Levinson’s Peculiar Conclusion and Our Civil Religion

In class last week, we discussed at length the peculiar conclusion to Sanford Levinson’s Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies, in which Levinson writes that we should hope “that the consciousness of the polity, especially of its future generations will be regulated in the proper direction.” For Levinson, it is “our hope that certain critical speech will not even occur to citizens of the future because it would be viewed as a blasphemy visited upon a civic icon [such as Martin Luther King, Jr.]” (139). In class we expressed discomfort about the possibility that anything or anyone is so venerated by an entire public that there wouldn’t be critical speech on the topic, and I posited that perhaps this relates to Levinson’s belief in civil religion. Drawing on Michael Walzer, Levinson believes that civil religion is the “full set of political doctrines, historical narratives, exemplary figures, celebratory occasions, and memorial rituals” of a civil society that are shared by everyone (86, qting. Walzer).

We might view Levinson’s work in Our Undemocratic Constitution as an attempt to both reaffirm and reimagine our civil religion in the United States. While Levinson wants to revision our civil religion so that it does not include a veneration of the Constitution, he does affirm that the Preamble, what he calls “the point of the Constitution,” as central to our civil religion, promoting it “as the equivalent of our creedal summary of America’s civil religion” (13, emphasis original).

Levinson’s belief and affirmation of a civil religion gives me pause to wonder what is and should be venerated in our society. Certainly, I agree with him that the Preamble sets lofty goals that should be valued, though perhaps I only agree with that because they are so vague and up for interpretation. (What is “Justice, [. . .] domestic tranquility, [. . .] general Welfare,” etc. [12-13]?) What should our civil religion “look” like, and how do we begin to engage in conversations about it?

Levinson, Sanford. Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It). 2006. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

—. Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998.

This entry was posted in CAS 507: Public Scholarship (Spring 2009), publics. Bookmark the permalink.

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