Can Liberals Do Ritual?

The Politics of Ritual is a valiant but forlorn effort to find a place for ritual in liberal sensibility. Sure that we are all heartily sick of “decades of the increasing privatization and individuation of American public life,” Molly Farneth defends the claim that rituals can bring us together and democratize power. Specifically, religious rituals curb the anomie of liberalism yet, done right, deliver its core progressive goal of equality.

Examples she likes include Catholic priests passing the eucharist to migrants through holes in the walls that seal the US southern border; Jewish protestors holding shiva on the street for an unarmed Black man killed by police; and Jerusalem Muslims gathering for iftar—the breaking of the Ramadan fast—in districts where Israeli authorities are evicting families from their homes. These cases of ritual most interest Farneth because they nudge tradition towards progressivism and critique unjust state power. You might think of them as insurgent rituals. However, I fear Farneth is between a liberal rock and a hard place.

A Tough Audience

A religion professor at Haverford College, Farneth is aware that liberals hold religion suspect. Nonetheless, she wants to show that religious ritual can play its part “in the struggle for justice.” She is playing to a tough audience.

This book is not written for conservatives. They have no problem with rituals, thinking of them as a legacy of ancestors whom they honour. Conservatives think the ancestral a precondition for liberty because civilization is based upon inherited order. Indeed, they think that antique rituals are bearers of deep moral truths.

The book is written for liberals, but the tough nut to crack is that the two wings of contemporary liberalism do not care about rituals. Farneth believes that “there is, these days, a yearning for rituals, for routines that are shared and significant.” This is not an anxiety of the libertarian wing of liberalism. For example, people linked across continents playing video games with one another, or someone online messing about with meme creation, or people curating their Insta on their phones, are all interacting, thinks the libertarian, and critically, they are free.

The statist wing of liberalism doesn’t care either. Farneth thinks that the “the massive turnout” for justice for George Floyd shows rank-and-file liberals want rituals around which to bond. No sociological data is offered for this claim, and it is noticeable that similar police instances both before and after the lockdowns—with busy life restored—have seen no repeat of “the massive turnout.” There is a liberal reason for this.

The great architects of liberal democratic order—Bentham, Kant, Kelsen, Kojève, and Rawls—are all formalists. Justice prevails where anonymous state bureaucracies prevail. Therefore, Farneth finds herself in a tricky spot. As evident from her examples all being drawn from contemporary liberal social movements, she is a liberal, but she also finds religious rituals attractive. The Politics of Ritual wants to press the claim that participating in ritual is political, not a mere aesthetic preference.

Rite and Norm

Farneth’s anxiety is plain enough. She tries to mollify the liberal worry about ritual and tribalism. Inheritance is problematic for liberalism because it is believed anti-progressive. Ritual relies on rote learning, elders introducing the young into the customs of their peoples. For a Kantian liberal committed to autonomy, this is bad. Farneth insists that rote learning “rarely results in mechanical habit.” An example is the Mourner’s Kaddish recited outside the courthouse at the trial of the police officer who killed Eric Garner. In this example, Farneth contends, we see that “habituation was the precondition for expressive freedom.” The protestors took to the street a ritual designed for mourning the dead at home and, in addition, “redrew boundaries of obligation and concern,” by reciting the ancient prayer but not for the Jewish dead. This is why Farneth thinks that those committed to liberal democracy should acknowledge that rituals are political: they mark boundaries, distribute goods, shape habits, and express commitments.

This is right and is why conservatives pay attention to rituals. However, liberals do not share this interest because they think state power is determinative, mechanistic, and effective. Whatever work a ritual does, the liberal state’s bureaucracy does it faster and more efficiently. Farneth contends that religious rituals “often move between reproduction and disruption or between tradition and critique.” But do they in a genuinely political way? Farneth says, “If it is the case that associational life and its attending rituals have declined, then it is also the case that we have fewer and less effective means for caring for or contesting those things that have been taken and treated as sacred in our communities.” Which wing of contemporary liberalism is anxious about the “sacred”? Pope Francis sees the core issue more clearly: “Today we are not the only ones who produce culture, nor are we the first or the most listened to.”

Farneth is not seeking a return to ritual because she is a post-liberal, trying to reconnect with populist myths suppressed by the liberal juggernaut. She insists that for a ritual to be worthy, it must match liberal norms of justice. Whether Bentham’s mathematically inspired greatest happiness principle, or Kant’s pure moral law, or Rawl’s conceit of the veil of ignorance, norms are exterior to ritual. All her examples are of rituals with a twist, cases where their enactors “innovate within it in the service of just and democratic ideals.” A blurb on the back of the book, by Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale, states this clearly: “The Politics of Ritual demonstrates … how rituals are never morally neutral but are always to be judged in terms of justice and injustice.” Farneth herself is an example of what Francis observes: today, in liberal regimes, religious ritual does no original moral work, but plays second fiddle to formal principles of justice. Liberalism is not a sacramental theory.

Liberals do not like Plato’s talk of rituals—“enchantments for the soul”—but they do agree with him about the role of establishment in justice.

If the sacred is not really a driver of ritual in Farneth, is politics? Plato is not discussed, but the Laws is one long meditation on the politics of ritual, in particular their institutional character. Farneth likes the Eric Garner example because it shows a “riff on precedent,” and she likes its microscale. Civic rituals like the Pledge of Allegiance “leave us wanting,” thinks Farneth, because “they are instituted and regulated by elites.” It is noticeable that her examples are of relatively small groups who “contest existing systems of meaning.” Nowhere does she discuss astonishing cases of changes to ritual, like, for example, the Second Vatican Council when the Princes of the Church upended the collective experience of a billion Catholics. Establishment changes to ritual do not interest Farneth and nowhere in the volume are institutions, the state, bureaucracy, or the courts thematized. What follows is a comparison with Plato’s politics of ritual that helps us see better the character of Farneth’s argument. 

Rite or Routine?

Farneth limits her inquiry into rites understood as practices of “common interest and concern.” She argues that an individual’s routines are not rituals in her sense. The example she gives is someone’s routine when brushing her teeth. She’s right, that’s uninteresting. In a footnote, she wonders aloud about rituals found in sports. She notes there is a vast array of sporting routines and “many sports-related examples along these lines can actually become interesting in-between cases,” where a routine morphs into a ritual with political heft. Nonetheless, she tells us that to limit her object of study, she will discount such examples. This is where Plato would think an analytical problem enters her account.

Take the example of a Muslim striker scoring a goal in an English Premier League match prostrating himself on the grass, making the Sajda of thankfulness. That’s a political ritual, according to Plato. The point here is not about Islam, it is about celebrating scoring a goal, joy at victory over the “enemy.”

In the Laws, Plato contends that the fusion of play, ritual, and religion is basic to politics. Farneth agrees about the last two but leaves out the first. Leo Strauss points out that the Laws is Plato’s most political work, where he argues that play is basic to a city’s security:

The time for everybody to be practicing for war is not when they are at war, but during their life in peacetime. … They are to be for ever dreaming up improving games, to go with the sacrifices, so that there can be “ceremonial” battles which as realistically as possible mimic real-life battles.

Ritualized movement in competitive play is basic to civil defence. This is why Plato’s legislator requires that the dances and songs of the Chorus—which perfect the body in movement, and thus in battle—must not be altered lest the city is destabilized. A properly political account of ritual must put the emphasis on a persisting order of play, thinks Plato, not variety and change:

If the whole business is regulated, and involves the same games being played, with the same rules and in the same way, and the same people always playing, and being happy to play with the same toys, this allows traditional institutions of a more serious kind to remain undisturbed; if things vary, with new inventions, and a constant stream of changes in the bargain … then we would maintain (and rightly) that there is no more destructive influence in a city.

Plato thinks of ritual in terms of institutionalized games that regulate the “perception of order or disorder.” Profoundly, contends Plato, unchanging ritual is basic to our appreciation of civic peace. “The gods we said were given to us to be our companions in the dance—they are also the ones who have given us the ability to take pleasure in the perception of rhythm and harmony. This is their way of moving us and acting as our chorus leader.” For Plato, politics rests on set forms that teach us about peace and harmony.

By contrast, Farneth’s examples all rattle the established order and decenter its command of ritual expression. It is not enough to say that this is expected because Farneth is a liberal and Plato a conservative. The point goes deeper to the role of establishment in political order. Liberal formalists are as clear-eyed about this as Plato, and that is why I think Farneth’s thesis faces a tough liberal audience.

Rites and Games

The Laws suggests that Farneth has underappreciated the place of institutions in ritual. An example she gives confirms Plato’s suspicion.

To block anomie, Farneth does not want people making rituals afresh from new cloth, yet she does want a sort of “populist” reappropriation by today’s generation more anxious for social justice than their forebearers. This is why she proposes the common law as a model for how to think about changes to ritual. “The common-law model helps us think about the authority of these norms and precedents. People improvise within inherited ritual forms, criticize them, overturn them, apply them in new contexts, or change the norms and routines themselves.” Again, we see that rituals have no original, determinative normative content. Not for Farneth is the antique adage that custom has the force of law. About legal adjudication, she writes:

In this process, the norms that are implicit in the precedents bear on novel cases, but their authority is not absolute or independent of their use; it can be overridden or annulled. The judge considers the precedents, decides which are relevant, applies them to the present case, and thereby creates a new precedent for future cases.

Note, this is not a description of the practice of the courts. In her telling, the judge stands apart from the ritual, a sort of legal homunculus determining whether the ritual meets the standard of justice. The surface problem with this argument is that common law adjudications depend on a judiciary vetted by the state’s court system, who are beneficiaries of elite institutions of education, and who possess the experience of a matured mind. A deeper point belongs to Plato. The jockeying made possible by the rules of procedure is one of our civilization’s greatest games and, per Plato, it is an old, ancestral inheritance:

Education is the process of attracting or guiding children towards correct reason, as defined by law, and ratified—as genuinely correct—by the experience of those who are most advanced in age and moral qualities … to see that [the child] abides by the law, feeling the same enjoyment or pain at things as an old man would. This seems to be the reason why there have come into being the things which we call chants, but which are really enchantments for the soul. These have a serious aim, which is to produce the kind of consonance we are talking about.

Liberals do not like Plato’s talk of rituals—“enchantments for the soul”—but they do agree with him about the role of establishment in justice. This is why I think Farneth is between a liberal rock and a hard place. Hers is a valiant but forlorn thesis because I don’t see it sticking its landing in contemporary liberal sensibility.