Does America Need a Civil Religion?

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The website Patheos has revived their excellent feature “The Public Square” with one of the more interesting topics that can be asked in conjunction with religion and public life: namely, that of civil religion. I was asked to contribute something–in no more than 800 words, which anyone who knows me knows is difficult. I’m attaching below the unedited version of what they ran; I strongly encourage you to read all the contributions, as there is some good thinking on display there:

Robert Bellah’s classic notion of America’s civil religion involved, as he put it, “the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it.” To elaborate on that idea somewhat, Bellah held that the United States of America–like, he believed, every sovereign national body–both carried within and articulated through its own history a “religious self-understanding”: in our case, a Judeo-Christian one, in which the ethical principles of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount formed a commonly accepted baseline upon which American citizens assessed their own polity (and, in particular, its political leaders and government policies). Bellah himself later backed away from a strong reliance upon civil religion as a way of explaining American society or diagnosing its behavior, emphasizing that the American religious ideal is best conceived as an wholly internalized, non-institutionalized one, but his original formulation still haunts many American political debates. In a country with a strong Protestant Christian history, comparatively robust levels of religious affiliation, ever-increasing religious pluralism, and numerous politically active religious-oriented groups and a party factions, what role should, or can, civil religion play?

My attitude towards these questions is fairly straightforward: I think that asking whether civil religion is possible or needful ignores the reality that it is, in fact, inevitable in a free and democratic society. Developing in the elaboration of some kind of civil religious consensus is a by product of thinking and believing people freely interacting with each other. In fact, I do not think that the “religious self-understanding” which Bellah observed about American life is necessarily all that substantively different from one of the great bogeymen of American constitutional history: “religious establishment.” Bellah’s later effort to insist that a civil religion loses its coherence when conceived outside of the individual dimension is, I think, a retreat from what is an otherwise inescapable complication.

In my view, it is an unavoidable facet of human nature to want to understand the actions of individuals (including oneself) as embedded in some sort of collective, morally (and often religiously) substantive–that is, “truthful”–cultural order. This is the fundamentally communitarian and dialogic character as human beings coming out: our ability to speak, think, associate, and judge impels us to retrieve from or construct through our social lives an arrangement of meaning. The result of this will be, in all but the most demographically unsettled and historically conflicted polities, a broadly affirmed civil religion which will invariably push towards elaboration and codification, even if at the same time one might be reluctant to grant the legal extremities of such, and even if the venues for expressing that codification (government offices, public schools, sporting events, marriage rules, family policies, etc.) vary and grow more diverse over time. America is not an exception to this; religious historians and political theorists (Jan Shipps and Eldon Eisenach, to just name two) have long argued that America’s civic identity has been shaped by a series of what might be called “voluntary national religious establishments”–and there is no reason, I think, to believe that process has ended. Indeed, if that process came to an end, it would imply rather threatening conclusions about the reality of our own freedom as thinking, believing, associating beings and citizens.

America’s civil religion today has a very minimal establishment, which mostly finds its expression in genially liberal ways. But that does not mean it is absent. The depth of the animosity which long characterized the debate over same-sex marriage–and the near-panic over protecting “religious liberty” which now characterizes the way some culturally conservative Christian churches and organizations are viewing same-sex marriage’s recent successes–should make that clear. All the participants in this debate would do better, I think, if they could appreciate the substance of the ground upon which they are arguing. On the secular side of this divide, there is the insistence that they merely seek government neutrality, and have no theological agenda. This, I think, is clearly false; a society which carries into wedding halls, however implicitly, civil religious assumptions which can accommodate the idea of same-sex unions is going to be a very different society from one which rejected that idea as perverse. On the other, conservative side, there is the insistence that defensive actions against proposed rules about marriage or contraception which they make on behalf of religious traditionalism is a matter of preventing the public square from being stripped naked of all religiosity. But of course, it isn’t that at all: rather, it is clearly a matter of particular Christian communities–ones which have long enjoyed implicit advantages under our reigning civil religion–losing their default position.

The partisans of those communities–those particular religious believers, in other words–obviously use whatever democratic or constitutional tools are available to them to protect their established presumptions. And sometimes, particularly in certain parts of the country, such legal and majoritarian strategies will work, and the resulting establishment will be a hybrid, contentious one. Wishing to avoid such contention entirely is, I think, a false and misguided hope. Democratic societies will have common religious understandings of one sort or another. The fact that America’s is currently turning from a liberal-but-nominally-orthodox Christian one into something else is a legitimate concern for conservative believers–but it does not mean that civil religion will disappear, or that anyone should want it to.


  1. I like the Vermont constitution’s approach:

    Article 3rd. Freedom in religion; right and duty of religious worship
    That all persons have a natural and unalienable right, to worship Almighty God, according to the dictates of their own consciences and understandings, as in their opinion shall be regulated by the word of God; and that no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any minister, contrary to the dictates of conscience, nor can any person be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of religious sentiments, or peculiar mode of religious worship; and that no authority can, or ought to be vested in, or assumed by, any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner control the rights of conscience, in the free exercise of religious worship. Nevertheless, every sect or denomination of Christians ought to observe the sabbath or Lord’s day, and keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.

  2. Thanks for sharing your contribution, and for the link to other view points. I am glad to see “The Public Square,” as a place of respectful sharing of perspectives.

    Joseph Smith clearly laid out the values for how members of the LDS church should participate in a civil religion from Articles of Faith 9-13. I’m afraid that the current practices, and beliefs, of many members, would not meet these very basic tenets if our religion. I have struggled for a long time, (I think I first articulated it in a debate as a sophomore in high school) that there is an inherent conflict between the idea that a country, community or religion is right/correct/true in a way that *excludes the possibility* of other countries, communities or religions being right/correct/true, and allows for progress/learning/continuing revelation. While Joseph was told that none of the other churches were “true,” I do not believe that we can currently say that the LDS church is “the only true church,” until we are following all of the basic tenets, set out in the Articles of Faith, especially Articles 9-13. We aren’t there yet, and we have a long way to go.

  3. Perhaps another way to look at this is to take the Sociologist’s perspective. Where society is small, unified, non-pluralistic, views that might be characterized as predominantly religious in nature are adopted. Where society is less dominated by one background, more diverse, and more accepting of diversity, views and opinions become less wide spread, and compromise more accepted, this out of the necessity to remain cohesive.

    Let us open up the “can of worms” here and examine privately a few. Universality of participation in the Priesthood, separate and distinct roles defined by gender, marriage rules, sexual attraction. Nothing in this list is really new. All have been addressed in one way or another over the ages. The larger the society, the more diverse it’s composition, the less uniform and more broad based is its approach to these matters.

    Most recently, the Brethren spoke to the issue of allowing same sex attracted youth to remain members of our congregational sponsored Scout Troops. That stirred things up on these pages considerably.But some time back and quoting from the 11th Article of Faith, the Brethren condemned the burning of the Koran as a sacrilege, comparing it to Holy Scripture. Ours was the only Christian denomination to have done so. However the basis for having taken this stance has yet to have been explored. Anyone care to take this matter up?

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