This week’s reflection is a bit longer than usual. Please bear with me…
Some have argued, and still do, that Christianity is the national faith in the United States. Others argue that historically Christianity, the Deism of the founding fathers, and other religious traditions have long inspired U.S. Americans. Today of course Christian nationalism is very much in the news.
Religion and values in U.S. American society has been my academic and research focus for the past thirty years. I would argue that, for a very long time, there has been a well-institutionalized civil religion in the United States, alongside of and clearly differentiated from the established religious traditions like Christianity and Judaism.
All religions are systems of beliefs and practices that help people answer their deeper questions about identity, life, and meaning. U.S. civil religion has all the qualities of a religion. It has foundational sacred texts with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The National Archives building in Washington DC, in fact, is designed like a temple; and the nation’s sacred scriptures are displayed in an altar-type protective reliquary. (Many years ago, when we were little kids, my sister and I visited the National Archives. We walked in, looked around and the first thing we did, as good Catholic kids sensing a church-type environment, was genuflect. Then we were embarrassed and just started laughing.)
U.S. civil religion has national saints like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. (I don’t think there will be a Saint Donald Trump. But many of his followers would love that.) The U.S. has a broad collection of laws establishing codes of conduct. The key civil religion symbol of course is the Stars and Stripes. There are abundant sacred shrines in U.S. civil religion: places like the Capitol in Washington DC; the Lincoln Memorial; the Statue of Liberty; Arlington National Cemetery, where the “martyrs” are buried; Mount Rushmore, commemorating four civil saints; the Vietnam Memorial; and a great variety of statues and memorials scattered across the country. I have been to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC many times. What always strikes me is how silent people become when they walk up the statue of Abraham Lincoln.
And of course we have civil religion holy days like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Washington’s Birthday, Martin Luther King Day, and of course Thanksgiving.
U.S. civil religion has been a deeply felt and strongly patriotic universal religion of the nation. It does not compete with established religions but exists alongside them and is supported by them. In many U.S. church sanctuaries, for example, the American flag hangs as a traditional adornment. People growing up outside the United States, like my European friends, cannot understand the U.S. reverence for the flag and that U.S. citizens are expected to hold their hands over their hearts during a rendition of the national anthem or when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In Belgium the flag comes out when there is a big football game.
The U.S. civil religion concept, originating in the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) with echoes in Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859), made its first major impact on the sociological study of religion in the United States with the publication of an essay titled “Civil Religion in America,” written in 1967 by the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah (1927-2013). “While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith,” Bellah observed, “few have realized that there actually exists alongside the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” (One of my delights some years ago was a series of informal conversations and lunch with Robert Bellah and his wife, when they visited our university.)
Civil religion is unique in U.S. culture because it does not claim an identifiable social group but the entire society itself; or as British writer G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936) once observed: The United States is “a nation with the soul of a church.”
U.S. civil religion has not only the common features of a religion but a regularly expressed belief in Divine Providence that looks over America: “In God we trust,” and annuit coeptis – translated as “He favors our undertakings” – on the one dollar bill, by way of example. In 1956, during the height of the Cold War struggle with the officially atheist Soviet Union, Congress passed a joint resolution, signed by President Dwight D.Eisenhower (1890 – 1969), declaring “In God We Trust” to be the national motto of the United States.
Up until the Civil War (1861 – 1865), U.S. civil religion focused on the American Revolution (1765 – 1791) as the final act of the Exodus from the old world across the sea. George Washington was seen as the divinely appointed new Moses who led his people out of the old world tyranny of the British Empire.
With the Civil War, new themes of death, sacrifice, and rebirth entered U.S. civil religion. They were symbolized in the life and death of President Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865); and, at the end of the Civil War, in a series of national, civil religion, Holy Week events. Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807 – 1870) surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) on April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday. When he was shot on Good Friday, April, 14, President Lincoln shed his blood for his country. Lincoln died on Saturday and so, on the following day — Easter 1865, “Reconstruction” resurrection began under President Andrew Johnson (1808 – 1875).
A few years before his own death, the American poet, Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977), understood the civil religion impact of Lincoln and offered this reflection: “The Gettysburg Address is a symbolic and sacramental act. In his words, Lincoln symbolically died, just as the Union soldiers really died – and as he himself was soon really to die. By his words, he gave the field of battle a symbolic significance that it has lacked. For us and our country, he left Jefferson’s ideals of freedom and equality joined to the Christian sacrificial act of death and rebirth. I believe this is the meaning that goes beyond sect or religion and beyond peace and war, and is now part of our lives as a challenge, obstacle, and hope.”
Following the Civil War, the great number of war dead required the establishment of several national cemeteries. Of these, Gettysburg National Cemetery, which Lincoln’s famous address served to dedicate, has been overshadowed only by the Arlington National Cemetery, begun on the Robert E. Lee estate across the river from Washington.
Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War. Memorial Day integrates people and local communities into a national observance, just as Thanksgiving Day, which was institutionalized as an annual national holiday under the presidency of Lincoln, serves to integrate families into a national civil religion celebration of unity and gratitude for the blessings of Divine Providence.
Post WWII America was fertile ground for American civil religion; and President Dwight David Eisenhower its strong advocate. With the support of people like the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale (1898 – 1993) and the Rev. Billy Graham (1918 – 2018), Eisenhower presided over a vigorous assertion of the place of religion in public life. Even when, as he said, he didn’t care what the religion was. He established the annual “presidential” prayer breakfast, and the presidential practice of ending speeches with “May God bless America.” With Eisenhower’s support, Congress inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and placed “In God We Trust” on all currency. Few Americans opposed such steps. Protestants and Catholics were happy, and Jewish Americans felt they could live with Eisenhower’s vague public religiosity.
A very popular civil religion spin-off fellow at this time was the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and his “Positive Thinking” religio-psychiatry. Peale was probably the most famous clergyman in the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s. When Donald Trump was a child, the Trump family regularly attended Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Years later, Peale presided over Trump’s first marriage to Ivana (1949 – 2022) in 1977. It was Norman Vincent Peale, by the way, who taught Donald Trump to promote and worship himself.
U.S. civil religion has never been anticlerical or militantly secular. It has consistently borrowed from set religious traditions in such a way that the average U.S citizen has seen no conflict between the two. In this way, civil religion, with no opposition from the churches, has been able to construct powerful symbols of national solidarity and to activate deep levels of personal engagement for the attainment of national goals. And here one really must also acknowledge the contribution of public schools as shapers of civil religion values.
Sustaining the whole panorama of American civil religion are key biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But how should people understand these themes today? Do they correctly understand them? Even Robert Bellah observed years ago that “civil religion has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes.”
Today civil religion is buried in Christian nationalism and various fundamentalist movements. We see it being used in a rather fanatic way to justify racism, police brutality, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia.
U.S. civil religion has taken a complicated shift since January 6th 2021, as the American political idea has been linked to Christian nationalism. Among those who invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6thwere many who said they were led by their Christian beliefs. Interestingly, however, members of the Capitol Police warned the protesters that they they were violating the “sacred space” of the Capitol.
The religious nationalism present at the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington stands, however, in clear contrast to the U.S. tradition of civil religion, which places sanctity in the symbols (such as the Capitol building with Saint George Washington portrayed in the rotunda dome) and ceremonies that represent U.S. guiding principles like national unity and the dignity for all.
In his inaugural address, on January 20, 2021, President Biden condemned the violence at the U.S. Capitol in the language of religion, asserting the sacredness of American democratic traditions. “On this hallowed ground where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation,” he said, “we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.”
John Carlson, associate director of religious studies at Arizona State University, and interim director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, wrote on the day after the Biden inauguration that U.S. civil religion was on full display during the inauguration: “Presidential inaugurations serve as the high holiday of our American civil religion: In front of ‘the temple of our democracy’ — the Capitol — presidents and vice presidents take their ‘sacred oaths’ by placing their hands upon special bibles, often with histories as rich as the ceremony itself. The president’s inaugural address serves as a kind of sermon or catechism to the masses….’Civil religion,’ then, is a scholarly term for the common understanding of principles, ideals, narratives, symbols and events that describe the American experience of democracy in light of higher truths.”
My head-scratching these days: Is the concept of U.S. civil religion still useful for understanding socio-cultural life in the contemporary United States? If not, how should one think about religion in the U.S.A. today? How do we interpret what is happening –- socio-politically — in the contemporary United States? What will be the implications of the November 2022 midterm elections, when, according to a Washington Post analysis, a majority of Republican nominees for House, Senate, and key statewide offices — 299 in all — have denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential election?
I still reflect on the stirring words and phrases from Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem: “The Hill We Climb.”
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.