Over the last few years we’ve had a Royal Wedding, the Queen’s Jubilee and this year we’re remembering 100 years since the start of WWI. All these occasions are expressions of, and vehicles for, something that sociologists call ‘civil religion’.
National civil religions are concerned primarily with creating a sense of national identity and unity, of reaffirming national mythologies, of reinforcing the elite’s story and version of the nation. It uses rites, commemorations, ceremonies, symbols (1), weddings and sports events to reaffirm as “right” and “natural” the existing hierarchy and oppressive class structure and gives the elite the opportunity to tell their story of who we are and how we should be. It is one of the ways a nation is told what to think about itself by the elite, part of “the spectacle” referred to by the Situationists. You could see this going on under New Labour as they sought to present Britain to itself in ways that justified the UK’s presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, by continually commemorating and emphasising Britain’s military history.
Over the last few decades civil religion has been facilitated by almost universal access to television (in the UK) and now events experienced in the immediate location by a few thousand can be participated in by the entire population (2). 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 and telling us what to think is still very effective (3). State sponsored or hijacked events, like royal weddings or international sporting events like the upcoming World Cup and the recent Winter Olympics are occasions when both national unity and traditional enmities (and stereotyping) are reaffirmed and therefore transnational working class 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 working class 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 civil religious events that are televised that perpetuate this sense of “imagined community” (4), in these events we’re told to accept that the status quo is good, that we are all one big happy national family and that the average British working class person has more in common with David Cameron than with other working class people who may happen to live the other side of an artificial boundary known as a national border!
At civil religious events dissent or anti-nationalism is absent, marginalised or demonised. All these civil religious events, televised or not, involve the deliberate re-presentation of “the nation” to itself by the State/elite reaffirming their values and interests as good and legitimizing existing social hierarchy, even presenting it as “God ordained” when the institutionalised church plays a submissive, co-opted role. Interestingly, when these events are televised the immediate audience is recast in an affirming role for the television viewer, their original role as immediate spectator translated into an affirmation of ‘the event’ (2), this is effective as the new (TV) viewer sees his peers affirming the event watched.
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, our responses to these events are not able to be controlled by the elite irrespective of their power to promote their propaganda(2). As the old guy in the pub in V for Vendetta says of the State’s televised propaganda “Can you believe this shit?!”
(4) 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.
(3) 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
(2) 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.
(1) 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.