Saturday, 30 April 2011

Civil Religion and identity

National civil religions are concerned primarily with creating a sense of national identity and unity, of reaffirming national mythologies, of reinforcing the elite’s narrative of the nation. It uses rites, stories, ceremonies, symbols (Parsons,2002, p.5-6) It is one of the ways a nation is represented to itself by the elite, part of ‘the spectacle’ referred to by the Situationists. Civil religion has been facilitated by almost universal access to television (in the UK), now events experienced in the immediate location by a few thousand can be participated in by the entire population (Dayan and Katz, 1988, p.162). In 2000 89% of prime time UK TV viewing was on only 4 channels therefore State television as a means of perpetuating and reinforcing civil religion is still very effective(Burton, 2005, p.218). State sponsored or hijacked events are occasions when national unity is reaffirmed- and therefore transnational identity (eg working class/faith based identity) is undermined, this serves the interests of the national and international political/economic elite as it maintains artificial and false divisions between the exploited and militates against transnational working class solidarity, it also hinders the realisation that the interests of those in power and the interests of those ruled over are mutually hostile. There are many events that are televised that perpetuate this sense of “imagined community” (Anderson, 1991 in Pittaway, 2003, p.163) including ‘Last Night at the Proms”, international football tournaments, coverage of internal and international conflicts and ROYAL WEDDINGS, in these dissent or anti-nationalism is absent, marginalised or demonised. All these and other televised civil religious events involve the deliberate re-presentation of ‘the nation’ to itself by the State/elite reaffirming their values, interests and legitimizing existing social hierarchy even presenting it as ‘God ordained’ when the institutionalised church plays a submissive, co-opted role. When these events are televised the immediate audience is recast in an affirming role for the television viewer. However we are not in ‘1984’ yet so the transmitting of these events into households allows room for private interpretations of, or dissent against, these events that are not able to be controlled by the elite irrespective of their power to promote propaganda(Dayan and Katz, 1988, p.162-8 citing Durkeim).


Anderson, B. (1991) ‘Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and spread of Nationalism’, 2nd edn., London/New York, Verso quoted in Pittaway, M. (2003) ‘Language, identity and nation’ in Chimisso, C. (ed) Exploring European Identities, Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp.149-182.

Burton, G. (2005) ‘The media and new technology’ The effects and implications of technologies for the media and their consumption’ in Burton, G. Media and Society, Critical Perspectives, Maidenhead: The Open University, pp. 197-223

Dayan, D. and Katz, E. (1988) ‘Articulating consensus: the ritual and rhetoric of media events’ in Alexander, J. C. (ed), Durkheimian Sociology: Cultural Studies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 161-86.

Parsons, G. (2002) ‘Introduction: the concept of civil religion’ in G. Parsons Perspectives on Civil Religion, Aldershot: Ashgate/Milton Keynes: The Open University, PP.1-10.