Americanism: The Genesis of a Civil Theology (Part III)

HomeArticlesAmericanism: The Genesis of a Civil Theology (Part III)

The Social Function of the World of National Symbols

Even before 1860, the infinite variety of civic associations of every sort and with different public and private goals included veterans’ societies from the wars of 1776, 1812, and 1846, as well as such patriotic groups as the New England societies of transplanted New Englanders, the xenophobic organizations of the Know-Nothing movement, and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which had for its purpose the care and preservation of Mount Vernon.183 But it was not until after the Civil War that the fear of danger to social order became so widespread that it led to socially relevant defensive measures. Paul C. Nagel has described the “psychic crisis” of 1876 to 1898 in detail.184

Once again, however, Americans could describe the experience of disorder only in the jeremiad; they chose to oppose it by insisting on the beginnings. “Americans began incessant calls for ‘a revival of patriotism.'”185 The language is revealing: the revival, the “restoration” of the authentic self through the existential act of turning to the order of the founders became the demand for restoration of symbolic order and behavior. Although it was of necessity verbally linked to the ethos of the virtuous citizen’s fathers, the person-centered core of this design for living was no longer understood. The supplicating patriotism of a Woodrow Wilson or Carl Schurz,186 in that it expressed hope for a renewal of the political wisdom and morality of the Fathers, was traditional by comparison with the “noble vision of race patriotism” that reinterpreted the past more or less openly in terms of instinct psychology.

The existential truth of the founders was reduced to the successful actualization of a specifically Anglo-Saxon instinct in history. Logically, then, in this case monumental history presented itself as a natural process of man’s evolutionary ascent to the Anglo-Saxon race. The meaning of the American order could be scientifically assured. The expansive dynamic of American society implies the unfolding of the truth of its order in history; fear, doubt, and unrest are resolved in the apocalyptic process. “It is God’s great purpose made manifest in the instincts of our race, whose present phase is our personal profit, but whose far-off end is the redemption of the world and the christianization of mankind.”

For Albert J. Beveridge, the nucleus of the “imperial policy” was thus delineated. “His acceptance of Saxon instinct as fundamental to an inevitable national development made other spokesmen cautious by comparison.Greed and demagoguery would be dangerous, according to Beveridge, only until America’s character emerged. This was a biological event, for ‘we must obey our blood.'”187 The “revival of patriotism” that was called for inevitably had to limit itself to organization and indoctrination in order to be effectively socially relevant. The kind of patriotism that emerged was dogmatically rigid, institutionalized, socially isolated. It carried considerable political weight as an answer to the modern age’s challenge to the viability and spiritual quality of the American design for existence.

It makes sense that this fear tormented the New Englanders most especially. James Phinney Baxter, president of the New England Historical-Genealogical Society, traditionally identified the “New England Idea” with the “American Idea” and complained that “the New England type of civilisation give way here in Massachusetts to that of the Old World races who have been reared in subjection, ignorance and poverty.” But Baxter could counter only with the methods of the cult of the hero: he left $50,000 to the city of Boston with the charge of erecting a “New England Pantheon or Temple of Honour” to celebrate those men “who laid in New England the foundation of popular government.”188

But Boston, in 1921 already strongly under the influence of the Irish Catholics, refused the gift. Millions of immigrants, without a knowledge of the English language, from different cultural milieus, unfamiliar with the rules and possibilities of American politics, vegetated in the slums of the large American cities. Let us recall James Wilson: the free citizen, existentially shaped from the knowledge of justice and freedom, is the precondition of a functioning republican government. These qualities, established society feared, were increasingly lacking in the Republic’s new citizens, and the original fear that the American experiment might fail was given new nourishment. Only if these huddled masses could be brought successfully in contact with the founding substance could the experiment be saved.

But first the knowledge of the founding itself had to be salvaged. For this purpose a highly unusual type of civic association was created: the patriotic society with hereditary membership on the basis of genealogy. Its objective was “to associate men of a similar ancestry, to teach revered regard for the founders and the patriots, to preserve historical records and monuments, to commemorate appropriate historic events, and to serve other historical and patriotic purposes.”189

Briefly, the most important of these “hereditary societies” are: Sons of the Revolution (1876), Sons of the American Revolution (1889), Daughters of the American Revolution (1890), Colonial Dames of America (1890), Daughters of the Revolution (1891), Daughters of the Cincinnati (1894), Colonial Order of the Acorn (1894), Children of the Revolution (1895), Colonial Daughters of the XVlIth Century (1896), Order of the Descendants of Colonial Governors Prior to 1750 (1896), Order of the Founders and Patriots of America (1896), Society of the American Wars of the United States (1897), Society of Mayflower Descendants (1897), Daughters of the Founders and Patriots of America (1898).

The flood tide of these new organizations ended in 1933 with the Descendants of the Colonial Clergy.190 Sociologically, these groups are the nub of a ruling minority; significantly, they establish American women as a social and political force exclusively on the criterion of sharing in the founding substance. “Unless there is an eternal readiness to respond with the same faith,the same courage, and the same devotion in the defense of our institutions which where exhibited in their establishment we shall be dispossessed, and others of sterner fiber will seize on our inheritance,” declared Calvin Coolidge as honorary president of the United States Flag Association, which, after the First World War, attempted to coordinate all patriotic societies and to mitigate the impact of the Continental European revolution on America.191  To the extent that the new immigrants differed from the ruling white Protestant leadership of Anglo-Saxon origins on religious, ethnic, and cultural levels, as well as from the African-American minority and the Indians, who in fact had not been assigned a place in the American universe, they could be integrated into it only by absorbing the American experience through the medium of the founding symbolism.

Only this process of a mental Americanization made possible the social and political integration that is tantamount to the end of collective proletarian existence in the urban or rural slum. The immigrant accepted this criterion and tried to meet it. He felt deeply injured by the claim “that he had no part in the founding of the country.” He suspected that this claim compromised his very dignity as a citizen, implying a lack of respect for his humanity. “He has accepted the tradition in all its essentials, and he has accepted it by making it his own. In so doing, he has not quarreled with the rules of the game as established by those who played it before him. He agrees that this country owes its greatness to the ideals of those who first established it, and he agrees that it was established some time before 1789.” He chose the alternative designated for him by the intellectual structure:  “He argues only that his own people were here before that date and that they played the part they should have played.”192 The expansion of the monumental history is carried out in two steps: in the sequence of their emancipation, Irish, Germans, French (Huguenots), Italians, Poles, Asian-Americans, and African-Americans organized themselves into historio-patriotic societies to affirm and document their presence at the beginnings (not without frequently floundering in the maelstrom of mythic romance). Once a sufficient historiographie corpus had come about to legitimate Irishmen, Germans, or Blacks as participants—though at times quite marginal ones—in the historic moments of the nation, then society would accept them, albeit grudgingly, and assign them niches in the national pantheon, that is, in the schoolbooks and devotional literature, in the patriotic cults, and in ritual.

Our analysis of the emergence and function of the symbolic apparatus of the self-interpretation of American society from the nexus of founding and order will, in conclusion, be supplemented and, especially as concerns the function on all levels of social life, be confirmed by the results of empirical social research in the first half of the twentieth century. In his work The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans (1959), Lloyd Warner studied the meanings and social functions of the political and historical symbolic system of contemporary America, including in his research all social classes. The focus of Warner’s study rests on a community he called Yankee City. It is easy to recognize that this is Newburyport, Massachusetts. To that extent the result has only a limited indicative value, but significantly Warner explains, “The nature of symbolic life in this country is such that, despite of important variations, the basic meanings of our secular and religious symbols are much the same in all regions . . . much of what is learned holds for the rest of the nation.”193

The inventory of the whole apparatus of symbols in connection with its ritual submergence in social processes and complex behavior patterns resulted, according to Warner, in two types of symbolic systems. “Segmentary systems provide the symbolic means to express the sentiments of members within the limited solidarity of autonomous structures” (that is, churches, societies, ethnic groups—also called subcultures). “Integrative systems allow common sentiments present in every one to be expressed, giving participants the necessary symbols to express the unity felt by all members of the community.”194 Warner also called them “private symbols” and “public symbols.” “Complex societies must have a common core of basic understanding and used by every one or their complex and diverse symbolic superstructures will not stand. They need general symbol systems that everyone not only knows but feels.”195

What is important for our line of argument is that form, content, and function of the public symbols are perceived exclusively in the shape of the ritual incorporation of the past—in the event of the tricentennial celebration of the city, and especially in the parade organized on this occasion, and in the yearly celebration of Memorial Day, as well as in “the heroic Myths . . . of Lincoln and Washington.”196 The public symbols of the tricentennial “contribute to the integration of all the citizenry for enterprises common and important to the total community.”197  The parade was the symbolic presentation of the res gestae and personae dramatis of American history under the horizon of Newburyport local history. But it is almost entirely the history of the founding that was presented; the hundred years since 1830 seemed merely a kind of epilogue. It must, of course, be borne in mind that by then the town had lost its former political and economic stature. It remains to be noted that in the social reality of the twentieth century the public symbols must materially and structurally be assigned to monumental history. But their actual effectiveness in the form of specific processes of consciousness also confirms our presentation to this point, as Warner’s description of the participants’ mental states shows.

For that moment [of marching past] the lives of those who viewed the spectacle were suspended and timeless. In them the meanings of the Eternal City of St. Augustine were present. Coming from the past, time moved by them . . . The meanings of objective time were nonrationally contradicted . . . to those in the stationary reviewing stand their own time stood still. All the scenes were part of one timeless thing. In this symbolic unity the simultaneity of 1630 and 1930 was nonrationally stressed. The great past of the ancestors was evoked and symbolically lived in the present … In their diversity [of the images presented] there was logical empirical time; within the nonrational meanings of their unity was the static, fixed quality of being. The timeless sense of species existence, felt as eternity, was present.198

Warner exposed the experiential basis to which the symbols owe their existential social function. He described a religious experience—the encounter of man with his ground—by way of a mystic union with the beginnings. The integrating effect of the aggregates of symbols, it seems to me, results from the collectively experienced tension with the shared origins. The ceremonies of Memorial Day are, according to Warner, “rituals comprising a sacred symbol system which functions periodically to integrate the whole community with its conflicting symbols and its opposing, autonomous churches and associations.” The cult of the dead allows a “sacred unity” to be experienced. Its “principal themes are those of the sacrifice of the soldier dead for the living and the obligation of the living to sacrifice their individual purposes for the good of the group so that they, too, can perform their spiritual obligations.”199

The bonum, however, is the realization of the “Fathers’ heritage,” Washington and Lincoln’s; from it stems the obligation. Warner’s concluding description shows once again that the ritual practice of Memorial Day in turn represents a collective meditation toward the ground of being sub specie mortis in the medium of the symbolism of society’s self-interpretation: “The Memorial Day rite . . . dramatically expresses the sentiments of unity of all the living among themselves, of all the living with all the dead, and of all the living and dead as a group with God. God, as worshiped by Catholic, Protestant, and Jew, loses sectarian definition, limitations, and foreignness as between different customs and becomes the common object of worship for the whole group and the protector of everyone”200—for, as a highly judicial formula words it, “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”201

This state of affairs was also worked out by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in his opinion in Minersville v. Gobitis, in which symbols of theory coincide with those of the American self-interpretation. The decision empowers state legislatures to force schoolchildren by law to participate in the ritual of saluting the flag. “National unity is the basis of national security.”202 But what is decisive is not the unity of public order, of the state and social apparatus; rather, “the ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment. Such sentiment is fostered by all those agencies of the mind and spirit which may serve to gather up the traditions of a people, transmit them from generation to generation of a people, and thereby create that continuity of a treasured common life which constitutes a civilisation.”203  The “national cohesion” flows from the “common life,” the xynon. From this premise it follows, just as the necessity of measures followed in James Wilson’s 1790 argument, “to evoke that unifying sentiment without which there can ultimately be no liberties, civil or religious.”204 For “only a persistent translation of the faith of a free society into the convictions and habits and actions of a community is the ultimate reliance against unabated temptations to fetter the human spirit.”205

 But after this precise definition of the problem of translating the intellectual substance of order into behavior, Frankfurter once again referred to the only method America knew to accomplish this end—the experience underlying the American design for existence can be revitalized only through national symbolism: “We live by symbols.” The medium in which the experience of order becomes visible is considered its source. Thus Frankfurter granted the local authorities the right to use the salute to the flag in order to establish compulsory “training of children in patriotic impulses” and a “subtle process of securing effective loyalty to the traditional ideals of democracy.”206 “The flag is the symbol of our national unity, transcending all internal differences … it signifies government resting on consent of the governed; liberty regulated by law; the protection of the weak against the strong; security against the exercise of arbitrary power; and absolute safety for free institutions against foreign aggression”207—in other words, the sum of the doctrines, institutions, and behaviors that were given in the origins and that found their realization in the specific American context.

But neither Frankfurter nor those who dissented from his opinion reflected on whether a “universal gesture of respect for the symbol of our national life” alone could in the long run guarantee education for the “common life.” There is no indication of an alternative, or at least supplementary, method of meditation to reactivate the symbols of motivating experience. The horizon of experience is limited to the traditional meanings and contexts. Both Justice Harlan Stone’s dissenting opinion in the Minersville case and the majority decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which overturned Frankfurter’s ruling, subscribe to Frankfurter’s theoretical premise, objecting merely to the compulsory performance of a patriotic rite in a public school: first, on constitutional grounds, since it goes counter to the First Amendment and Section 2. of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the religious freedom of the plaintiffs (who were Jehovah’s Witnesses); and second, from common-sense considerations: patriotism as a binding routine, an encroachment on intellectual freedom, presents a danger to national unity and cohesion.208

Tocqueville’s America

The American self-interpretation fused the cult of the hero and monumental history, Christian spirituality, philosophical and political doctrines of the Enlightenment with very concrete behavior patterns, institutional arrangements and social practices into a whole encompassing all of man’s existence in society and history. In spite of all its vagueness, blurredness, and amorphousness, it always appeared with the claim of truth. The symbolism of this “patriotic faith” or “social myth” encompasses the dominant field of consciousness of organized society.

Tocqueville treated this situation at length. No society, he noted, exists:

“without such common belief . . . for without ideas held in common there is no common action, and, without common action there may still be men, but there is no social body. In order that society should exist and, a fortiori, that a society should prosper, it is necessary that the minds of all the citizens should be rallied and held together by certain predominant ideas.”209

For, he went on, there is hardly any human activity “that does not originate in some very general idea men have conceived of the Deity, of his relation to mankind, of the nature of their own souls, and of their duties to their fellow creatures.”210 In the American case this meant that “almost all the inhabitants of the United States use their minds in the same manner, and direct them according to the same rules; that is to say, without ever having taken the trouble to define the rules, they have a philosophical method common to the whole people.”211

But this eighteenth-century philosophical method rests on a strong basis. One must not forget, Toqueville pointed out, “that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society. In the United States, religion is therefore mingled with all the habits of the nation and all the feelings of patriotism, whence it derives a peculiar force.”212 The twentieth-century observer is presented with a picture that has not changed:

“America . . . has the most explicitly expressed system of general ideals in reference to human interrelationships. . . . The American Creed is not merely—as in some other countries—the implicit background of the nation’s political and judicial order as it functions . . . . It is the cement in the structure of this great and disparate nation.”213

Sidney E. Mead takes the title of his essay on American self-interpretation from Chesterton’s characterization of the United States as “a nation with the soul of a church.” By analogy, it is a spiritual core, without which the American nation cannot understand itself as such. A definitive element of this spiritual core “is the conception of a universal principle which is thought to transcend and include all the national and religious particularities brought to it [the nation] by the people who come from all the world to be ‘Americanized.'”214

But Mead ignores the question of spiritual experience by considering the spiritual core synonymous with the “religion of the republic,” which confines him to the level of symbolism. To determine the nature of this “American religion,” he has recourse to a “cosmopolitan, inclusive, universal theology” of the founders. Their “theology of the synergistic and theonomous religion” beyond the specific Christian denominations constitutes for him almost the “invisible church” of the national corpus mysticum, incarnate in a “cosmopolitan commonwealth.”215 But the analysis of central components of self-understanding made these absolute in the concept of the “theonomous cosmopolitism” and led to the one-sided assertion that “the religion of the Republic is essentially prophetic, which is to say that its ideals and aspirations stand in constant judgment over the passing shenanigans of the people, reminding them of the standards by which their current practices and those of their nation are ever being judged and found wanting.”216

The genuine public-political dimension of any paradigm of social order has vanished under Mead’s hand. For this reason it is tempting to describe the American self-understanding by using Robert Bellah’s borrowing from Rousseau: “civil religion.” Bellah describes the situation as we have already come to recognize it: “What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things, and institutionalized in a collectivity.”217 This writer, too, noted that the civil religion is neither synonymous with Christianity in its various guises nor a replacement for Christianity. His examination of proclamations and public messages from George Washington to John F. Kennedy lists the decisive elements of the order of symbols: “The God of the civil religion is not only rather ‘unitarian,’ he is also on the austere side, much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love.”218

This civil religion is marked by “biblical archetypes”: “Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new . . . . It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all the nations.”219 But Bellah raised the crucial point that the separation of church and state “has not denied the political realm a religious dimension.” “Certain common elements of religious orientation . . . still provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere.”220 Bellah also understood completely that a social self-interpretation owes its social function to the underlying experiences: “civil religion at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in, or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people.”221

But it remains questionable whether the term religion is not burdened by a multiplicity of connotations; furthermore, it does not seem to express sufficiently the specific nature of the social field of consciousness of an organized society, as the term civil is meant to express. Similar problems arise with the use of the concept of the “public philosophy,” which Walter Lippman and John C. Murray proposed. Murray listed a triple function for the “ensemble of truths that makes up the public consensus or philosophy.” First, it determines “the broad purposes of our nation as a political unity organized for action in history.” This purpose is a moral act. Second, it sets “the standards to which judgement is to be passed on the means that the nation adopts to further its purposes.” These measures determine the area of the “policy.”

Third, the public philosophy creates “the basis of communication between government and the people and among the people themselves.” “It furnishes a common universe of discourse in which public issues can be intelligibly stated and intelligently argued.”222 But in its origin, content, and function, public philosophy is not identical with philosophy as the source of order for concrete consciousness, in which the realissimum is meditatively disclosed. Rather, the secondary phenomenon of communicating concepts of order, designs for existence, and the like, is addressed to an organized society as its carrying self-interpretation. I therefore consider the concept of civil theology, a phrase coined in antiquity for this phenomenon, more appropriate.223

Before we continue to explore the concept, we must point out the insufficiency of some current social-science ideas. This is especially true for the concept of ideology. Insofar as it is understood as an “untrue” mode of consciousness and symbolism, with the assigned function of occasional or permanent legitimation of power, social self-understanding with critical intention may, in principle, correctly or incorrectly come under “suspicion of ideology” or even lose any element of truth, like any other symbolism and its attendant forms of consciousness.224 In any case, the term does not adequately describe the social field of consciousness predominant in any society when it deals with its symbolic explication.

The structural-functional generalization of the concept, therefore, remains merely a “general system of beliefs held in common by the members of a collectivity.”225 A similar objection applies to Philip Converse’s substitution of “belief system”: “We define belief systems as a configuration of ideas and attitudes in which the elements are bound together by some form of constraint or functional interdependence.”226 C. J. Friedrich attempts to recapture the dimension of organized society by establishing a limitation: “Ideologies are sets of ideas related to the existing political and social and intended either to change it or to defend it.”227 But “action-related systems of ideas” are symbol aggregates inherent to the respective symbolic order, insofar as all social existence is permanently in flux. This attempt, however, reifies sets of symbols into objects and reduces them more or less at will to functional aggregates whose meaning must be determined arbitrarily by the observer, since the symbols lose transparency for their own structural meaning to the degree that they are divested of their character as medium of the interpretation of human existence in society and history in experienced participation in an overarching reality.

Only this substratum of motivating experience reveals the structure of symbolisms and permits an evaluation of their loss of meaning by the erosion of the psychosocial foundation. The elimination of consciousness as the center of order, from which symbol forms become understandable, compels us to assign an external order to symbol constructs as “systems.” This is most especially true for the interpretations of order and self that imbue an organized society; such interpretations always appear empirically as interpretations of the total existence of the members of the society, including the organizational structures for safeguarding physical existence—that is, of production and regeneration.

Before resuming our reflections, the “political culture approach” needs to be touched on briefly. For on the basis of its claim, this conception seems to take into account the objections raised here. After all, it is defined as the “psychological dimension of the political system” and its content determined by “attitudes, beliefs, values, and skills which are current in an entire population.”228 Lucian W. Pye—along with Gabriel Almond, Sumner C. Powell, and Sidney Verba one of the protagonists of this attempt—makes an argument that seems plausible at first glance in view of the findings at hand: “in any operating political system there is an ordered subjective realm of politics which gives meaning to the polity, discipline to institutions, and social relevance to individual acts.

The concept of political culture thus suggests that the traditions of a society, the spirit of its public institutions, the passions and the collective reasoning of its citizenry, and the style and operating codes of its leaders are not just random products of historical experience but fit together as a part of a meaningful whole and constitute an intelligible web of relations.” “In essence, thus, political culture, as Verba indicates . . . , consists of the system of empirical beliefs, expressive symbols, and values which define the situation in which political action takes place. It encompasses both the political ideals and the operating norms of a polity.”229 “A political culture . . . has deep emotional dimensions involving the passions of loyalty and community identity, the sentiments of human and geographical attachment.”230

In these statements the political culture seems unequivocally bound up with the self-understanding of society to the extent that this is essential for its organization and, as the dominant interpretation of the whole existence of man in society, communicates meaningful order explicated in the language and actions of concrete individuals. But the impression is deceptive, for Pye explains: “In sum, political culture provides structure and meaning to the political sphere in the same manner as culture in general gives coherence and integration to social life.”231 Political culture is reduced to the political dimension of social existence: “The concept makes it easier for us to separate the cultural aspect of politics from other aspects (as well as the political culture from other forms of culture) and to subject it to more detailed and systematic analysis.”232 Our analysis of the American self-understanding thus far clearly shows that such a separation is empirically impossible and methodologically absurd.

The distinction between political culture and the more general cultural system of a society is an analytical one. Political culture is an integral aspect of more general culture, the set of political beliefs an individual holds, being of course part of the totality of the beliefs he holds. Furthermore the basic belief and value patterns of a culture—those values that have no reference to specific political objects—usually play a major role in the structuring of political culture. Such basic belief dimensions as the view of man’s relation to nature, time perspective, as the view of human nature and of the proper way to orient toward one’s fellow man, as well as orientation toward activity and activism in general would clearly interdepend with specifically political attitudes. The focus on the relationship between basic belief structure and political beliefs is of great use in determining what political attitudes are important to consider in describing a political culture.

Without considering this positivistic linguistic rubble more closely, we may note that all those forms of consciousness and symbolism that are empirically essential to social self-understanding do not fall under this original conceptualization of political culture. “Though political culture is closely connected with other aspects of the cultural system the analytical separation from general culture of those values, cognitions, and expressive states with political objects is useful.”233 The question is merely: for whom?

The attempt by Almond, Verba, Powell, and others to make the concept operational reveals the implications of this dissociation of political culture from culture in general. “We can speak of a political culture just as we can speak of an economic culture or a religious culture. It is a set of orientations toward a special set of social objects and processes.”234 The existential realm of man (in society and history) is reduced to the Hobbesian relationship structure of things to each other. “The political culture of a nation is the particular distribution of patterns of orientation toward political objects among the members of the nation.”235

Elsewhere mention is made of a “pattern of individual attitudes and orientations toward politics among the members of a political system.”236  The discussion deals with a subject-object relation between the individual in his cognitive, affective, and evaluative subjectivity on one hand and in his orientation to an object projected as “political sphere,” “political system,” “political objects,” “entire scope of political activities” on the other. This realm of the political is concretized in the institutions of public domination, separate structures, and roles of public authority, as well as the “self” of the individual as political actor. In this last example the quantifiable subject-object relation of the knowing, feeling, and judging individual to himself, now presented as political activity, becomes a case of split personality.

This construction is meaningful, of course, only with the assumption that reality is system-forming and that the structure of relations has the nature of a system and through this in turn receives the appearance of order, that is, the order qua system. The premise of system formality, however, is by no means sufficient to answer the question about calling a system area “politics.” The declaration of system units as political is achieved not system-immanently but decisionally. Dirk Berg-Schlosser summed up the system-analytical, structure-functional concept of politics: “The basic unity of a political system is political action, whereby all those actions of a society are seen as political that concern the legitimate, authoritative decisions that affect at least potentially all members of a society. The application of this decision through public organs is marked by the monopoly of legitimate physical force.”237 Berg-Schlosser, however, does not demonstrate with sufficient clarity that this concept of politics, wherever and however it is formulated by the adherents of the various structure-functional and system-analytic schools, always represents no more than a paraphrase of Max Weber.

Any attempt at an analysis of “the political” ends with a reformulation of Weber’s concept of politics in the guise of power, domination, and state as essential forms.238  I am concerned here not merely with the paradoxical situation governing the theoretical definition of political reality, but also with the fact that a system-analytical or structure-functional paradigm of political science was never capable of attempting such a theoretical definition. The same is true for Berg-Schlosser’s expansion of the “purely system-related concept of the ‘political,'” which he considered too narrow. “All those attitudes and values found in a society are . . . therefore to be understood as political which, directly or indirectly, play a part in the process of authoritative, public decisions.”239

To comprehend the heuristic value of political culture, we must examine the concept in the context of Weber’s definition of “politics.” What is meant is the measurable pattern of “political orientations” (also, by the way, a term in Weber’s concept of social action)—that is, “attitudes” and “values” held by individual members of society insofar as they relate to the area of government (to use Weber’s phrasing) altogether and its organizational subsections (institutions, persons, and decisions) as well as to the perception of the role of the individual as active and passive participant in political life, in Weber’s words, or, to use Almond’s terminology, “the self as political actor.”240

 The distinction, taken over by Edward Shils and Talcott Parsons, of an intellectual, emotional, and judgmental component of such orientations takes its beginnings from the model of a reductionist psychology without personal center and proves useless in the empirical experience of the actual case. “In his actual typology Almond drops this differentiation silently.”241 Finally, the concept of political culture includes that sector of the dominant plausibility structures that is limited by the institutional sphere of public order both representatively and explicitly as regards the tools and methods of empirical social science. In this framework the study of political culture furnishes valuable material for the analysis of social self-understanding. Besides this obvious methodological limitation of an empirically existent social self-understanding, its main component—that is, the interpretation of man’s whole existence, which is explicitly assigned the nature of a basic condition—remains outside the grasp of studies in political culture.

Furthermore, the concept suffers under the positivistic syndrome of the reification of psyche, consciousness, and symbol. The psychic dimension of “consciousness” is refused its essential function as the center of order, and the total sphere of the motivating experiences, especially those of nonobjective reality, must by definition be omitted from the analysis. With reference to new nationhood and the question of national identity, Berg-Schlosser also noted, “In the last resort it is only a certain ‘intellectual’ unity which concerns the solidarity of certain intellectual, emotional, and judgmental attitudes toward a shared object, the nation, which can be taken as the ultimate criterion for the definition of being a nation.”242 But correct as this insight is, no theoretical conclusions are developed from it; the discussion is limited to measuring the variables of “feeling of belonging together”; the essential connection of substantial solidarity through essential experiences of order is not examined.

A similar problem arises in a subsequent contribution by Pye:

“The concept of political culture does imply that there is an underlying and latent coherence in political life. Among political scientists there has been a long-standing acceptance of the idea of such a basic and implicit force in human societies . . . At the same time political scientists tend to treat such underlying forces as being somewhat vague and only a determining factor at the extremes of behavior—it is accepted that within the limits of the constitutional consensus, that is of the political culture, there can be a fair variety of behavior that is still ‘consistent,’ and hence culturally acceptable.”

These sentences, Pye’s contribution to the unsolved problems of the concept of political culture, confirm the paradoxical nature of the attempt, for the “underlying forces” of intellectual solidarity would have to be the onset of a revised and broadened concept of political culture if this is to encompass all the dimensions of societal self-understanding and not merely the “constitutional consensus,” that is, explicit opinions on “politics” in Weber’s spirit.243 This argument suggests that the analysis penetrates to the civil-religious or civil-theological core of any political culture.           

On the Concept of Civil Theology

My presentation of the material so far should have made it clear that from the first I placed the weight of the study on presenting the constituents of the “underlying and latent coherence in political life” of American society. An explication of the theoretical background of the foregoing inquiry is necessary only to the extent that the choice of the term “civil theology” needs further justification and that the theoretical implications of the concept must be briefly developed. The attempt at such an elaboration takes its bearings from the analyses of the social world carried out by Alfred Schütz and his students as well as the works of Eric Voegelin, who undertook the integration of these analyses into a theory of political reality under the contemporary horizon of the scientific experience of man and beyond dogmatic reifications.

In continuing the work of Max Weber, Edmund Husserl, and Max Scheler, Schütz showed that before there is any social science, the social world has a meaningful structure for those who live in it. “Now this same social world which we immediately experience as meaningful is also meaningful from the standpoint of the social scientist.”244 The methodical study of the “meaningful structures within the social world,” the discovery of its basic elements, as well as the boundaries of the individual and separate layers subsequently engaged Schütz and his followers and resulted in important contributions to the analysis of social self-understanding. The volume The Problem of Social Reality in Schütz’s Collected Papers, as well as the works by Thomas Luckmann and Peter Berger, furnishes a number of insights germane to our purpose precisely because the perplexities that emerge compel further theoretical penetration of the problem.

If the research on “political culture” leaves the constituent elements of a significant construction of the social sphere methodologically uninferable and therefore mere speculation along social-science common-sense lines, for Schütz and his followers the phenomenon of meaningful construction forms the beginning of their analysis of social order as well as of its underlying pattern of consciousness and symbolism. The phenomenology of social reality, following Husserl, starts from the social reality par excellence, the reality of everyday life:

“Everyday life presents itself as reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world . . . I apprehend the reality of everyday life as an ordered reality. Its phenomena are prearranged in patterns that be independent of my apprehension of them upon the latter . . . The reality of everyday life is organized around the ‘here’ of my body and the ‘now’ of my present. This ‘here’ and ‘now’ is the focus of my attention to the reality of everyday life. What is the ‘here’ and ‘now’ presented to me in everyday life is the realissimum of my consciousness.”

The everyday world I share with others is a commonsense world; its “fabrics of meaning,” without which society cannot exist, are commonsense knowledge that structures the social reality of everyday life according to self evident criteria of the relevance of social action for the individual members of society.

Individual participation in the commonsense world of everyday life is shaped according to the shared participation in the available social stock of knowledge, which may assume quite different forms for the individual members of society, from marginal participation to extensive power of disposing over the pool. Commonsense knowledge is largely pragmatic knowledge of order.245 In this knowledge, past experiences are deposited like sediments, furnishing patterns of interpretation for individual experience, primarily those of the everyday world. This always occurs in the medium of language; through it they become my biographical experiences “ongoing subsumed under general orders of meaning, that are both objectively and subjectively real.”246

Occasionally Schütz applies Scheler’s term relative natural Weltanschauung to this knowledge; the “natural attitude” of commonsense practices underlies this term. It implies symbolization, of necessity—that is, because it is a subjectively meaningful interpretation of a shared social world that transcends the immediate experience of a concrete person here and now (in his fellow men, for example). For Schütz, symbolization constitutes among other things the complex of organized society247 insofar as its members experience the commonsense world as specific transcendence, that is, as society. This symbolic form is a construct of commonsense, and at the same time it explains a reality beyond the commonsense world, though the symbols in turn refer to it in that they motivate our reactions in it.24S Schütz calls this the “symbolic appresentation of society.”

This analysis exhibits a certain contradictoriness, which is probably grounded in its Phenomenological roots and which will be briefly explicated in what follows. The commonsense world of everyday life is a finite province of meaning (in James’s sense) in which is inherent an “immanent transcendence” (fellow man); this does not require symbolization but can make do with appresentation of a lesser order (marks, indications, signs).The meaningfulness of this world, the thing that constitutes its reality, is grounded in the highest possible level of conscious life, the “wide awakeness” of the “working self.” It is fully turned toward life: “It lives within its acts and its attention is of the working self traces out that the segment of the world which is pragmatically relevant, and these relevances determine the form and content of our stream and thought.” “Working acts”of the ego agens constitute a meaningful context of communication, that is, the commonsense practice of everyday life.249

Berger and Luckmann interpret the privileged position of the everyday world:

“The tension of consciousness is highest in everyday life, that is, the latter imposes itself in the most massive, urgent and intensive matter . . . it forces me to be attentive to it the fullest way. I experience everyday life in the state of being wide awake. This wide awake state of existing in and apprehending the reality of everyday life is taken by me to be normal and self evident, that is, it constitutes my natural attitude.”250

Schütz now saw only too clearly that though empirically commonsense practice as a shared reality of the “working selves” actually is “paramount reality” in the immediate “face-to-face” experience, it merely describes a plurality of biographically determined social situations, the sum of which by no means makes up the social world: “the We-relation, although originating in the mutual biographical involvement, transcends the existence of either of the consociates in the realm of everyday life. It belongs to a finite province of meaning other than that of the reality of everyday life and can be grasped only by symbolization.”251 “Society,” that is, a shared social world overarching the everyday worlds, is a permanent experience of transcendence of a specific kind, a province of meaning whose characteristic symbol forms are needed to confer reality on the order of organized society.

As noted above, Schütz named this situation “symbolic appresentation of society” and described it as a special case of the constitution of such provinces of meaning, which take their meaning from experiences of transcendence, that is, from beyond the everyday world. This remains as the archetype of experience of reality, since Schütz is unwilling to grant all other provinces of meaning (“dream,” “religion,” “science,” “politics”) anything more than modifications.252  Such provinces of meaning come into being through an experience shock that compels us to break through the boundaries of the provinces of meaning of the everyday world to constitute a province of meaning of transcendence experience, whose realities are explicated through symbolization in the commonsense world. Schütz describes this process as a “leap” in consciousness, modifying the attention à la vie and in its content suspending in whole or in part belief in the evidence of the reality of the everyday world.252

This construction presupposes a phenomenological concept of reality that grants to all concrete experience of transcendence only the nature of subjective meaning and is willing to acknowledge a realissimum only in the “here” and “now” of the immediate experience of social action. The reality content of the transcendence experience laid out meaningfully in symbols is disputed (it is a “quasi reality”), though the analysis itself by no means justifies such a decision. This holds true in particular for the symbolic appresentation of society, since the “symbolic universe” society, even according to Schütz, is an integral and essential element of that social world. If Schütz’s analysis were strictly followed, consciousness would constantly be found in the leap within the province of meaning called politics, so that society would be beyond the “paramount reality” of the everyday world. From this it would follow that in principle the “wideawakeness” of the “working self” cannot be the paradigm of a form of consciousness that confers community and meaning; on the contrary, a “wideawake self” is articulated only in the symbolic explication of transcendence experience, at least in that of society.

The assumption becomes compelling that the “working self” need not absolutely be that form of conscious life that constitutes the significance of the commonsense world. This idea leads to the thought that everyday life can be described phenomenologically as the “paramount reality” simply because it is so in a psychosocial sense for the members of society, but that they find the meaning of their social existence as well in the everyday world in the transcending experiences of reality, and that it is only this circumstance that allows men to consciously order the various spheres of their social existence. The everyday world of common sense would thus become a dimension of social existence whose respective sense and relevance structures are determined by overarching interpretations of reality. Schütz tacitly acknowledges the aporias concerning the symbolic appresentation of society only to the extent that he took over for this realm Voegelin’s analysis of specific appresentation of social and political organizations.254 The consequence, the concept of the self-interpretation of political society, will engage our attention below.

On several crucial points Berger and Luckmann also appear able to resolve the aporia in the concept of the symbolic appresentation of society by reconstructing a process they call “social construction of reality.” Here, then, the paramount reality of the world of daily life is seen from the aspect of total society from the first. Schütz’s distinction between the everyday world and society no longer consists of membership in different provinces of meaning. Although symbolization continues to be a reflection of transcendence on the experience of the everyday world, symbolism has become an integral structural element of this dimension:

“Language is capable not only of constructing symbols that are highly abstracted from everyday experience, but also of ‘bringing back’ these symbols and appresenting them as objectively real elements in everyday life. In this manner, symbolism and symbolic language become essential constituents of the reality of everyday life and of the commonsense apprehension of this reality. I live in a world of signs and symbols every day.”255

Symbolization coordinates the experience of a world of multiple realities. Consciousness continues to move by shifting its attention—the shock or leap—in the provinces of meaning beyond the everyday world, but here these are described more precisely as enclaves within the paramount reality of everyday life: “Enclaves . . . marked by circumscribed meanings and mode of experience. The paramount reality envelops them on all sides, as it were, and consciousness always returns to the paramount reality as from an excursion.”256

The phenomenon of multiple realities within and beyond the everyday world leads secondarily to a strictly societal definition of reality: “a stable symbolic canopy for the entire society.”257 “Symbolic universes . . . integrate different provinces of meaning and encompass the institutional order in a symbolic totality.”258 The symbolic universe is comprehended as “the matrix of all socially objectivated and subjectively real meanings.”259 “Experiences belonging to different spheres of reality are integrated by incorporation in the same, overarching universe of meaning.”260 The problem of the provinces of meaning is solved for the purpose by noting that a symbolic universe guarantees for society a common structure of plausibility, though it is assumed that its reality is constructed exclusively on the social level that is, that the symbolic explication of experiences does not make any statement about its content as such. The symbolic structure has merely a functionally ordering character, not a substantial one; it is secondary in that concrete consciousness and its experience of order do not stand at its point of origin but rather a new version of the “working self.” The symbolic universe is a subsequent interpretation of institutional complexes, but according to Berger and Luckmann, it is not related to the process of institutionalization, of “founding,” in its inception; it is not present ab initio.261

Since symbolization can arise, not from an authentic experience of reality, but only as the final step in the legitimation process of institutional order, and since, conversely, Berger and Luckmann must assume meaningfulness inherent in the founding of institutional order, the cause of the meaning of any social beginning by the ego agens must be sought elsewhere. Berger and Luckmann find it in a conception of institutionalization that is a variation of Schütz’s formulation of the ego agens. Both unconditionally claim the meaningful nature of individual social action. But Berger and Luckmann see it as constituting not only the everyday world but also institutional order, that is, the social world of society. The habituation of individual social action, according to Berger and Luckmann, automatically produces something like shared meaning, which furnishes the basis for institutionalization processes. But such institutionalization of social interaction presumes a common pattern of consciousness and symbolism. Empirically, the meaning of action is the self-interpretation of the actor, and institutionalization requires collectivity in self-interpretation, including the motivating experiences, so that action in the sense described can be institutionalized. The symbol ordering of a society, then, is also necessary from the outset as consciousness, and the founder as symbolic for present rather than secondary legitimization of institutional order against the onslaught of the chaos of multiple realities.

This critique returns us to the theory of the founding in which the aporia of a Phenomenological theory of institutionalization is proved.This is also evident as regards the discussion of overlapping designs for existence within a symbolic universe, with the extreme case being a conflict in which divergent interpretations take the field in the battle for social representation. Although Berger and Luckmann limit their inquiry to the modern case of a revolutionary ideologue who forces his deviant conception—his symbolic subuniverse—on society as a symbolic universe,262and though in analyzing historical transformation of symbolic universes they fall back on a vague historical-speculative sequence of phases of consciousness,263  their analysis of the social construction of reality is headed toward the question of the motivating experiences required to constitute social reality as meaningful order qua symbolic universe.

The phenomenology of social reality decodes the structure relations of the meaningful composition of the social world as a psychosocial symbolic universe grounded in consciousness, which unites the physical existence of concrete individuals in a shared objective reality experienced as ordered and meaningful beyond the realm of immediate provision (the realm of necessity) to such an extent that the form of order of political society acquires historical existence. To put it in Schütz’s terms, the pattern of the transcendence experience, which is essential to the province of meaning or world of politics, is synonymous with the symbolic appresentation of society.

The analysis leaves open the content and structure of the motivating experiences, since reality is defined only by meaningful experience but is not described as structured as far as its content is concerned. Since the problem cannot be ignored, Schütz immediately introduces the basic experience of death—he calls it the “fundamental anxiety.” From it grow” the many interrelated systems of hopes and fears, of wants and satisfactions, of chances and risks which incite man within the natural attitude to attempt the mastery of the world, to overcome obstacles, to draft projects, and to realize them.”264  The concentration on the everyday world gains its meaning not last from the suspension of doubt in its reality, that is, the fundamental fear of death.

Berger and Luckmann also see death as the individual’s “marginal situation par excellence,” the most serious threat to the self-evident reality of the everyday world; but they extend Schütz’s analysis by viewing the central nomic function of death to be its integration within an overarching symbolic universe. In the context of death, they identify fear as the motivating experience of the social ordering of symbols. “The symbolic universe shelters the individual from ultimate terror by bestowing ultimate legitimation upon the protective structures of institutional order.”265  Berger generalizes this thesis: “The socially established nomos may thus be understood, perhaps in its most important aspect, as a shield against terror. Put differently, the most important function of society is nomization. The anthropological pre-supposition for this is a human craving for meaning that appears to have the force of instinct.”266

Even Phenomenological analysis cannot evade the question of the content of the motivating experiences of symbolic forms of order, but it does not analyze experiential processes that bring forth symbols of order; rather, it selects the experience of the fear of death as the summum malum. In this attempt, however, the correct observation that the majority suppresses the fear of death by absorbing it in the immanent ordering of symbols is confused with the paradigmatic experiences that interpret reality beyond the spatial-temporal constellation of life and death in the dimension of mortality and immortality. It seems to me correct, however, even on this plane of Phenomenological analysis, to observe that for the symbolic universe, in which society interprets itself, a basic structure is given by the question of man’s origins and ends, for which equivalents of content and function exist in all societies.

Even the more advanced Phenomenological analysis of “symbolic appresentation of society” given by Berger and Luckmann does not yet permit adequate theorization of the previously analyzed modes of American self-understanding to the extent that all the empirically available lines, patterns, and structures of meaning, as well as their interrelations, could be represented in such a way that the proposed theoretical concept of civil theology can be used with sufficient justification. Schütz combined his Phenomenological investigation of the symbolic appresentation of society with Voegelin’s analysis of societal self-interpretation—though he did not adopt Voegelin’s principle of theorization (as is also true for Berger and Luckmann) from which Voegelin developed a structural model for the interpretation of order in human affairs.267

What follows is intended to show his heuristic relevance to further theoretical clarification of the phenomenon of “self-understanding,” with a result that is intended to supplement the outcome of our theorizing about the problems of founding. The experience of the specific symbolic appresentation of social and political organization (Schütz)—that is, the establishment of a “stable symbolic canopy for the entire society”(Berger and Luckmann)—is analyzed by Voegelin in a first step as self-interpretation of a society:

“Human society is not merely a fact, or an event, in the external world to be studied by an observer like a natural phenomenon. Though it has externality as one of its important components, it is on the whole a little world, a cosmion illuminated from within by the human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization. It is illuminated through an elaborate symbolism, in various degrees of compactness and differentiation . . . and this symbolism illuminates it with meaning insofar as the symbols make the internal structure of such a cosmion, the relations between its members and groups of members, as well as its existence as a whole, transparent for the mystery of human existence. The self-illumination of society through symbols is an integral part of social reality, and one may even say its essential part, for through such symbolization the members of a society experience it as more than an accident ora convenience; they experience it as of their human essence. And, inversely, the symbols express the experience that man is fully man by virtue of his participation in a whole which transcends his particular existence.”268

Voegelin proceeds from the results of Phenomenological analysis but eschews the questionable privileging of the everyday world. It is surely understood more adequately as a dimension of overall social structures of meaning, which are required to constitute collectivity. Those symbols by which a society interprets the meaning of its existence claim to be true. In the medium of its symbolism each society claims to be the representative of a truth. From this circumstance Voegelin concluded that, empirically, the existential representation of a society in history, its articulation as a discernible authority capable of acting, always has a context by which “society itself represents something that goes beyond itself, a transcendent reality.”

The American case is absolutely typical for this constellation. Only the dimension of the representation of truth confers on the actions of the existential representatives of a society a legitimating meaning and integrates the individual members in the plausibility structure of the society in such a way that domination in the sense of Weber’s definition becomes possible.269 Thus:

“for every society . . . the self-understanding of its order[is] constitutive; and therefore every known society in history brings forth to us symbols . . . , through which it expresses its experience of order.”270 Methodologically, it follows that “every study of order must concentrate on the acts of self-understanding and then pursue from this center the ramifications into the order of the collective existence.”271

For this purpose Voegelin uses the concept of the social field to describe adequately, that is, as distinct subjects, the individual levels and structures of social reality. Voegelin speaks of social fields, whose dimension and relative stability in time allow them to be identified as discernible power units capable of acting in history, as organized, that is, political, society. It is dominated by the respective interpretation of order, the symbolic universe in the language of phenomenology. The basic prerequisite is the physical dimension of human existence: the basic pragmatic structure of power and economic conditions of existence in the form of organized rulership; that is, the experience of order always includes the experience of the concrete and material foundation of human existence as partially constitutive in that this is where the multifunctional steering system is rooted that directs the elementary life process.

Power relations and economic structures manifest man as conditioned materially and concretely but the structures are ordered from consciousness, for power relations and economic structures are shaped by the order of consciousness, exhibited in the order or symbols. In the medium of symbolization every organized society is supported by a dominant social field of consciousness insofar as it constitutes the pattern of habitual action, the ethos of the members of the society, down to the institutional ramification of social order. The compactly experienced life ambience of each organized society as a rule represents itself as the reality of society and obfuscates other experiential inventories of man and society.

Of course the evidence of the structural and relational conditions of a social order is analytic, since empirically it is experienced only under the horizon of participation in a multidimensional overarching reality. Analytically, we are dealing with a configuration in which psychic structure, symbolic structure, and behavioral and institutional structure can all be identified. This structural pattern gains process reality in the various dimensions of social existence: in spiritual processes, power and domination processes, and economic and generative processes.

Two points are important for relational conditions. The first is primarily the area of the psyche, with the illumination dimension of consciousness as the center of order, from which the described structural constellations are determined and the respective dimensions of the social processes are shaped. Second, the establishment of a social field of consciousness qua organized society necessarily sets up a determination of the particular consciousness of the majority of the members of society through the shaping solidarity in psyche, symbol, behavior, and institution. Marx linked this insight to the determination of individual existence through dominant psychosocial fields with the fact of the material foundation of existence and the consequent dependence of all social order on an economic structure and turned it into a causal relationship.

By changing words—conditioning becomes determining—consciousness loses its status as the primary center of order to a “social being.” The statement, “the mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general,” cannot lead to the conclusion that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”272 No matter how carefully the terms of the economic structure (relations of production, material forces of production, social production of life) were explained in detailed analyses, the reciprocal relations of the structural conditions remain unclear. The general concepts of “being,” “social being,” and “consciousness” continue to lack specific meaning; they are placed in a causal relation that is nowhere elaborated but feeds on the theoretical intention that all structures of order are to be interpreted in the human realm of being from the bottom most level—that is, the “material basis of every specific social organization.”273

But it must be emphasized that the analysis of social self-understanding deals only with a specific type of social field of consciousness—organized society, whose basis in the material existence of concrete persons marks it as a power unit identifiable in space and time. The term civilis in the concept of civil theology expresses this state of affairs. Such other overarching or particular social fields of consciousness or frames for the power process as civilization and global economy are not here further illuminated.

The determination of organized society as a social field of consciousness has its empirical justification in the assessment of consciousness as the sensorium of those experiences of order in which society expresses its truth symbolically. Of course the word society is a code here, for—and with this we return to our reflections on the theory of founding—we are dealing with “the process by which concrete persons create a social field, i.e., a field in which their experiences of order are understood by other concrete men who accept them as their own and make them into the motive of their habitual action.”274 The essential factor of a social field of consciousness therefore lies within the dimension of experience—not qua experience, as Schütz would have us believe, but in the interpretation of an experience of reality that by its content confers collectivity.

We are dealing with primary knowledge of the logos as the shared quality (Heraclitus was the first to call it xynon), in which all human beings as human beings participate, regardless of their actual differences. This primary experience, undifferentiated and reduced as it may be, must in some form be present at least within the framework of a social field in order to allow the particular experience of order of concrete persons and the corresponding interpretations in the meaning described to be socially relevant and socially dominant. For the content of experiences of order proves to be a justified depth dimension of the reality of knowledge of the xynon in that it interprets order on its basis. “The various modes of the experience, with their corresponding multiplicity of symbolic expressions, all revolve around the founding of right order through insight into the ground of order. The multiplicity of interpretations, even when known, can never be understood as referring to a multitude of grounds, but the interpretation is always joined to the consciousness that it expresses the experience of the one ground. . . . Behind the historical variety of interpretations, then, we find the unity of the question about the ground.”275

From the quest for the ground there emerges the experiences on which the images of reality are erected. These experiences, however, are of a nonobjective nature, “the intangibility of the reality, which is no ineffability, allows room for a variety of experiences that motivate a corresponding number of symbolic expressions of the experience. In the dynamism of the effort to find the right expression of order we find the origin of the tensions in political reality.”276 From this standpoint it also becomes clear why the order of symbols that interprets a social field of consciousness in organized society is called by Voegelin civil theology.

The term, taken by Saint Augustine from Varro’s Antiquitates,277 referred with apologetic intention to the archaic-compact self-interpretation of ancient Rome which, already with an analytic purpose, was distinguished from other types of the interpretation of order. The implications of this concept must be briefly explained with a view to its application to the sphere of social self-understanding. A part of it is, for one, the realization that the Romans were referring to a term that, unlike modern concepts, belonged from the beginning to the area of politics. Plato introduced the word theology in the Republic to apply to a specific circumstance. The subject is types of theology. But in which connection are these discussed?

The context is unmistakably political. It is a matter of educating youth in politics in general and the politics of the rulers in particular. From this point of view Plato and his students, acting as oikistes poleos, founders of a polis, discuss the question of primary socialization, which they believe to be crucial to any social order. Because, as Plato argues, it brings about the crucial personality structures, it is therefore of extreme importance for the development of the virtues of communal life as citizens.

The formation of the psyche in the primary phase of socialization is identical with the structure of reality images in the verbal communications of teachers. This comes about through “speeches,” “stories”—that is, simple symbolizations that reveal to the children the sources of the primary experience of order and develop the psyche as the site of such experience. The “speaking of gods” means nothing other than a symbolic form that, correctly or falsely, informs the psyche about “what is” (perita onta). A false picture of reality evokes existential ignorance in the souls of those who have been duped, which can be overcome only with difficulty.278 That is why Plato developed criteria for true theology—that is, the correct explication of the “divine” as the origin of the good and the “daimonion” as the center of order in the psyche.

It is against this background that the subsequent use of the concept in the Roman context must be understood: the Varronian classification of the genera theologiae is concerned with differentiating among various symbolic forms, in which consciousness interprets the experience of the ground of order. Unlike the theology of the mythic tradition of the “poets” and the theology of the Greek philosophers, theologia civilis is the theology of citizens of political societies—in this context, the symbolic explication of the sacred authority of the Roman founding, the order of its profane and sacred affairs, with which the citizen’s private and public existences are linked.

According to Varro, the specific aspect of a civil theology was logically that it grew from the founding of political society; that is, the res divinae, the statements concerning spiritual order, result from the res humanae, the political order of the Civitas.279 “The notion of a spiritual tradition and of authority in matters of thought and ideas is here derived from the political realm and therefore essentially derivative.”280 Civil theology,” as secondary dogmatization and systematization of realizations of the speculative exegesis of primary experiences of order,” is “therefore the stabilizing element through which the cultic and mental coherence of apolitical society is assured and in which at the same time the organizational form of society itself experiences its apologetics.”281  Varro’s theologia civilis—developed in the crisis of ancient Roman self-understanding—has its functional equivalent in the symbolic universes of political societies, whenever the social field of consciousness as self-interpretation of society, sustaining organized society, can be distinguished from other social fields of consciousness and their respective symbolisms in the social reality. Inevitably this also includes the case of the plurality of political societies with divergent self-interpretations, that is, competing claims to representing transcendent truth.

Beyond this point, equivalences in the medium of symbolization itself can be sufficiently recorded to show that the inevitable images of reality in the interpretation of social order as concerns their ground are reality-formed to the extent that the empirical share in the various dimensions of reality is reflected in some manner in the postulate of an interpretation of man’s entire existence. Much as this may vary as far as reality content is concerned, the various structure spheres nevertheless always recur in some form in the symbolization. Finally, civil theology, like other symbolic forms, always expresses a social field of concrete consciousness and—this must be especially stressed here—of the concrete unconscious282 in which experiential fields become manifest. The equivalence of the experiences justifies the equivalence of symbolizations.

The constant that underlies the equivalent patterns in the experiential field is man himself in search of his humanity and its order. This constant, however, is the process of experience of the structure of existence as it is arranged in the tension that exists between eternity and time, immortality and mortality, completion and incompleteness, order and disorder, abundance and want, truth and untruth, meaningfulness and meaninglessness.283  When existence becomes transparent as an “intermediate sphere,” the underlying process of “reality” is itself experienced equivalently as a shared depth dimension of men that primarily makes them partners in their own affairs, that is, turns them into zoon politikon, which in a civil theology creates the symbolic universe of their existence in a respective society, a cosmos they imbue with meaning, as the American self-understanding claims.

The self-interpretation of American society was correctly covered by the expression Americanism. It functions as the instrument of the self-understanding of a national universe; it also, however, takes the stage with a universal claim and constructs a cosmos that encompasses God, the world, man, society, and history in the American grain. The word Americanism originally referred to transatlantic neologisms but was used as early as the era of the Founding Fathers as a symbol for an American interpretation of order. In the domestic and international conflict situation of 1797, with the increasing hardening of partisan fronts, Jefferson demanded “the dictates of reason and pure Americanism” for the basis by which to arrive at political decisions.284

Similarly, John Adams spoke of Americanism: “Patriotism in this country must be tinctured with English and French devotion or be without support and almost without friends. Independent, unadulterated, impartial Americanism is like Hayley’s old maid, a decayed tree in a vast desert plain of sand.”285 In using the term, Jefferson and Adams expressed their critical view of dangerous entanglements in domestic and foreign policy. In this context Americanism means no alliance with France or England and no forming of parties on the basis of this worldwide political conflict but rather awareness of a specific American mode of existence.

Even the early concept of Americanism hints at its fragmentary nature and its universalist claim. The political and mental process of fragmentation that grew out of the disintegration of medieval Europe created isms: beginning with anarchism in the seventeenth century, it became established in the eighteenth as a description of concepts of order that absolutized fragments of experience from concrete experiential occasions and in their totality allowed the emergence and persistence until well in to the twentieth century of a pluralistic universe of two mutually antagonistic isms, each of which laid claim to the truth.

In this way Americanism is also to be understood as a general Western phenomenon.286 However, a peculiarity appears insofar as it actually does have a substratum of a sociocultural fragment. According to Hartz, Americanism is the “result of the extrication of a bourgeois fragment from the turmoil of seventeenth century Europe.”287 Unrestricted by the pressure of the social structures of the Old World and in an infinite continent with unsuspected material resources, the fragment became transformed into the totality of a nation, and bourgeois Whiggism turned from the intellectual segment of European origin into “Liberalism as the American way of life” and into the universalist interpretation of all reality.



183. Here and the following, see Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers; W. E. Davies, Patriotism on Parade (Cambridge, Mass., 1955).

184. Nagel, Sacred Trust, 247-324.

185. Ibid., 247.

186. Ibid., 281-85.

187. Ibid., 194-95.

188. Quoted in Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers, 166.

189. Quoted ibid., 161.

190. Ibid., 158 and passim; W. E. Davies, Patriotism on Parade, 44-73. This phenomenon began with veterans’ associations that provided for inherited membership. But most of the veterans’ organizations were in first-line interest groups; the cult of patriotism became their principal purpose only later. We should also remember that the 1880s through 1890s was a time when all sorts of societies sprang into being.

191. Quoted in Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers, 183.

192.. Ibid., 167.

193· W. L. Warner, The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans  (New Haven, Conn., 1959), 4.

194. Ibid., 231.

195. Ibid., 233.

196. Ibid., 234.

197. Ibid., 331.

198.  Ibid., 223.

199. Ibid., 148-49.

200. Ibid., 279.

201. E. S. Corwin, The Constitution and What It Means Today (Princeton, 1948), 193.

202. Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1939), 310 U.S. Supreme Court Reports, 595.

203. Ibid., 596.

204. Ibid., 597.

205. Frankfurter, Dissenting Opinion, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), 319 U.S. Supreme Court Reports, 671.

206. Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1939), 310 U.S. Supreme Court Reports, 598.

207. Ibid., 596

208. Majority Opinion of the Court, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), 319 U.S. Supreme Court Reports, 625-42.

 209. A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. P. Bradley (New York, 1945), II, 9.

210. Ibid., 21

211. Ibid., 3.

212. Ibid., 6.

213.G. Myrdal, An American Dilemma (New York, 1944), 3. Characteristically, Myrdal begins his study with a detailed account of the “American creed,” pp. 3-25.

214. S. E. Mead, “The Nation with the Soul of a Church,” Church History, XXXVI
(1967), 273.

115. Ibid., 270, 282

216. Ibid., 275.

217. R. N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus, XCVI (1967), 8.

218. Ibid., 7.

219. Ibid., 18.

220. Ibid., 3-4.

221. Ibid., 12.

222. J. C. Murray, We Hold These Truths (New York, 1960), 80-81. Compare also W. Lippmann, The Public Philosophy (London, 1955), 97 ff.

223. Compare W. W. Jaeger, Theologie der frühen griechischen Denker (Dannstadt, 1964), 9-17; E. Voegelin, Die Neue Wissenschaft der Politik (Munich, 1959), 125ff., and E. Voegelin, Anamnesis (Munich, 1966), 342; E. Sandoz, “The Civil Theology of Liberal Democracy: Locke and His Predecessors,” Journal of Politics, XXXIV (1972.), 2-36.

224. Compare K. Lenk, ed., Ideologie (2nd ed.; Neuweid, 1964), 17-59; J. R.
Plamenatz, Ideology (London, 1970).

225. T. Parsons, The Social System (Glencoe, III., 1951), 349; C. Geertz, “Ideology as
a Cultural System,” in Ideology and Discontent, ed. D. E. Apter (London, 1964).

226. P. E. Converse, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” in Ideology and Discontent, 207.

227. C. J. Friedrich, Man and His Government (New York, 1963), 89.

228. G. A. Almond et al, Comparative Politics (Boston, 1966), 23.

229. L. W. Pye and S. Verba, eds., Political Culture and Political Development (Princeton, 1965), 7-8.

230. Ibid., 9.

231. Ibid., 8.

232. Ibid., 515

233. Ibid., 521-23.

234. G. A. Almond and S. Verba, The Civic Culture (Boston, 1965), 12.

235. Ibid., 14.

236. Almond et al., Comparative Politics, 50.

237. D. Berg-Schlosser, “Die Erforschung ‘politischen Kultur'” (Ph.D. dissertation, Munich, 1971), 42. This study provides an extensive and critical introduction to the problems of “political culture.”

238. For example, Almond et al. claim that the special identity of a political system consists in the fact “that its relation to coercion is its distinctive quality” (Comparative Politics, 18). This is a paraphrase of M. Weber’s “state” or “political association.” D. Easton, The Political System (New York, 1939), 134, 146, states: “My point is … that the property of a social act that informs it with a political aspect is the act’s relation to the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” And, “Political Science is the study of the authoritative allocation of values as it is influenced by the distribution and use of power.” Here the emphasis has shifted away from Weber’s concept of domination. K. W. Deutsch, The Nerves of Government (Glencoe, Ill., 1966), 254, writes: “we define the core area of politics as the area of enforceable decisions, or more accurately of all decisions backed by some combination of a significant probability of enforcement.” R. Dahl, Modern Political Analysis (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1963), 6, claims: “A political system is any persistent pattern of human relationships that involves, to a significant extent, power, rule, or authority.” And R. C. Macridis and B. B. Brown, Comparative Politics (3rd ed.; Homewood, III., 1968), 1, contend that “a political system is, above all, a mechanism for the making of decisions. It is endowed with legitimacy, that is, decisions made by the various organs of Government are expected to be widely obeyed.” Deutsch, Dahl, and Macridis and Brown stick closely to Weber’s phenomenology of power, state, and domination. Compare the relevant passages in M. Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Cologne, 1964), I, 38-39; II, 695-96, 1042-43.

239. Berg-Schlosser, “Erforschung ‘politischen Kultur,'” 95.

240. Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, II, 1100; Almond and Verba, Civic Cul-

241. Berg-Schlosser, “Erforschung ‘politischen Kultur,'” 54.

242. Ibid., 104.

243. L. W. Pye, “Culture and Political Science,” Social Science Quarterly, LU ( 1972), 296.

244. A. Schütz, Der Sinnhafte Aufhau der Sozialen Welt (2nd ed.; Vienna, 1960), 7(English from A. Schütz, Phenomenology of the Social World, trans. G. Walsh and F. Lehnert [Evanston, Ill., 1967], 10).

245. P. L. Berger and T. Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (New York,1966), 19, 21, 22, 42-45. Compare also Schütz, Collected Papers, I, 7-26, 207-28,341-42, and passim.

246. Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, 39.

247. Schütz, Collected Papers, I, 353.

248. Schütz, ibid., 331 and 343, defines “symbolization” as an interpretive reflection on the contents of experience of transcendence of the “here” and “now” of the everyday world.249- Ibid., 212—13.250. Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, 21.

251. Schütz, Collected Papers, I, 218.252. Ibid., 232.253. Ibid., 233.

254. Ibid., 336, 355.

255. Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, 40-41.

256. Ibid., 25.

257. Ibid., 86.

258. Ibid., 95.

259. Ibid., 96.

260. Ibid., 97.

261. Ibid., 99.

262. Ibid., 127-28.

263. Ibid., 110, 203. This is also opposed to J. Habermas, who assumes that the “steering imperatives of highly complex societies” might in themselves drop problems of legitimation. This thesis can be shown to be wrong at any time: a society without self-interpretation sooner or later empirically loses its status as an organized society. CompareJ. Habermas, Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus (Frankfurt, 1973), 62-68.

264. Schütz, Collected Papers, I, 228.

265. Berger and Luckmann, Social Constriction, l02.

266. P. L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, N.Y., 1969), 22.

267. Compare Voegelin, Anamnesis, 348ff.

268. Voegelin, Neue Wissenschaft der Politik, 49-50.

269. Ibid., 82-83, 110-11, and others. Schütz refers specifically to this analysis; it is this same state of affairs that provides Marx with the authority for his statement “The individuals composing the ruling class possess . . . consciousness . . . thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch” (K. Marx, Die Deutsche Ideologie [Berlin, 1953], 44 [English from R. C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (2nd ed.; New York, 1978), 173]). Nevertheless, the context of the argument, to the extent that it is defined at all, is aporetic.

270. Voegelin, Anamnesis, 284.

271. Ibid., 345 (English from Anamnesis, trans. G. Niemeyer [Notre Dame, Ind., 1978],205).

272. Marx, Werke, VI, 839; Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 4.

273. Ibid., 425. Compare U. Sonnemann, Negative Anthropologie (Hamburg, 1969),43. Marx thought a “critical history of technology” to be desirable. “Technology reveals man’s active relation to nature, the immediate production process of his life, and therefore also his social living conditions and the mental expectations arising from them.” It is only the execution of such a “developmental history of the productive organs of social man” that justifies Marx’s statement concerning the causal relations of “infrastructure” and “superstructures” in the structural relations of social formations. All existent research, however, points in a direction opposite to Marx’s.

274. Voegelin, Anamnesis, 342 (English from Anamnesis, trans. Niemeyer, 202).

275. Ibid., 288 (English, ibid., 148).

276. Ibid., 287-88 (English, ibid., 147).

277. Compare R. Agahd, Der Varronis rerum divinarum (Leipzig, 1896) and Aurelius Augustinus, De Civitate Dei. See also Jaeger, Theologie der frühen griechischen Denker,10ff.

278. Plato, The Republic (London, 1969 — 70), 337a—382a; E. Voegelin, Order and History (Baton Rouge, 1956-74), II, 173-74.

279. Voegelin, Neue Wissenschaft der Politik, 126-17.

280. H. Arendt, Between Past and Future (Cleveland, 1963), 124. Compare Cicero, DeNatura Deorum.

281. P. Weber-Schäfer, Oikumene und Imperium (Munich, 1968), 19.

282. This dimension of the psychosocial field seems to me of not inconsiderable significance, though this can be determined here only tentatively. Voegelin touches on only the edges of this problem. Jung’s archetypes hypostatize this dimension as a quasi-natural structure of a primal substance in an inherited apriority, thus destroying the concrete psyche as the center of order and cutting both dimensions off from the motivating experiences; see H. Herwig, Therapie der Menschheit (Munich, 1969), 80-81, 83-84. Kilian’s attempt at an analysis of the collective historical and social unconscious fails because of the elimination of concrete consciousness in favor of an eschatologically pure consciousness in statu nascendi; this elimination is motivated by historical speculation; see H. Kilian, Das enteignete Bewußtsein (Neuweid, 1971), 7-11 and passim.

283. See. E. Voegelin, “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,” in Eternita e Storia (Florence, 1970), 215-34.

284. Thomas Jefferson to John Rutledge, June 24, 1797, in Jefferson, Writings, IX, 409. Compare G. Chinard, Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism (Boston, 1919); Chinard used the life of his protagonist to construct a finite conception of American order.

285. John Adams to Benjamin Rush, July 7, 1805, in Adams, Old Family Letters, 70.

286. Compare the study by R. Michels, Der Patriotismus (Munich, 1929), Chap. 1,”Der Mythus des Vaterlandes.”

287. L. Hartz et al., The Founding of New Societies (New York, 1964), 4.


This excerpt is from Americanism: Revolutionary Order and Societal Self-Interpretation in the American Republic. (Louisiana State University Press, 1999). This is the third part with parts one and three available; also see Postwar Americanism,” “American Progressivism,” and “Americanism: Counterculture and Common Sense.”

Jürgen Gebhardt

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Jürgen Gebhardt is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Emeritus Professor at the Insitute for Political Science at the University of Erlangen-Nürenberg. He is the author and editor of several books, including Political Cultures and the Culture of Politics: A Transatlantic Perspective (Universitaetsverlag Winter, 2010).