Civility and Secularization

Civility and Secularization July 28, 2015

In his classic 1978 study of civil religion, No Offense, the late John Cuddihy affirms Talcott Parsons’s view that civil society or civic culture isn’t post-Christian but intensely Christianized. It is “a genuine, progressive stage in the further institutionalization of Christian values into the social structures and institutions (political, academic, economic, and other) of our society. The gloomy interpretation of ‘secularization,’ Parsons would contend, has blinded us to the fact that, by the roundabout route of differentiation, there now exists a more Christian society than ever before in history. Cherished images have been broken, but the values are being installed. Each Protestant advance is marked by a deeper iconoclasm and a more civil countenance, which mask the deepening religiousness of the culture” (21).

What Parsons labels “differentiation” has to do with the distinction between “religious and secular spheres of interest” (Parsons), which might take the specific form of separating church and state or separating religion and ethnic identity. It is a Protestant contribution to religion-and-society: “What is differentiation for Protestantism – an unfolding from within,” Cuddihy says, “is secularization  for Judaism and, to some degree, for immigrant Catholicism.” American Protestantism forces such differentiations on immigrant churches. Lutheranism is progressively stripped of its Germannness or Swedishness and becomes more purely a theological and liturgical community.

This process, Cuddihy (and Parsons) argue, is the way that the American Protestant form of Christianity has gotten more fully embedded in American society. But this process of Protestantization has a paradoxical effect: “the more responsibly Christian – individualistic, universalistic, idealistic, self-critical, concerned – society becomes, the more Christians feel they have failed and become post-Christian and secularized. Their sense of guilty failure is a direct consequence of the hypertrophy of upgraded demands they now make upon themselves and society” (21). Society is so Christians that believers don’t feel distinct from society, and in this sense of failure, believers impose more intense demands on themselves and hold society to an ever higher standard.

Cuddihy puts this intriguing theory in the context of the development of different phases of Christianity-and-society over time: “I distinguish the era of the early church as the agape or charity phase of Christianity, where the face-to-face norm of caritative love was dominant. In the medieval synthesis. the functional equivalent is a feudal-type chivalry, where the agapic component is retained but restricted to the weakness of women. The Protestant phase sees agape institutionalized as courtesy-decency, retaining the structure of agape, extending it beyond the female principle, but tinging it slightly with the class condescension of the bourgeois era . . . The denominational phase institutionalizes agape as civility. Gone, now, is the warm, caritative affect, but in its place is a wider extension of trust (taking the bourgeois-parliamentary form of ‘respect’). The trust of ‘respect’ is now a civil debt owed to everyone. Entitlement to respect and, if not to actual trust, at least to the ‘show’ of trust we call ‘good faith’ becomes universalized and upgraded. The civic culture becomes a community in which trust takes the form of the rites of civility, and in which the ‘civilities’ are the gifts that are exchanged and, in being exchanged, knit the members into the solidarity of a moral community, into a society (Gesellschaft) that is also a community (Gemeinschaft)” (23).

Read that again, slowly. 

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