Friday, April 29, 2011

On the Royal Wedding, Emergence and Political Discourse in the US and Britain

I had no plan to watch the royal wedding this morning, but it happened to coincide with my morning coffee. And, as I watched, I was struck by a peculiar philosophical difference between American and British political discourse and its relation to the concept of emergence.

While the wedding had lots of pomp and ceremony, I was surprised at the clear, explicit and didactic nature of the statements made by the Cardinal. He literally provided numbered reasons for the benefits of marriage ... one, to have children; two ...; etc. It was not just a ceremony for those involved, it was also a message to the British about the intended role of the Royals. And, looking at the larger structure of the discourse, here is what was articulated:

1) The wedding ceremony involved a 'fusion' of William, Kate and God. Significantly, the point was made explicitly and repeatedly that the result of this process -- making God an operative element in their lives -- should not be seen as forcing them to 'conform' to a particular moral or ethical code. Rather, fusing themselves with God was meant to be transformative -- to provide them with access to the Holy in a way that allows them to navigate novel situations with a moral compass informed by God about what is good and what is not.

2) Later in the ceremony, there was some explicit discussion of the future and, in particular, the obligations of the Royals in facilitating it. This was, as one would expect in a nation where formal political decisions rest with the elected officials in Parliament, a bit more subtly phrased -- but the intended meaning was still clear. The Royals, using their moral compass informed by God, have an important role to play in defining the direction of British society and, interestingly, its relation to nature.

I don't know squat about Anglican doctrine, previous royal weddings or any particular role that Charles (and his well known green bent) might have had in crafting the reference to preserving nature. But the general philosophical tone of the ceremony was clear: rather than leading through adherence to a rigid code, the Royals are expected to channel God and provided enlightened and emergent leadership that addresses novel problems in novel ways.

This view is, interestingly, in stark contrast with American political discourse where the dominant theme has to do with the infinite wisdom of the founding fathers and the merit in finding solutions that conform to their ideas. This orientation is most explicitly present in the legal philosophy of 'strict constructionism' but the invocation of the founding fathers is a standard trope in Congress as well.

So this is where the English speaking world currently finds itself. On one side of the pond, moral leadership is invested in an in-bred group of Royals who are expected to channel God in order to help Britain find its way. But they have no formal political power. On the other side of the pond, God has been replaced by a group of long dead men -- the founding fathers -- as the source of enlightened governance. Moreover, rather than adaptively addressing new problems, solutions are found though conformity to the ideas of the founders. Personally, I don't find either of those options -- adaptive leadership based on the Divine right of Kings and the spiritual connection of the Royals to God or rigid doctrinal adherence to a civil authority constrained to the ideas of a group long dead men -- particularly attractive. Can't we some how find a way to get adaptive governance integrated into a civil authority structure?


  1. Wow. What a masterpiece of exegesis!

    Seriously, you read way too much into it (to be fair, you were hardly alone in this). It was a pretty show. Good for the UK tourist industry. Popular with the masses over here because we got an extra day off work. That's about it.

    Although I have wondered from time to time why/how the UK royal family has been so stubbornly adaptive over the years. But the trade off for their ongoing persistence is their complete lack of political significance, and trivial levels of cultural and social influence. So I would be very wary of making any generalisations about British society as a whole from the ceremony- a very distorted mirror. The Bishop of London's advice sounded like fairly standard CoE fare to me, familiar from normal weddings (basically RC-lite), there may interesting things to say about emergence and religion/religious wedding ceremonies more generally but I don't think this was any different for being 'royal'.

  2. I wasn't saying the Royals were influential, but that the symbolism and ritual (see Durkheim!) are significant and, likely, tell us something about British society. However, to be clear, my tongue was at least partially planted in my cheek when I wrote this. If my humor is so dry that it isn't recognizable to a Brit, it must be nearly off the scale :+)