A Wall Breached: Civil Religion’s Battle With A Resurgent Political Theocracy

A Wall Breached: Civil Religion’s Battle With A Resurgent Political Theocracy
The Iconoclast

Images of fanatical Chinese youth waving Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ (Máo Zhǔxí Yǔlù) during the Cultural Revolution appeared quite frequently on TV screens and in newspapers. The Chinese youth often did this before moving in to humiliate, evict and, at times, even murder officials of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that they accused of being ‘bourgeois’ and ‘counter-revolutionary.’ In 1966, founder of communist China and the party’s top-ranking leader Mao Zedong, unleashed a ‘Cultural Revolution’ when he felt he was being sidelined by the party. His economic policies in the 1950s had gone horribly wrong. Millions of Chinese people, especially in the rural areas, died of starvation as a result of these policies.

His retreat and silence after the debacle was mistaken by the party as an opening for it to reform the country’s communist system. However, the fact was: Mao used this downtime to plan his return. Like an egoist, he first sulked, refusing to confess that, indeed, his version of Marxism-Leninism had been an unmitigated disaster. To him, his vision was noble. It failed as a policy because others (in the party) didn’t exhibit enough enthusiasm towards it, nor could they properly execute it through policy.

Then, he reconstructed himself as ‘China’s only true leader’ when he jumped into a river and swam in the presence of dozens of cameras. When the official party newspaper published photos of this 73-year-old leader swimming like a healthy young man, one can call this moment as ‘Mao reborn.’ It was the second coming of a revolutionary icon who in 1949 had led his forces to oust the Nationalists and create communist China.

But the horrid failures of his economic policies and his increasing distrust towards his former allies in the Soviet Union had taken the sting out of his iconic status. By the early 1960s, he looked exhausted and under pressure from the party which now wanted him to simply play the role of a figurehead, rather than a decision-maker. But how could he? He had experienced widespread adulation as a communist messiah in the countryside and an icon in the cities. In 1966, the wilting icon reappeared as an iconoclast.

He now spoke directly to those who were either born just before the Revolution or a few year’s after, mainly students at schools and in their early years at college. He lashed out against corruption in the party. He wanted to destroy ‘counter-revolutionary and bourgeois thought’ which, according to him, was also present within the party. A pocket-sized book of his quotations was published and thousands of copies were distributed. Everyone was expected to own a copy.

Mao now became a messiah figure who could be understood through the book. Religion had been pushed out by the communists as a numbing and exploitative force. But here was an ideology (‘Maoism’) that began to operate like a religion, complete with its own book and a holy figure in the shape of Chairman Mao. What followed was a decade of utter political, social and economic chaos. Young Chinese with the red book in their hands not only humiliated and attacked ‘suspect’ party officials, but also their teachers. The humiliation was so brutal that some victims committed suicide. Youth were also encouraged to spy on their own parents.

The Little Red Book

Relations with the Soviet Union and many other communist countries were severed; but ironically, it was the US which pulled China out of isolation when in 1971 US President Nixon established US ties with communist China. Nixon did this solely because Sino-Soviet ties had deteriorated beyond repair. In 1975, China facilitated the take-over of Cambodia by pro-Maoist forces, the Khmer Rouge (KR). Inspired by ‘Maoism,’ the KR launched its own version of a Cultural Revolution. It forced all of Cambodia’s urban population to camps in rural areas.

KR executed teachers, intellectuals, artistes and technicians, and outlawed romantic relationships, TV, radio and automobiles. They were all products of ‘bourgeois and counter-revolutionary thought.’ Communes were formed in the countryside and everyone was supposed to work in the fields. Everyone ate together and took care of children together. The concept of marriage almost vanished. But there was never enough to eat, and people began to die of starvation. Those too weak to work anymore were executed. Only KR philosophy was taught at make-shift schools. One Pol Pot, an enigmatic and rarely seen communist leader, was turned into a messiah figure.

He headed a KR elite that developed. This elite always had food to eat and softer mattresses to sleep on. It did not work in the fields, but kept the ‘order’ through fanatical and trigger-happy young men and women carrying Chinese-made guns. They excelled in executions and torture. More than 1.7 million Cambodians died in this bizarre and catastrophic experiment. It sought to eliminate the whole idea of society and replace it with a new one. In 1979, another communist country, Vietnam, with help from the Soviet Union, invaded Cambodia and ended the nightmare.

It is said that Pol Pot had begun to feel vulnerable when Mao passed away in 1976. With Mao’s passing, the Cultural Revolution too came to an end, even though its intensity had continued to decrease from 1972 onwards. Over 250,000 Chinese are said to have been killed during the commotion. The red book that was once treated as a sacred object, soon became a ‘pop’ item that was ‘cool’ to have.
The 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire once quipped, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." Voltaire was against organised religion. And like most European philosophers of the time, he was dismayed by the manner in which the Church as an institution had exploited its influence

American journalists Robert Keatly and Warren Phillips often visited China during the Cultural Revolution. They reported that Maoism had taken the shape of a religion (W.Phillips, China: Behind the Mask, 1973). It seemed that during the Cultural Revolution, Mao was not being followed as a leader, but rather, as a god. He was called "the reddest of the red suns in all our hearts" (R. Mitter in The Sacred in Twentieth-Century Politics, 2008).

China was steeped in various ancient religions, including Buddhism and Christianity, when the communists took over in 1949. Mao in the course of a conversation with the American author and journalist Edgar Snow, acknowledged that it was not easy for the Chinese people to give up the 3,000-year-old cult of ancestors and emperors (A. Haglund, Contact and Conflict, 1972). But as the communists went about demolishing old forms of religion, Mao cannily adopted doctrines and rituals of old Chinese faiths and put them in the context of communism. The red book became this new religion’s guiding light and Mao became its messiah, worshiped and seen as ‘the great deliverer.’

The Nazis in Germany, too, had tried to formulate a new religion.

Pol Pot


Civil Religion 

The 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire once quipped, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." Voltaire was against organised religion. And like most European philosophers of the time, he was dismayed by the manner in which the Church as an institution had exploited its influence to accumulate wealth and political power. It had a monopoly over how the Bible was to be interpreted. In fact, it wanted the Bible’s language to remain Latin, which only the priests knew how to read and write. The 16th-century founder of the Christian sect Protestantism, Martin Luther King, challenged this by translating the Bible into his native language German so that a layman (possessing the ability to read) reads the Bible themselves - without the aid of a priest.

This initiated a series of events in the next two centuries leading up to ideas that would give birth to secularism. Secularism has often been misunderstood and sometimes purposefully misrepresented, especially by those who see it as an enemy of religion. For example, 20th century Islamist ideologues such as Syyed Kutb, Abul Ala Maududi and Ruhollah Khomeini continued to call it an atheist idea (ladeen). Some suspected that it was a modern extension of Judeo-Christian traditions. Postmodernist anthropologists such as Talal Asad certainly thought so (T. Asad, Formations of the Secular, 2003). Asad was writing when many European and American intellectuals were declaring the emergence of a ‘post-secular age.’

They saw secularism as a Western construct that could be as intolerant as the traditional religions that it wanted to relegate to the private sphere. To the post-secularists, secularism expels faith from the public sphere, thus losing touch with how religion continues to contribute in shaping societies. They accused secularism of creating a spiritual void which it wants to fill with science and reason. Science thus becomes a faith of sorts as well, with its own doctrines, dogmas and rituals.

Indeed, secularism was a Western construct. It emerged when the influence of traditional Christianity began to corrode. Christianity got embroiled in severe sectarian tussles and wars. It was was also impacted from criticism within. Priests began to be seen as part of the ruling elite, patronised by monarchs and landed classes. Secularism’s birth (as an idea) began with Christian apologists lamenting that ‘true Christianity’ which was humane and humble had been replaced by a corrupt Christianity chasing power and wealth.

By the 18th century, this idea further evolved into meaning that true Christianity can only function if it remains inside the Church and/or outside of royal courts and political institutions. Whereas 18th century French revolutionaries wanted to completely destroy the whole idea of religion, American revolutionaries spoke about building a figurative wall between the sacred and the profane. Yet, even the intellectual architects of the French Revolution such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau were of the view that the idea of worshiping a mystifying deity in a ritualistic manner was deeply engrained in the ways societies have evolved, and cannot be simply rejected or abolished.

Rousseau thus suggested the creation of a ‘civil religion’ that would employ the mannerisms and emotions of traditional religion but change the nature of the worshiped and the sacred. In a civil religion, the nation-state becomes a sacred entity, venerated by its citizens through certain rituals that evoke emotions and even a sense of spirituality. Such rituals include hoisting the national flag, singing the national anthem, holding parades, etc. Civil religion does not negate the idea of God. To Rousseau, one can best serve God by serving the nation-state.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

This is writ large across the three ‘Pledges of Allegiance’ that evolved in the US:

"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." (First introduced in 1892).

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." (1923)


"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." (1954).

Early post-secularist scholars jumped to claim the ‘return of religion’ when the word ‘God’ was introduced in the pledge in 1954. They saw Western societies becoming ‘spiritual wastelands’ due to secularism. Post-modernists would do the same from the 1960s onwards. But there was no return of religion, or the kind of religion that had existed before the 19th century. The word ‘God’ was put in the pledge due to political reasons. A Cold War had begun between the US and the communist Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was ‘officially’ atheistic and so was communist China.

So, to differentiate US secularism from atheistic communism, the word ‘God’ made an appearance. The idea of civil religion continued to inform American society, as it did in various European countries. It still does. In 2007, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote a detailed thesis on how secularism in Western societies evolved. As mentioned, it had its roots in the rise of Protestantism, the internal criticism, the consequential revaluation of Christianity, and the eventual separation of the Church and the state. The Church wasn’t crushed. Even in France it survived.

But it was a reformed Church, operating outside political institutions, yet free to operate from within. Taylor demonstrates that all which was once considered sacred (but had become problematic) was secularised. The process included the creation of a civil religion that put more emphasis on serving God by serving the nation-state or the republic, compared to serving the Church and traditional religions as they were served during ‘pre-modern’ times. Taylor does not see the post-secular age as a time when traditional religion is ‘making a comeback.’ Instead, he sees it as secularism evolving from meaning the separation of Church and State to now mean the sacred and the secular co-existing in a shared space without eschewing each other.

Post-secularists including Taylor and Asad agree that secularism simply adopted, reformed and demystified elements from traditional religions and gave them a new purpose i.e. to serve the nation-state/republic and the needs and requirements of modern societies. Secularism, even in its most pure form, was always religion-neutral and not anti-religion. The anti-religion bit, sometimes also called ‘hard secularism,’ is rare and was once only found in communist countries. But as we saw, even there, communism was transformed into a kind of new religion.

The Statue of Liberty is often understood as being one of the foremost symbols of American civil religion

Secularism in itself is not a religion. But it did produce the idea of civil religion. Also, secularism evolves according to the status of religion in a society. For example, French secularism is ‘harder’ than American secularism, even though both are not anti-religion and have formed civil religions. Then there are other secularisms that were formed in non-Western societies. Men such as Talal Asad are critical of these. He calls them fake constructions. But the fact is, there was never a core doctrine of secularism. It developed somewhat differently in Europe than it did in the US. Same is the case with how it developed in many non-Western countries.

The only concrete conviction in it is the separation of the Church and state. But this conviction too has been applied through various different means. For example, to Muslim nationalists of India who were looking to create a separate Muslim-majority country, the separation meant the relegation of Islam’s theological aspects to the private sphere, and the brining of the faith’s political identity markers to the public sphere. Being an Indian Muslim thus meant having different political and economic characteristics compared to those of the region’s Hindu majority. The plan thus, was not to enact an Islamic theocracy, but a modern Muslim-majority country where the Muslims would thrive in the absence of hegemonic Hindu majoritarianism.

The Republic of India’s secularism does not require exclusion of religion from the public sphere. It implies recognition of all religions by the state. India’s secularism, therefore, has more affinities with multiculturalism (C. Jaffrelot in Hindustan Times, 16 May 2011). But it is a secularism which is now under threat from Hindu nationalists who want to turn Hinduism as a state creed, just as Islam became the state religion of Pakistan.

A majority of countries that have secular constitutions exercise ‘soft secularism.’ Some have civil religions which regulate traditional religions by tacitly keeping them out of political institutions. Post-secularist thinkers such as Talal Asad have put too much of an effort and energy than required in deconstructing secularism as a theory and doctrine, thus punching himself into a corner populated by anti-secularists and theologians. But Asad is neither. This is when his otherwise astute writings often dissolve into becoming vague and rudderless conclusions. This is a major problem with post-secularists, especially those existing in secular countries.

For example, during my 2018 stint as a Research Scholar in Washington DC, I often came across Pakistanis operating in well-known universities in the US as academics. Their lifestyles were secular and liberal, but their theories and thesis insisted that Western secularism was corroding and the presence of religion should get more scholarly attention because it had overcome the challenges posed to it by secularism and modernity.

The problematic aspect of such thinking is that the thinkers in this context (in Western academic circles) consider themselves as secular and liberal, but often find themselves sliding in an area populated by views shaped by anti-secular theologians and political-religious ideologues. In trying to explain away this dilemma, the post-secularists then end up rationalising acts that are almost entirely driven by theological points-of-view. For instance, a Pakistani academic wrote a book in which she suggested that Islamisation was actually the secularisation of Islam as practiced in urban Pakistan (H. Iqtidar, Secularising Islamists? Jama'at-ud-da'wa in Urban Pakistan, 2011).

This is rather confusing. She does not suggest that this so-called secularisation is leading to a secular society, but is an engagement between Islamists and modernity. How exactly is this engagement ‘secularisation?’ She goes on to give the example of how religious women in Pakistan are bringing all aspects of modern life under religious scrutiny, thus refashioning belief in Muslim societies.

As the political economist S. Akbar Zaidi pointed out in his review of the book, there is a clear distinction between secularisation and Islamisation. If what Iqtidar says is secularisation, then what is Islamisation? (S.A. Zaidi in Pakistan Horizon, October, 2012). Was the Pakistani military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s ‘Islamisation process’ a process of secularisation? Is watching a religious show on TV or having the azan play on one's cell phone a secularisation process? It might be ‘refashioning Muslim societies,’ but in the most superficial manner. There is absolutely nothing secular about it.
The reversal of Roe Vs. Wade was celebrated by Christian groups, but it was not only denounced by secularists, but also by some equally prominent Catholic and Protestant groups. This means the verdict appeased certain Christian sects and sub-sects, but offended others

One is reminded of how between 1978 and 1980 the postmodernist giant Michel Foucault got carried away by the explosive events of the Iranian Revolution. He visited Iran twice. An atheist and homosexual, Foucault wrote that Christianity had been overcome by secularism because it became decadent, corrupt and devoid of any spirituality. This, to Foucault, had left the ‘rational West’ spiritually bankrupt. So, here he was now, in a non-Western country, watching a mighty revolution unfold that was being shaped by what Foucault called ‘political spirituality.’

In his writings from Tehran, Foucault claimed to be witnessing the birth of powerful ideas that Western intellectuals had not known about, or thought did not exist. He saw Khomeini push the limits of rationality and cross the Rubicon in declaring the creation of a theocracy that had shunned secular ideas. Foucault wrote that this had the potential of creating “new forms of creativity.”

But as reports of summary executions, political repression and the degradation of the status of women started pouring out from Iran after the revolution’s victory, Foucault suddenly stopped discussing Iran. Maybe he didn’t like these ‘new forms of creativity.’

After glorying that Revolution as a product of political spirituality that the West could not comprehend, he remained quiet about the atrocities that this kind of politics often triggers. He even remained quiet when homosexuals began being rounded up and executed. He was vehemently criticised for remaining silent and even for being ‘naive.’


The Theocratic Challenge 

Civil religion has remained to be a most subtle but effective way  of implementing secularism. As Taylor points out, secularism has evolved into becoming more pluralistic. It’s now about religion and secularism co-existing. Yet, religion (in secular societies) is still not encouraged to dictate policy. But if civil religion is about serving God by serving the nation-state or a republic, the question arises, why can’t theology serve the state and republic? This would mean religion’s presence in the Parliament and/or Congress and also in courts. This is common in ‘Islamised’ countries such as Pakistan where a civil religion has been closely tied to Islam. One serves God by implementing ‘His laws’ to serve the country.

In Pakistan, when the Ahmadiyya were ousted from the fold of Islam through a constitutional amendment in 1974, it was claimed that the ‘90-year-old Ahmadiyya question’ had been resolved — as if it was this question that was stopping the country’s non-Ahmadiyya Muslim majority from serving the republic and thus God. When the Zia dictatorship unfolded a list of ‘Hudood Ordinances’ in 1979, women organisations were up in arms. They described many of these ordinances as being anti-women. But the dictatorship claimed that the ordinances were formulated to keep women in chadar and chaardawari (properly dressed and inside the walls of their homes) so that they can remain safe from the male gaze, and perform their duties at home as daughters and wives. As if this was the only way women could serve the nation.

But civil religions and/or ‘soft secularism’ can pose similar problems. Recently, the US Supreme Court reversed a ‘historic’ 1973 ruling by the SC that had stated that the criminalisation of abortion violated a woman’s right to privacy. In June 2022, the SC overturned the ruling. Liberals were shocked by the court’s verdict, but it was welcomed by most Christian groups. According to William Lori, a prominent ‘pro-life’ activist: “This is a historic day in the life of our country, one that stirs our thoughts, emotions and prayers.”

Anti-abortion activists, who had unsuccessfully tried to make the courts overturn the 1973 ruling, understood that if one captures the courts, one can change society (K. Stewart in The Guardian, June 25, 2022). Heavily funded and politically-aided Christian organisations that intended to degrade the principle of church-state separation, managed to direct millions of dollars to a network of affiliated organizations. This infrastructure has created a pipeline to funnel ideologues to important judicial positions at the national and federal level (Stewart, ibid).

The first amendment in US Constitution states that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.’ One of the founders of the country and authors of the Constitution Thomas Jefferson (when he was elected US president in 1801) described the amendment as ‘a wall of separation between the church and state.’ Critics of the recent SC verdict have termed the judgement as a reversal of legal secularism.

This is a disconcerting development. Judges are not theologians. But when religion enters the courtrooms, hearings can get complicated because theologies of whichever religion are diverse from within and often at odds with each other. A judge might have a view of his/her religion that is their own and at odds with another. Judges can’t thump the Bible in courts. Not that the judges who overturned the Roe Vs. Wade did that, but it was clear they were sympathetic towards the beliefs of certain powerful Christian groups.

In Pakistan, a high-court judge once banned Valentines Day celebrations on the pretext that it was ‘unIslamic.’ The late lawyer and women’s rights activist Asma Jahangir advised the judge to run a madrassa instead of a courtroom. His verdict saw police nabbing poor men and women selling balloons and flowers on the streets on Valentin’s Day. A majority of these folk struggle to make even Rs. 200 a day.

But whereas on another occasion, a high court judge threw out a petition to declare the former prime minister Imran Khan as a blasphemer, stating that courts have nothing to do with theological issues, another court sent a young professor to jail for allegedly committing blasphemy. He’s still there, waiting for his case to be heard by the courts.

In 2019, the Supreme Court of India gave ownership of 2.77 acre land in Ayodhya (where there was a mosque) by transferring it to ‘Ram Lalla.’ It ordered that land be given to a trust to be set up by the centre within three months to build a temple. The Muslims will be given an alternate land of five acres to build a mosque. Now here is the interesting bit. Ram Lalla is not an actual person. He is considered as the infant form of the deity Ram. So who was the court referring to? Exactly that: ‘Infant Ram.’

Under ‘secular’ Indian law, a Hindu deity can be considered a ‘juristic person’ with the right to be sued or to sue! So the apex court was hearing a case where Ram Lalla was a plaintiff. Like other Hindu deities, the Ayodhya deity i.e., the infant form of Lord Ram, was deemed a perpetual minor under law. Unlike English common law, the Hindu deity gets its juristic personality from the piety of the worshippers. In this case, the infant Lord Rama was represented by his next ‘human friend,’ Triloki Nath Pandey — a senior Hindu nationalist who was among the litigants in this case.

Secularism is not anti-religion. It simply posits that religion has every right to be practiced in a place of worship or at home. The manner in which religion’s various variants and interpretations can create conflict in the public sphere, it needs to be kept out of political, constitutional and judicial institutions. In 1954, the former Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Munir interviewed dozens of Islamic scholars belonging to different Islamic sects and sub-sects. He then lamented that no two Islamic scholars had a single, unified understanding of the faith. So how could the state have one which will not offend those who have a separate understanding?

Civil religions tried to offer a more watered-down version of secularism. But it remains vulnerable. The wall that Jefferson spoke of has been breached, flooding political and judicial institutions with variants of major faiths — such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism — in a number of countries.

Indeed, the reversal of Roe Vs. Wade was celebrated by Christian groups, but it was not only denounced by secularists, but also by some equally prominent Catholic and Protestant groups. This means the verdict appeased certain Christian sects and sub-sects, but offended others. The verdict is not only a ‘triumph of religion’ over secularism. It is also a triumph of some Christian sects over others.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.