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Savage Civil Religion

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That the decision to wage war in Iraq in the wake of 9–11 was made to appear inevitable, and that its announcement evoked little dissent or critique within the USA despite the absence of evidence linking the Al Qaeda organization to the state of Iraq, testifies to the strategic success of agents of the state in generating terms of reality, the acceptance frames. This essay is an analysis and critique of how such acceptance frames were achieved, by way of a theoretical tour of a refurbished concept of civil religion. The essay considers the question of how organic civil religion was hijacked by instrumental civil religion: how the relatively inclusive material practices of altar-building typical of the first civil religious expression were incorporated into the exclusive us/them discourse of instrumental civil religion as momentum for war gathered. Taking a phrase of Pierre Bourdieu as axiomatic (2000:185), the "symbolic hijacking that occurs in the move from praxis to logos," I argue that organic civil religion, though emotionally powerful, was compact in its signifying range — it remained mute in its capacity for social mobilization toward specific political objectives. Indeed, it was because the improvised practices of mourning and memorializing entailed little specifically political content that it carried the emotional force of a relatively pristine representation of social unity. Instrumental civil religion could not draw on the capital of social unity, but nevertheless mobilized political support for even radical military ends.

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