Modern politics is “secular”? Please, it’s all kinds of “religious”!

In working my through ‘The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology by Simon Critchley, there has been one idea that Critchley emphasises fairly regularly. This is that politics needs (civil) religion, which is to say a religious (or sacred) dimension, to function.

Now this could and does express itself in a belief in God, but it need not necessarily. One could just as easily think religiously about, or sacralise, institutions, constitutions or the movement of history. The idea is that there must be a belief in a certain receivedness – that something has come from outside of you (even if it arises from you) and is in turn worth protecting.

The history of modern political forms is not centered on the transition from the religious to the secular – a transition that would allegedly parallel that from the pre-modern to the modern, where the “post-modern” would be purportedly “post-secular.” Rather, the history of modern political forms – republicanism, liberal democracy, fascism, and the rest – is best understood as a series of metamorphoses of sacralization. Modern politics takes place within an economy of the sacral, in particular the passage… between the transcendent and the immanent.

Critchley makes this comment using examples from Jean Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant to underline this movement of the transcendent to the immanent.

For Rousseau, where once a country would have claimed to reflect the transcendent divine will in the immanent general will of the people, in some utterly explicit religious way, a movement has now occurred in which the immanent general will is viewed, by the people, as transcendent.

Critchley sees this paralleled in Kant were the immanent moral impulses of the person, insofar as they could be taken up by everyone, are transcendent “divine commands.” Play that movement against what was formerly accepted, i.e. transcendent divine commands (e.g. straight up Biblical commands), that the immanent general will of the people submitted to and reflected.

What occurs in Kant and Rousseau is not some assertion of the secular. It is rather a metamorphosis of the meaning of the sacred, which attempts to retain the theological moment by immanentizing the transcendent within moral theology or the general will.

The need for something religious is pervasive, and modern politics couldn’t operate without it. What is clear is that the sacred element undergoes a metamorphosis onto the immanent plane of life.

One need only think of the millenarian fervour underpinning Bush and Blair’s “axis of evil” and the subsequent wars against it – the Anti-Christ had a new faces and we had best get rid of it. Or think of the liberal myth of progress, one could think we might actually arrive at some utopian New Heavens. What about Obama’s slogan “BELIEVE!” during his 2008 presidential campaign? What about free market capitalism and its benefits being “God-given”? Perhaps, even “God save Ulster!” – the divine prerogative is that the union is great, we best protect it right?