Reformation and Revival in American Civil Religion

Until recently, I believed that the problem of civil religion in America had become a tired, threadbare question that academics had moved past. But the recent flood of books and articles on Church and State, Christianity and politics, Christian Nationalism, National Conservatism, exceptionalism, and integralism has proven me wrong. I still think that civil religion doesn’t have the appeal among college students today that an older generation assumes it does or should. They are likely to see anxiety over civil religion as a “Boomer” problem. If you are a Boomer, you know how annoying this can be. Yes, these “meme-ified” youngsters find everything funny, and that can lead to corrosive cynicism, but their attitude presents a significant challenge to anyone planning to reenergize civil religion. It might fall flat.

But is there an alternative? A reaffirmation of a common faith in the American Civil Religion (ACR) may seem to be the only solution to a multiplication of competing civil religions in which every man becomes his own Numa, prescribing temple rituals for national gods for the sake of solidarity around all kinds of social and political causes. Indeed, some might object that in a time of national fragmentation, the last thing we need is a “Higher Criticism” that historicizes America’s saints and sacred texts. It’s true that the better we know the history of such documents as John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity,” the less useful they are for grounding an American identity as a Redeemer Nation or God’s New Israel.

But before we call for a revival of civil religion, we ought to reckon with the origin and content of that faith. The old-time religion may not be as old as we think. We may have gotten into the habit of projecting a modern, ideological invention back across American history in an act of creating what David Hackett Fischer called “retrospective symmetry.”

Bellah the Reformer

The moment we step into the civil religion debate, we encounter the Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah. Fifty-five years ago, Bellah set out not simply to describe and understand American civil religion but to reform it. He envisioned his 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” as more than a dispassionate contribution to the sociology of religion. Bellah left no doubt on this point. The American Civil Religion, he wrote, “is in need—as is any living faith—of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards.” Responding to a 1968 symposium on his essay, Bellah explained further that “my paper . . . is meant as a contribution toward the reformation as well as the understanding of American civil religion.”

Bellah may not rank as the Martin Luther of the ACR, but he succeeded better than he knew in setting the agenda. His scholarship has cast a long shadow across the ideological spectrum and across many disciplines. And yet, in the flood of books, articles, and conferences inspired by his 1967 essay, little attention has been paid to Bellah’s role as civil-religion reformer. Indeed, most writers on the ACR simply start with Bellah’s paradigm and do not probe deeper into his presuppositions and goals. Bellah didn’t simply give us the ACR. He gave us the Reformation ACR.

Bellah proposed in “Civil Religion in America” that the ACR was a real religion, or at least functioned as a real religion. This common faith operated in a realm distinct from both the church and the state, though borrowing from each. “There actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches,” Bellah wrote, “an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” Moreover, it “has its own seriousness and integrity and requires the same care in understanding that any other religion does.”

To that end, Bellah used John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address to find the “clue” to this faith. He examined the three times Kennedy mentioned God. These instances were not explicitly Christian nor reflective of the doctrines of the Catholic Church. And by invoking God, Kennedy did not violate the separation of church and state. Such institutional separation had never “denied the political realm a religious dimension.” The value of the ACR was that it held America accountable to “a higher criterion,” and offered “a transcendent goal for the political process.” Bellah then traced this common faith through the Revolution and the Civil War, the bloody ordeal that added “a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth.” It was Lincoln who accomplished this development through the power of his rhetoric. He was the great public theologian of the national crisis, as Reinhold Niebuhr had written. The Gettysburg Address in particular added this explicitly Christian dimension, but “without having anything to do with the Christian Church.”

In addition to these beliefs, the ACR also has its sacred sites, such as Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It has its liturgical calendar, featuring such national observances as Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July. Manifested in these ways, “Civil religion at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people.” It expresses their “deep-seated values and commitments,” gives religious legitimacy to political authority, and reaffirms the nation’s faith in an active Providence.

Mobilized Protestantism

Bellah’s superb biographer Matteo Bortolini (author of A Joyfully Serious Life and several outstanding articles), has explored the development of his thinking on civil religion in detail (especially in “Before Civil Religion”). I want to highlight just a few of Bellah’s presuppositions about American religion and politics, not claiming that Bortolini would agree with the direction I take this. Nevertheless, I am indebted to his scholarship.

Bellah grew up in a social-gospel Presbyterian Sunday school. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he dabbled in Marxism and joined the Communist Party. As a professor at Berkeley, he plunged into the counterculture, embraced the sexual revolution with gusto, and remained a man of the Left throughout his life in both religion and politics. His heroes were Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and J. William Fulbright. And while he was lukewarm toward Bill Clinton and his “neoliberalism,” he was ecstatic over Barack Obama’s election, saying that the Reverend Jeremiah Wright was right about America. Bellah’s ACR helped legitimize America’s trajectory toward social democracy and liberal internationalism. It was the way to gauge who fulfilled and who betrayed that destiny, who was on the right side of history and who on the wrong.

Bellah believed that the basic symbols of the ACR could be re-worked for social change. Evidence for this comes from the academic paper he wrote for a conference on “Religion and American Culture” hosted by Daedalus, the publication of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Bellah called his contribution “Heritage and Choice in American Religion,” now available online. It is fascinating reading for anyone who knows only the revised essay Daedalus published two years later. The original reveals more clearly the “reformer” side of his purpose, a side reserved for an academic audience and not packaged for public circulation.

Bellah argued that, historically, Protestant America had had a “predominantly favorable attitude toward progressive democratic society,” and yet, since churchgoers continued to associate religion with tradition, family, home, and stability, many Americans found it hard “to see the church as a place where startling intellectual innovation or dramatic social reform should emerge.” Bellah wanted intellectual elites to help ordinary Americans imagine this role for their churches. Unfortunately, “though the American church or at least an important section of the American clergy is speaking out vigorously on social issues [in the 1960s] and has become involved in social movements, especially the civil rights movement, the orientation of the average churchgoer to social change remains problematic.”

“Problematic” for whom or what? This concern only makes sense if “the average churchgoer” had to have his consciousness raised and be turned into an activist. And this is where the academy comes in. In his 1968 reply to his critics, Bellah wrote that it was “legitimate for the university community to bear some of the burden of the civil religion. Critical self-consciousness may be the best antidote to the kinds of perversions which the commentators are so quick to point out.” In “Heritage and Choice,” he proposed that, “Rather than [make a] frontal assault on the status quo, one might work with the religious symbols which are closely related to deeper levels of the personality and its irrational aspects to provide a leverage for reorientation of the majority middle strata of the society to social change both at home and abroad.” Bellah could not have made his ultimate purpose for a Reformed ACR clearer. The tradition had to be used. It wouldn’t do the job on its own. “It is up to us to choose what we will make of it.” And choose he did.

The ACR pressured an apolitical pulpit to conform to cultural and political demands, and sanctioned the appropriation of Biblical language and doctrine for the uses of the nation and its wars and ambitions.

What was that tradition? Bellah believed that a Protestantism mobilized for social change had been the norm in America. American religion had been shaped not just generally by the “Calvinist and sectarian wings of the Reformation” but more specifically by a Calvinism characterized by a transformational faith that kept the faithful very busy in this world. This is what attracted Bellah, and for him it defined the American experience.

Regarding Kennedy’s connection to this faith, Bellah marveled “that this very activist and noncontemplative conception of the fundamental religious obligation, which has historically been associated with the Protestant position, should be enunciated so clearly in the first major statement of the first Catholic president seems to underline how deeply established it is in the American outlook.” Or at least it showed how skillful his speechwriter Ted Sorensen was at connecting Kennedy all the way back to the Puritans.

Key to this “activist Protestantism” was Reinhold Niebuhr’s call for the prophetic witness of the church. No matter how much Niebuhr distanced himself from the old theological liberalism and the social gospel, he still judged the success or failure of the church by the degree to which it transformed domestic and international affairs. Bellah juxtaposed his ACR against the vapid “religion-in-general” criticized by Will Herberg in Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955) and Martin Marty in The New Shape of American Religion (1959). Bellah countered that American religion had not simply been “made captive by an alien culture” or entirely “privatized.” Apart from its organized, institutional, “private” religion, America also had a vital public religion. Despite their differences, however, all three students of American religion followed Niebuhr’s lead. They called on the nation’s churches (and synagogues) to bear prophetic witness against the materialism, consumerism, individualism, and conformity of middle-class suburbia’s complacent “religion-in-general.”

Not only was Bellah’s ACR transformational, it was deeply revolutionary. America had always been engaged in a perpetual revolutionary struggle. Again, using Kennedy’s inaugural, Bellah praised the president for aligning himself with the best of the ACR by “saying that the rights of man are more basic than any political structure and provide a point of revolutionary leverage from which any state structure may be radically altered. That is the basis for his reassertion of the revolutionary significance of America.” Looking to the future, Bellah wrote that “It remains to be seen how relevant it can become for our role in the world at large, and whether we can effectually stand for ‘the revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought,’” again quoting Kennedy.

Finally, in perhaps his most audacious claim, Bellah built on Kennedy’s affirmation that “here on earth God’s work must truly be our own,” to call for a “new civil religion of the world.” “A world civil religion could be accepted as a fulfillment and not a denial of American civil religion,” he promised. “Indeed, such an outcome has been the eschatological hope of American civil religion from the beginning. To deny such an outcome would be to deny the meaning of America itself.” Indeed, “the whole [inaugural] address can be understood as only the most recent statement of a theme which lies very deep in the American tradition, namely the obligation, both collective and individual, to build the Kingdom of God on earth.”

Here we have the capstone to Bellah’s understanding of the “American tradition.” From the beginning, America’s truest self had been activist, revolutionary, transformational, and intent on immanentizing the Kingdom of God. Bellah’s concluding flights of fancy are rarely quoted, but they hold the interpretive key to his whole ACR. The eschatology drove the soteriology of his civic religion.

Reexamination and Recovery

My point is not to argue in light of this that America has not had a civil religion, that civil religion of some kind is not inevitable, or that Bellah’s insights are useless or inherently dangerous. Rather, my point is that we ought to recognize that Bellah remade and added to the American civil religion as he studied and explained it. I will go further and say that Bellah invented his own ACR, that its massive influence has clouded our judgment, and that it is vulnerable to better historical scholarship.

A first, yet difficult step in this reexamination would be to recover the history of dissent from the ACR. In fact, the story of resistance might be the best way to observe the making of the ACR at critical moments in the nation’s history. We can see what critics in the past saw in the emerging ACR. Objections came from all sorts of Christians alarmed by the confusion created between the City of God and the City of Man, the church and the state. The ACR pressured an apolitical pulpit to conform to cultural and political demands, and sanctioned the appropriation of Biblical language and doctrine for the uses of the nation and its wars and ambitions. Objections came not only from the religious and political left but also, and perhaps most eloquently, from theologically orthodox, confessional Christians, constrained by a traditional doctrine of the mystery of divine Providence, by their ecclesiology, and by an unwillingness to let anything encroach on the central message of sin, redemption, and eternal life. More broadly, when nineteenth-century Americans talked about civil religion at all, they associated it with Rousseau, the French Revolution, and Robespierre, not with their Christian faith.

There might be pragmatic benefits for the nation in civil religion, but what price do Christians pay when their churches voluntarily embrace and perpetuate the instrumentalization of their faith?

With the availability of digitized newspapers and denominational journals, first-rate work could be done to find these voices and judge their relative strength over against the makers of civil religion. Resistance was real, articulate, and sustained over generations, I have in mind here the kind of resistance evident in a published response to a collection of eulogies for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1826. The anonymous reviewer wondered at the eulogists’ certainty that the two venerable founders were now among the hosts of heaven simply because they had served their country so well and their breezy assurance of the Providential seal of approval on America that these deaths on the fiftieth anniversary of independence signified.

Or we might look at efforts to maintain the distinct calling of the churches during the Civil War, not just from those whites who may or may not have used the doctrine of the spirituality of the church to perpetuate slavery, but also African American pastors who themselves objected to wartime confusion of church and state and the disturbing implication that one could win an eternal reward for dying for the Union, as Benjamin Wetzel’s excellent new book details.

Another fruitful area of research would be resistance to the Wilson administration’s efforts to mobilize the pulpits and Sunday schools during World War I, such as the Interior Department and the Creel Committee providing sermon outlines for the new feast day of Liberty Loan Sunday. Not just conservative German Lutherans but some Presbyterians as well, not to mention the historic peace churches, urged pastors to exercise self-restraint against such encroachments. Self-mobilization of the churches was always optional, though public pressure made it difficult and social-gospel and evangelical mobilization nearly drowned it.

The history of this resistance has never been written. The record is clear, even if our history books and our collective memory are not. Many Christians objected forcefully when civil religion was thrust upon them. Bellah’s claim that in America “the relation between religion and politics has been singular smooth” and “without bitter struggle” would look far less plausible in light of such research.

An ACR Revival?

My plunge back into civil religion began the day The Faith and Liberty Bible arrived in my campus mailbox some months ago. The lavishly produced Bible is published by the American Bible Society in conjunction with its new Faith and Liberty Discovery Center on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. I am not judging the sincerity of the effort displayed here nor underestimating the editors’ concern for national unity and the threat of a radical secularism that would alienate Christians from their prominent historic place in America. A number of my friends and a colleague were involved in this project, so I tread carefully here.

At first glance, The Faith and Liberty Bible (FLB) simply joins a number of other patriotic bibles, such as The American Patriot’s Bible: The Word of God and the Shaping of America (2009), which I reviewed here. What makes this new bible unusual I think is not just how it weaves American civil religion through the text of Scripture (that has been done before). This American Bible is distinguished by how it goes out of its way not to be nationalist, imperialist, jingoist, and self-congratulatory, although America’s wars feature prominently in its pages, and it celebrates the American achievement of freedom, progress, free enterprise, and justice. It is also unusual in the pains it takes to be historically accurate, though its evidence is highly selective and tends to push a thesis. It is tolerant to a fault. Everyone gets along, ultimately at least, in the generous ecumenism of the American household of faith. In illustrated blocks of text, it gathers quotations from colonial times to the present that directly quote or allude to the Bible. It traces six “values”: faith, hope, justice, liberty, love, and unity through almost every book of the Old and New Testaments. Quotations that fit these themes come from George Washington, John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and dozens of others. Less predictably, there is Tom Paine, Albert Einstein, and the Broadway musical Hamilton. People hostile to the Bible and the Christian faith appear alongside evangelical revivalists. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a theological radical and editor of the notorious Woman’s Bible, gets seven boxes.

The cumulative effect is meant, I think, to show how much the Bible has inspired Americans. It refutes secularists who want to define America as anything but Christian. But, of course, quoting the Bible and being biblical are two different things. While showing how Americans of all kinds have quoted and alluded to the Bible and its “values,” it never raises the problem of what Americans have done to the Bible as they quoted it. Does the Bible and its message of eternal life survive this kind of appropriation? Does it show the social utility of the Bible and the Jewish and Christian faiths at the cost of what Scripture is really all about? Does the biblical story of salvation for God’s people become part of some other people’s story, one that has no redemptive significance? I said that this Bible is not nationalistic, but it does nationalize the Bible in the sense that it takes the national experience of one earthly people and runs it from Genesis to Revelation. How would we react to a Russian, German, British, or French version? But maybe America has some special relationship to the Bible that others do not.

We need to ask questions like these about the impact of civil religion on Christian theology, the Church, and the Bible. There might be pragmatic benefits for the nation in civil religion, but what price do Christians pay when their churches voluntarily embrace and perpetuate the instrumentalization of their faith? Christians can respond by reaffirming and practicing their own distinct worship and proclamation of the Word. The principal conflict arises when the ACR is expected to be celebrated in the church with displays of the national flag, observance of secular holidays, the singing of patriotic songs, and recognition of veterans and first responders in public worship. Augustine wrote in the City of God that believers and unbelievers share a common life in this world and share an interest in the preservation of earthly peace, but in matters of worship they are distinct and if pressed must dissent from the state religion.

Hopefully, reformers and revivalists can rebuild a common faith that, first, maintains genuine historical knowledge of our nation’s identity and, second, allows religious believers to participate in a way that does not force them to choose between their nation and their God. This is a lot to ask. Citizens can do only so much to prevent the degradation of their nation’s first principles, and Christians have never been able to stop the nation from appropriating their identity and vocabulary. But all Americans can surely do everything within their power, by the grace of God, to preserve the integrity of their churches and their earthly home.