religion and institutions

NPR carried two stories on Sunday that go to an interesting juxtaposition between the separate magisteria of religious belief and institutional workings. Each was interesting in its own right; in combination they make for a fascinating comparison because they are so very different.

First was a story about the “fast track” to sainthood for the previous pope, John Paul II, which has been championed by Pope Benedict who was John Paul II’s close advisor, confidant, and friend. Says John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter:

There was a recent poll in the States that found that 74 percent of Americans generally, and 90 percent of American Catholics, believe that John Paul deserves beatification.

Already this introduces the strange intermixture of intensely secular discourses like public opinion (do 74% of Americans have any idea what beatification even is?) with intensely religious ones like sainthood. My favorite example of this intermixture is:

…one can draw a lot of different conclusions about the policy choices that John Paul II made. But at a personal level, I don’t think there’s much doubt that this was a mensch, you know; this was a real man, you know, warts and all. I mean, he was a remarkable human being with, you know, a wicked intellect and a great sense of humor, and the kind of man that, if I can put this in American argot, you just felt good sitting down and having a beer with.

Now, I know that the notion of the pope as infallible is no longer au courant. But really – as bad of a standard as “having a beer with” is for presidential candidates, it’s a thousand times worse for sainthood, if for no other reason than that sainthood is not conceptualized as a representative institution. Presumably a saint is dramatically different from you and me, right?

The second story approached the same issue very differently. Lobsang Sangay has been elected Prime Minister of Tibet, a secular position intended to be distinct from the religious authority of the Dalai Lama:

Tibetans in 30 countries voted for me overwhelmingly and also, it’s as per the authorization of His Holiness Dalai Lama that the head of the government-of-exile be the political spokesman and face of the Tibetan people. In that sense, I will enjoy his extended traditional and political legitimacy as well as the democratic legitimacy of being elected.

Here the separate magisteria are carefully distinguished, respect paid to their separation, as (almost) sacred from profane. Indeed, Sangay has to explain to Liane Hansen (whose name he pronounces in a delightful way) the concept of the Dalai Lama and his status as the reincarnation of the Lama:

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the ultimate authority on who the next Dalai Lama should be. He is the reincarnation, and he himself explained very carefully the idea of reincarnation is to fulfill the mission and vision of the previous incarnate Lama, which means if His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is to pass away in exile, he will be born in exile.

As far as Chinese attempts – in this regard is likely to fail because faith is matter of heart and mind. You cannot force faith. You cannot buy faith. Faith is in your heart, and Tibetans’ faith and loyalty is with the Dalai Lama. And his decision is to be born outside of Tibet if the solution of Tibet is not found while he’s alive.

No mention here of polling; of having a beer with the guy; of anything at all that would violate the boundary other than asking advice.

I can imagine some ideas as to why these two religions approach what amounts to the same problem very differently:

  • The contingent history of the Catholic church’s institutionalization;
  • The fact of Catholicism’s long-term power vs. the Dalai Lama’s status as dissident/exile;
  • The belief structure of Catholicism with respect to the relationship between God and the Pope, as distinct from that between the Lama and the Dalai Lama
  • The difference in Western perceptions of the Dalai Lama vs. the Pope

Thoughts? Ideas?

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

2 thoughts on “religion and institutions”

  1. The world of NPR and its listeners the Ordinary Place. It is rational, down to earth, and commonsensical. Culture, such as it exists, is fundamentally political. The world of the foreigners they report on is the Exotic Place. It is irrational, full of intriguing magical beliefs and wonderful rituals. Politics, such as it exists, is fundamentally cultural. The religious practices of genuinely foreign Exotic Places are real in a way that those in Ordinary Places are not. The standards of objective reporting require each must be taken seriously, but in a manner appropriate to its status as Ordinary or Exotic.

    Thus, in the case of Tibet the role of the reincarnated Lama is faithfully reported as an instance of the mysterious and wonderful Culture of Exotic Lands. We can take it for granted that the political life of Tibet requires an understanding of doctrines of reincarnation and traditional legitimacy, and that at root it is a truly religious phenomenon. The theological niceties are vital and foreigners must make a good-faith effort to grasp them, even though this is of course impossible for outsiders. In Exotic Places, it is no surprise that ordinary political life coexists alongside real, sacred religious culture, and that the former would ultimately be subordinate to the latter.

    Meanwhile, the Catholic Church must also be treated seriously, but in a different way. Because it is part of an Ordinary Place, we can take it for granted that the Church’s situation and any efforts to Beatify JPII or assess his “policies” are at root truly political phenomena. The situation is interpretable in just the same way as the efforts of Republicans to get Reagan put on the $10 bill, or carved into Mount Rushmore. The theological niceties of beatification and canonization are bureaucratic distractions from the realities of the underlying power struggle. In Ordinary Places, it is no surprise that real, nuts-and-bolts politics would underpin a nominally religious institution, and that the latter would ultimately be explained by the former.


  2. Interesting comment, Kieran. What you say is in line with a broad array of research (see e.g., Ridgeway & Correll [Social Forces] 2006), Michele Lamont’s book, The Dignity of Working Men) which shows that people tend to think of high-status actors as less authentic. My favorite example, which like this one is about elites seeing themselves as being inauthentic, is in David Halle’s book Inside Culture. See esp his description of how rich East Side (of Manhattan) whites [who lived in close proximity to East Harlem] displayed African masks in their apartments despite finding them kind of creepy. And we can all think of other examples of household display of totems of authenticity from low-status groups (e.g., in the southwest, it might be Native American/Indian culture)


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