Breaking the Spell of American Civic Religion

George Santayana told a University of California, Berkeley, audience in 1911 that his Harvard colleague William James had “broken the spell of the genteel tradition.” “The genteel tradition,” he continued, “cannot be dislodged by these insurrections [ones like James’s that entice faith in a new direction]; there are circles in which it is still congenial, and where it will be preserved. But it has been challenged and (what is perhaps more insidious) it has been discovered.”

A similar development has been at work in American civil religion for over half a century since Berkeley’s Robert Bellah gave the world his version of the ACR. “[W]e find ourselves stuck with it,” John Wilsey writes in response to my essay. I think Mark Hall and Joshua Mitchell would agree.

Beyond that agreement, however, there are “circles in which it is still congenial,” as Hall’s essay makes clear and as Wilsey’s does to a lesser degree. Mitchell is more cautious yet holds out the hope for an ACR that can supplement rather than supplant Christianity.

But the ACR has been challenged. More than that, “it has been discovered.” In Santayana’s sense, Robert Bellah, by giving it a name and making it visible in the 1960s, may have unintentionally begun the ACR’s long, slow descent into desuetude. The ACR cannot survive a high degree of self-consciousness.

The ACR is the product of give and take. Government officials take the Bible, symbols, rituals, and metaphors and use them for their own purposes, and the Church gives as it blesses the government’s use of these things for its agendas and wars.

The ACR has been discovered. It is no longer part of the aural wallpaper of our common life but is now the subject of academic and public scrutiny and debate. For political theorists such as Hobbes and Rousseau, to name but two that Mitchell mentions in his fine essay on the experience of “betweenness,” civil religion was part of a deliberate project of state- and community-building. But it seems to me that if the public more broadly sees and hears and discusses civil religion, then it will not survive. 

I will confess that one of my goals in writing In Search of the City on a Hill a decade ago was to make the political uses of “city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14) visible and audible and thereby harder for Christians to accept, and easier for them to reclaim as a metaphor that belongs to the Church. Not content with that, I then did my part to make “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” unsingable in churches. Defenders, or even simply explainers, of civil religion will contribute to the same process of discovery and decline over the long run. As I wrote in my original essay for this forum, civil religion has lost its power for twenty- and thirty-somethings. It feels contrived and old-fashioned to them. Those who want to keep the ACR congenial may find that their very efforts undermine their good intentions.

Four problems of the ACR stand out as especially challenging for Christians.

  • The problem of vague theism. Mark Hall cites FDR’s D-Day prayer that was broadcast to the nation over radio in that fateful summer of 1944. (The broadcast ended with “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” sung by Fred Waring’s choir.) Roosevelt was a mainline Episcopalian, but there was nothing distinctively Christian about this prayer, no matter how unifying and comforting Americans may have found it. Judging by the responses from churches as reported in newspapers across the country, the prayer was popular. But in order to lead the nation in prayer, FDR had to leave aside the person of Christ as redeemer and mediator. What’s left is a generic god. 
  • The problem of selective quotations. As a thought experiment, it’s illuminating (and often amusing) to insert entire biblical passages into speeches that presidents, candidates, and other government officials quote selectively. What if Abraham Lincoln had quoted all of Matthew 12:24-28 in his “House Divided” speech? Jesus did indeed warn that a house divided against itself could not stand. But these words rebuked the Pharisees for accusing him of getting his power to cast out demons from Beelzebub. Jesus’s “house divided” metaphor referred to the impossibility of Satan casting out Satan. Maybe that applied to the U.S. in 1858, but I doubt that was Lincoln’s point. 
  • The problem of pronouns. At the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance at Washington National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush quoted Romans 8:38-39. “As we’ve been assured,” he said near the end of his remarks, “neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities, nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth can separate us from God’s love.” The Apostle Paul finishes the promise with these words: “which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The first part works for civil religion, but the missing part doesn’t. And that critical pronoun “us” makes all the difference. Paul conveyed God’s words of assurance and comfort to believers in his Son. God never made these promises to America. A government official might take these words and turn them to political uses, but I don’t see how a Christian can give them willingly. It is also important to bear in mind John Lukacs’s point that the same words, spoken by different people, on different occasions, to different audiences, to different ends, are not the same words. 
  • The problem of definition. Mark Hall offers a narrow definition of civil religion as a corrective to my handling of the ACR. John Wilsey proposes a broader definition, or more specifically a wider body of literature that goes beyond Bellah. I will focus on Hall’s proposed definition that he argues will provide greater clarity to the debate: The ACR is “1. the use of religious or religious-like speech and practices 2. by American governments and/or government officials 3. to attain certain ends.” This standard might provide a theory of ACR in some abstract sense, but I don’t think it works as a theory of ACR in particular. Hall uses this narrow definition to exclude what individuals and private institutions do when they cite the Bible to promote reform or some other common good. In this way, The Faith and Liberty Bible is not and cannot be civil religion. It is not the work of a government or government official. But in practice, the ACR has been a revolving door. Both Church and State go round and round in this door. The ACR is the product of give and take. Government officials take the Bible, symbols, rituals, and metaphors and use them for their own purposes, and the Church gives as it blesses the government’s use of these things for its agendas and wars. Eisenhower’s support for adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and the sermon he heard that inspired him, are simply two sides of civil religion working together.

As these four points should make obvious, I am primarily concerned about what the ACR does to churches that participate in it as opposed to what the ACR does for America, though I have significant concerns about that as well. I appreciate Joshua Mitchell’s concluding point that the Church must be the Church, though I do not see this fidelity as a means of reforming and reviving a healthy civil religion that supplements rather than replaces Christianity. The Church needs to be the Church no matter what happens to America. 

I am grateful to Law & Liberty for hosting this forum on civil religion and especially to Mark Hall, Joshua Mitchell, and John Wilsey for taking the time to provide thoughtful and serious responses. We do not all agree, but their replies are courteous even when sharply criticizing me, and they have forced me to rethink and restate my position and even nudged me in a more radical direction. I sense that we all have much more to say, and I hope that this exchange will lead to further collaboration. In the current explosion of books about religion and politics in America, there is still room for more engagement and for more voices.