We Need to Stop Using the Phrase "American Civil Religion"

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Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of "Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity" (Stanford, 2008).

“The use of civil religion as a historical lens has enjoyed something of a revival lately,” Raymond Haberski wrote in a recent article on History News Network. he was kind enough to include me in a list of scholars who have recently written on the topic of “American civil religion.” Seeing my name on that list reminded me of a funny story.

I did indeed write a survey of the study of American civil religion for a comprehensive reference work on American religion. When I was invited to write that piece, I figured the best way to do the research was to teach a seminar on the subject. So for a whole semester my students and I worked through the scholarly literature on the topic. Of course we started with a big dose of Robert Bellah, who is still always cited in anything written on American civil religion. It’s a sort of ritual requirement, but in fact one can’t understand the civil religion tradition in America without carefully scrutinizing Bellah’s work. By the time we were done with that scrutiny, I was beginning to suspect that there was something fundamentally wrong with the whole category.

By the time we finished the course, I had developed what I thought was a convincing argument (now laid out in my published piece and elsewhere) that the term “American civil religion” does more harm than good and ought to be abandoned. My students, being a smart bunch, showed that they understood the material and my approach to it well enough.

But here’s the funny part: At our last seminar session, all my students cared about was figuring out, finally, “What is American civil religion?” For two hours they chewed over that question, up, down, and sideways; like a dog with a favorite bone, they just wouldn’t give it up, despite everything I’d taught them about the concept’s limitations and shortcomings. When I asked them why, they were stumped. There was something about it that transcended logical analysis.

Since then I’ve learned that most Americans won’t give up the idea of a national civil religion. It’s a myth that, so far at least, will not die.

To call American civil religion a myth does not mean it’s a lie or a fiction. The question of empirical truth doesn’t enter in here. You can’t ask, “Do we really have a civil religion in the United States?” the way you can ask, “Is there really a tree growing in my front yard?” American civil religion is an intellectual construct. Like the Ptolemaic theory of the universe, it exists because -- and only as long as -- people want it to exist. Like any living myth, it is perpetuated because people find something satisfying in talking about it over and over again.

A few scholars are thoughtful and reflective enough to suggest what is so satisfying in the term American civil religion that they insist on keeping it alive. They give us useful clues to understanding why so many other Americans, less reflectively and more intuitively, cling to the myth. Most of the explanations lead us back to Bellah’s seminal work on the subject and, even further, to the great French sociologist he acknowledges as his inspiration: Emile Durkheim.

First there is the story of “E pluribus unum” -- American history as the inspiring tale of people from all over the world joining together to share a single culture of shared values. Every society needs some such common bond to keep its members from tearing their social fabric apart, or so the Durkheimian story goes.

It’s not surprising that Durkheim was the author of this story. As a Jew living in a time of rapidly rising anti-Semitism, he wanted to be sure there could be no doubt about his loyalty to France as his primary group identity. So he took the other high cultural tide of his time, romantic nationalism, gave it a veneer of social science, and concluded that every group must have some cultural glue to hold it together.

Why would anyone want to tear their society apart? Being a Jew, Durkheim did not directly invoke the Christian doctrine of original sin. But something like it stands out clearly between the lines of his work.

Bellah made the premise of original sin and its theological origins somewhat more explicit. The struggle between “individual acquisitiveness” and “public order,” he wrote, was “a central theme” of his book The Broken Covenant (1975). he warned of a dangerous “tendency to rank personal gratification above obligation to others” and decried the growing number of Americans “who say the answer to our present need is no control at all, let the impulses run free, natural man is at heart innocent and good.” To them he offered the words of Melville: “Well, well, one hears the kettledrums of hell.”

Which leads to a second reason the myth of American civil religion remains popular: In the version promoted by Bellah and many others, American civil religion is not the blind patriotism of “My country, right or wrong.” On the contrary, “the will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong,” Bellah wrote. “There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged … a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality” found in the noblest moral landmarks of American history. American civil religion, then, is the nation’s most sAmerican civil religioned moral standard. Haberski sounds a similar note when he concludes that studies of civil religion raise a “most pressing” question: “what would a genuine moral accounting of a nation at war look like?”

This, too, is the Durkheimian heritage at work. Durkheim has often been misunderstood to say that religion is the group worshipping itself. Rather, he said, when a group’s “collective consciousness” creates sAmerican civil religioned symbols it is worshipping its highest moral ideals. The social bond must be a moral bond.

Again, it’s hardly surprising that Durkheim came to this conclusion. He had good reason to fear the immoral violence of anti-Semitic crowds. He devoted much of his career to developing an educational system that would inculcate a powerful sense of group identity, loyalty, and moral self-restraint in French schoolchildren. When Bellah embraced the same values, as an antidote to “excessive gratification” and “impulses run free,” he may well have been thinking about his students in “the ‘60s” at Berkeley.

Many Americans would like to see these values taught in our schools today. The belief in American civil religion gives them a powerful tool to make that argument: These are not arbitrary values, nor the values of any special interest group. They are the essence of America at its best. Obviously, all American children should learn them at an early age.

But I doubt my students clung to the civil religion myth because they especially liked either the “E pluribus unum” or the “higher criterion of right and wrong” story. They had learned to put both Durkheim and Bellah in their historical-ideological contexts. They understood John F. Wilson’s argument that the corpus of writings about American civil religion functioned as a revitalization movement, “occasioned by widespread loss of internal confidence in American society and changed external cultural relationships.” Like all revitalization movements, Wilson showed, civil religion scholarship centered on an idealized past “to counter a [supposed] threat to the whole social fabric.”

I suspect my students were moved by a third version of the civil religion myth, a more nebulous story that says America was intentionally founded as a nation meant to pursue some purpose. In this version, America must stand for something, even if no one can ever say for sure what it is.

Indeed, there is no need to define America’s purpose nor to evaluate its moral status. It’s enough to know that simply being a American makes you part of an indefinable something that’s vast, grand, even pivotal in world history. Who would want to be a small lonely individual, a cosmopolite with no anchor, when one can feel the patriotic pride of participating in an enduring national project of cosmic import?

Now there’s a new version of American civil religion emerging, which sees the lack of definition as a virtue. In this telling, American history is an endless quarrel about the nation’s purpose. Some of its proponents, like Arthur Remillard, suggest that we should study not American civil religion in the singular but “American civil religions” in the plural, an endless set of competing visions of the national meaning.

If the myth of an American civil religion must remain alive, I would heartily concur with making it plural. A nation as diverse as the United States is bound to have diverse views about the meaning of the nation, and all deserve serious attention.

But I would prefer to see the term “American civil religion” and all its connotations given a decent reburial. It was abandoned by scholars of American religion back in the 1980s, only to be disinterred after 9/11, largely in other academic fields. Now it’s time for a more permanent burial because (for one reason) those three words inevitably mitigate against diversity. As long as talk of American civil religion goes on, it will perpetuate the debate begun by Bellah’s seminal essay about what our “real” or “true” civil religion is, implying that there must be one and only one.

Every use of the term American civil religion, even in its plural form, is likely to foster the belief that there should be something “religious” (in a largely Protestant sense) about American identity. So the very term reinforces the Durkheimian premise that all Americans must share some sAmerican civil religioned values and act them out in the political realm.

This effect may sometimes be unintentional. But it seems telling that even a scholar like Remillard, a vocal advocate of pluralism, can’t resist adding that Bellah’s concern about what holds “us” together in a post-Protestant age is “a noble aim, one that is probabgly still worth discussing.”

Yet who is this “us”? Whenever “we” are imagined and supposedly common values are articulated, the process is hardly shared in equally by all the inhabitants of the land. The idea of American civil religion has always privileged “culturally specific versions of American Protestant Christianity,” as John Wilson wrote, by presenting them as the values of all “real” Americans. Other critiques have gone further, noting that these supposedly “all-American” values have typically represented the interests of wealthy, white, male Protestant Christians.

Some Americans still have more power than others in shaping the public discourse. The premise that social unity is necessary will most often end up privileging the views of the most powerful segments of society.

Every use of the term "American civil religion" contains a tendentious agenda, whether explicitly or implicitly. Since Bellah’s shadow continues to hover over the concept, all talk of civil religion is likely to perpetuate (again, sometimes unintentionally) the premises so basic to his work: a belief that people are innately selfish and therefore dangerous to social harmony, pitted against a belief that people must learn control their impulses for the good of the community.

These premises too easily lead the self-proclaimed virtuous upholders of American civil religion (who are often the most powerful) to enforce the “right” way and pit themselves against purported evildoers, thus undermining the very unity they seek.

Efforts to fend off disunity and evil, in turn, are likely to promote the discourse and practices of nationalism, legitimated by someone’s version of American civil religion. Once the passions of nationalism are unleashed, their dangers are hard to curb, as Bellah himself warned. And their effects can be deadly, as we’ve learned all too often. Moreover, nationalistic campaigns in the name of social virtue and unity are self-defeating because they are bound to end up dividing society even more.

American civil religion exists only if we choose to talk about it. Whenever we do, though, we inevitably divide society unnecessarily and mitigate against a thoughtful open-minded public life -- and study of public life -- that truly values diversity.

We should certainly devote more study to all the issues that have been grouped under the rubric of American civil religion: the meanings that Americans have given, and now give, to “America” and its role in world history; the self-understandings of American identity that have been, and still are, at work in public discourse and practice; the aspects of American political culture that reflect a religious context, show religious overtones, or resemble conventionally religious phenomena. That’s a top priority of my forthcoming blog, MythicAmerica.us.

In that blog I’ll be inviting discussion of what Wilson called the “less condensed and more diffused means of attachment to the collective society that link Americans in whole or in part to the nation.” Wilson added: “As this line of questioning has been pursued, it is increasingly disconnected from the civil religion question.” And so it should be.

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