Private Life of Power

Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, talks about the way that our social connections can reenforce political (and religious) orthodoxies in a post titled Fear, American Style:

On this blog, I’ve talked a lot about what I call in The Reactionary Mind “the private life of power”: the domination and control we experience in our personal lives at the hands of employers, spouses, and so on. But we should always recall that that private life of power is often wielded for overtly political purposes: not simply for the benefit of an employer but also for the sake of maintaining larger political orthodoxies and suppressing political heresies. That was true during McCarthyism, in the 1960s, and today as well.

It was also true in the 19th century. Tocqueville noticed it while he was traveling here in the 1830s. Stopping off in Baltimore, he had a chat with a physician there. Tocqueville asked him why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma.” The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.

If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.

This is basically the civic republican ideal: all social institutions working together to make virtuous citizens. Virtue, of course, is being defined by those in power. It goes a long way towards explaining how a country with a secular government like America can still remain so religious.

  • Revyloution

    I see reason after reason to predict the fall of Christianity in the US in a generation. This is just one more. As our population density increases, and the plurality of faiths becomes more evident, the less power the clergy will have to make or break private careers. It could also explain why cities tend to be much more secular than small towns.

    Either way, it looks like bad news for Christianity.

    • UrsaMinor

      I’m not at all sure that I follow how this translates to bad times for U.S. Christianity ahead. At least a third of the country is invested in this civic republican ideal, the structuring of social and legal institutions to reinforce a certain set of behaviors that are deemed virtuous and punish those behaviors that fall outside that category, with the criteria for “virtue” coming chiefly from religious values.

      • Revyloution

        A third of the country are OLD PEOPLE who are invested in this civic republic ideal.

        Im not talking short term, but in a full generation. When the babyboomers are dead and the Gen X’ers are nearing retirement, I imagine our religious make up will look a lot more like todays England.

        • UrsaMinor

          Being a boomer, I’m not going to be around long enough to enjoy the peace and quiet. Family history suggests that I will be shuffling off this mortal coil somewhere around 2040.

  • vasaroti

    The worse the economy is, the more you need a social network. For much of the South, there’s never been a good economy. What other social networks are available in small towns besides local sports and church? Sure, we can change that, but only if we’re willing to live there. 20 years ago most of my family lived in small towns. Now the only stay-behinds are the folks who inherited a well-digging business and the grain elevator manager.

    On the topic of virtue, I have to give Rick Perry a tiny bit of credit. He did mention honesty as a virtue, and he got through his ramble on that topic without mentioning religion. I really don’t know if he was addressing Chinese government and business corruption or what, but I suspect he thinks that if we just sent a bunch of missionaries over there, they’d stop rigging their currency and stop putting melamine in baby formula.

  • Matt P

    Nowadays, the doctor (or sports coach) may seduce your daughters (or sons), but if the doctor is the only one in your area who accepts your insurance, or you are in the footprint of that school, what choice do you have?

    Religion has had a lessening influence over economic decisions (such as paying out of pocket for a “good” doctor or paying for a private school with “good” values) simply because the economics don’t work. Similarly, patriotism has seen a decrease; why “Buy American (TM)” when you save 75% buying Chinese?

    Buying Green, or “Fair Trade,” or “Christian,” (or any other arbitrarily selected criteria) tends to cost more, with a resulting trade-off that breaks down to a cost-benefit analysis in the mind of the consumer. Each individual must do that analysis, maybe subconsciously. This doesn’t mean an end to religious influence, just a reshaping.

  • brian m

    The problem revy is that the alternatives to religion are also failing. Economies are failibg. Governmeny austerities being imposed to make the credito gambler class whole. While I might not believe in religion….I do not believe very much in america anymore either.


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