it remains an open question as to whether or to what extent religion exercises these profound functions in modern and post-modern societies.
Biblical scholars and the 'scientifically' minded philosophers of the 19th century had already formulated these social functions into two main categories: the conservative ( priestly ) and the critical ( prophetic ). The priestly function of religion concerns itself with preserving and inculcating through ritual and education the principal values of a given tradition. Entrusted with the founding myths, it creates 'cohesion' in a group by providing 'identity' to the individual and to the group in mutually defining roles of responsibility as articulated in the primal stories of the tradition. The prophetic function of religion concerns itself with the judgment of the current state of affairs in a given society, with how well the people are living the original agreement expounded in the founding myths. Even Engels and Marx understood the power of religion to prophetically critique and change its host society, though they were both constantly surprised when religion refused to fade away and become an historical fossil as working and peasant class consciousness 'progressed and matured in the historical dialectic.'
In the current Crimea crisis, in Kiev we witnessed Orthodox priests blessing the crowds that toppled the pro-Russia government and in Simferopol we witnessed other Orthodox priests blessing the pro-Russia militiamen who seized the Crimea. In World War I, before yet another futile battle commenced, German Catholic priests blessed the German troops while French Catholic priests blessed the French troops.
Were these priests using religion to give comfort and hope to the soldiers and/or were they endorsing the nationalistic goals of their respective nationstates?
World War I, the War to End All Wars, is a special case for me because, with Paul Tillich, I understand this war to mark the end of Christian Civilization. Good Christians fought on all sides in this war with the firm conviction that they were fighting for the best values of Christianity as well as the finest values of Western Civilization. Yet, WWI stands out as a totally unnecessary war blindly entered into by profoundly corrupt and stupid men for profoundly corrupt and stupid ends. Yet, we all, mostly good Christians and good Citizens, marched off to war.
Why? One of the reasons 'Why' is the formidable marriage of religion and national identity in the socialization of the citizen into the modern nation-state.
In WWI, Christian nations and empires, in the name of civilization itself fought each other ferociously with the most advanced weapons of terror and destruction science, technology, and industrial might could produce. Reason and Faith, the Enlightenment and Christian Civilization, were united and focused on the goal of total victory over the enemy. And, the enemy were fellow Christians.
In the mix of symbols and rituals, beliefs and values, the relationship of a specific religion to a specific nation is profound and complex.
This relationship is so intimate that it becomes most difficult, and perhaps impossible, to determine the content of the religion as distinct from the content of the national ideology.
Martin Luther King Jr. marshaled the prophetic/critical power of religious and national myths to transform USA society on matters of race. He masterfully married the basic symbols and stories of Black Christianity and mainstream Christianity in America with the foundational stories of our national identity to enact meaningful civil rights legislation and, perhaps more importantly, to change people's hearts and behavior on race.
In 1967, in an article titled "Civil Religion in America," Robert Bellah created the sociological idea of a civil religion to describe a peculiarly American faith or worldview that most U.S. citizens share regardless of whether they are religious or nonreligious and regardless of their professed religion. For me the value of this idea of a "Civil Religion" is its usefulness for understanding the complex interaction of the myths and symbols of a religion with those of the host society in which the religion functions.
In another column I shall discuss Civil Religion in the United States as it appears to me today.
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.