Saving life, or pikuach nefesh, has nothing to with it. “Uncivil Religion,” in contrast to Civil Religion, is religion set apart from and, under crisis, against civil society and the larger social good against which it seeks to protect itself or which it seeks to dominate. Uncivil Religion is uncivil. It works inside an intentional, artificial and semi-autonomous construction of its own design that do not comport with “the real world.” Those inside follow the rules and norms of the value system, its own ethos or way of life vis-a-vis the majority. What is holy? Who are saved? Where is God? Dependent on miracle in the face of crisis, i.e. the banging up against hard external facts, these internal systems tend to buckle. People get sick and die. The nomos and only the nomos matters. Disease, death, and social disorder mark the outer limit of Uncivil Religion in its challenge to civil society, the primary concern of which is life, or bios.
Evangelical Christianity in the United States would be one example of the larger and negative impact of a hegemonic form of Uncivil Religion on society in the “age” of late capitalism, Coronavirus, anti-Black racism, resurgent anti-Semitism and the scourge of Trump and American insurrection. But it is the stubborn and catastrophic Haredi response to Coronavirus that is the case in point concerning me here. Despite the very real mass structure and political power that communities like these leverage, the minoritarian religious posture of Haredi society exaggerates the set-apart and heterotopian features of Uncivil Religion as a realized utopia.
A granular look will reveal the variegations in Haredi response to the virus, under the leadership of this or that rabbis and sector. But the problem is structural and in the overall effect of the system. Spending seventeen hours a day steeped in the paideic aura of holiness and talmud Torah is the hallmark counter-coherence of the Uncivil Religion. In response to Coronavirus, signfican segments of Haredi society double down on the social events that create and sustain the nomos: study, prayer, weddings and funerals, all en masse and against public health regulations (as per here). This so-so article here at the NYT about Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the Litvakish Haredi spiritual leader and halakhic authority in Israel, cites Professor Kimmy Caplan. “We’re talking about a person who has been living in Bubble Wrap for quite a few years. The man is 93 years old. I’m not taking away from his wisdom, but he is in many ways detached from reality.”