Do politicians in pulpits, megachurch campaign rallies, Bible photo-ops, and governors “claiming” their states for Jesus make it more likely that the American public will express “humility and gratitude before God,” as the National Conservatives hope? Or do such public displays merely signal all the more clearly that the religion being practiced is a creation of partisan politics; a human instrument crafted “for the purposes of a moment”; a “state engine” that will be of no efficacy?
During his first few years in England, Edmund Burke compiled essay sketches and fragments in a notebook published only in the mid-twentieth century. One of the entries in that notebook, possibly co-written with his distant cousin William Burke, is entitled “Religion of No Efficacy Considered as a State Engine.” It is fairly straightforward and not particularly developed—it takes up a mere three pages of the published version. The pithy insight it contains, however, is notably lacking in many contemporary calls for more religion in our politics.
The premise is simple: Religion has salutary benefits for social and political life. But once it is seen primarily in a political context—when it becomes merely a “state engine”—it fails to provide those benefits.
If you attempt to make the end of Religion to be its Utility to human Society, to make it only a sort of supplement to the Law, and insist principally upon this topic, as is very common to do, you then change its principle of Operation, which consists on Views beyond this Life, to a consideration of another kind, and of an inferior kind.
Burke certainly had in his sights “enlightened” clergy who were uncomfortable defending the faith on the basis of the old dogmas and so instead stressed its moral dimension and necessity for peaceful civil life. But he may also have had in mind utilitarian and political understandings of pagan religions. And the general reflection on the outward, social effects can be useful in many contexts.
If he meant that one ought never to speak of the social benefits of religion, there would be ample evidence that he abandoned this view later in life, when he had much to say on the subject. But there’s no reason to think that’s what he had in mind. Rather, his comment is about the way religion is publicly presented and understood.
The social benefits of religion come precisely because it is something that transcends the political, and they depend on the manner in which religion is approached by the people. When we come to think that eternal rewards and punishments are aimed primarily at the immediate, political “purposes of a moment,” they become less impressive to us: “We cool immediately, the Springs are seen; we value ourselves on the Discovery; we cast Religion to the Vulgar and lose all restraint.”
In his later life, as a staunch defender of the established church, Burke would identify the social benefit of religion as its ability to overawe all other social calculations and considerations. It reminds us that all we say and do has cosmic significance. Placing all human endeavors next to the sublimity of God, as he noted in his Philosophical Enquiry, has the effect of diminishing our opinion of ourselves and our capabilities: “Whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him.”