Friends and monarchs

September 18th, 2022

Here’s another perspective on monarchy from the brilliant Quaker blog, the Armchair Theologian:

The last few days, in their multiplicity of ceremonial displays, have brought to the surface some surprisingly deep reflections on the nature of power, nationhood, and cults of personality. For my part, they have reinforced a deep theological suspicion regarding the substance of such civic displays. All this for a single person, all because she wore a crown? The question is mostly rhetorical, but it is a helpful entry point into my deeply held anxieties, not just about kings and queens, but politics in general. One of the reasons I continue to oppose the institution of monarchy (and incidentally a fetishistic attitude towards representative democracy) is the secular appropriation of the Corpus Mysticum (the claim that One can stand in for the Many). This seems to be something opponents and advocates of the British monarchy have agreed upon over the last few days. Either Queen Elizabeth II personifies ‘the best of us’ (however ‘us’ is defined) or she is the representative of Imperial atrocity and systematic racism. But to treat the Queen in this totemic fashion is to render her into an Idol or a scapegoat. In either case, such judgements conform to the ideological script of monarchy, that there are indeed special people who are able to represent whole groups and histories.

He goes on to the point I raised earlier, that even when monarchies are abolished, we start to treat other people and even objects with the Corpus Mysticum:

Any close examination of political systems will demonstrate that the mystical identification at the heart of monarchy is still capitalised upon, even where formal structures of kingship have been completely abolished. When a successful war is concluded or a treaty signed, there is a glamour around the inhabitant of an elected office, an aura which resembles a much older monarchical precedent: The success of the ruler is the success of a people and vice versa. This identification goes beyond any reasonable estimate of a leader’s responsibilities or real-world competences. The assumption is that his role is more than that of a transient administrator of shifting government departments. He is called upon to be a conduit for collective hopes and shared ambitions. He is summoned to the podium, not merely to offer an update on organizational progress (the relative strength of GDP, the state of unemployment, or foreign exchange rates), but to provide a story and a context for a people. Even in the bland modern state, the politician is encouraged to be a bard and a storyteller, even if he is discouraged from being a priest. When the most charismatic of politicians paints in primary colours ‘the destiny of a nation’, the narrative function is only effective because it is assumed that his individual identity has been fused into that of a general, national consciousness. If we consider this notion with a critical eye, we quickly realize that it is not possible for millions of people to be of the same mind, and that even banal words like ‘peace’, ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ mean many different things to different people.

And a sobering conclusion:

Mysticism in politics is the source of countless evils. We cannot and should not expect any earthly leader to save us, perfect us, validate or affirm us. It is not within the power of politics to make life meaningful. When ideology takes on this ultimate role, it becomes a false idol that diverts us from the one who is the true Corpus Mysticum (the body that does indeed encompass multitudes).

The entire piece Christianity and the Shadow of Monarchy is well worth the long read.