Independence Day seems like a good time to talk about that most American of religious studies terms: “civil religion.”
Civil religion has been in my mind since the Fourth Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture held last month in Indianapolis. The conference was thought provoking—lots of lively discussion and thoughtful exchanges—and you can find recaps of the proceedings by Emily Clark, Craig Prentiss, and Jeffrey Wheatley.
The conference also hosted a conversation on "civil religion."
As with the rest of RAAC, the panel led to a good discussion. Wendy Wall argued that, with the exception of histories of US foreign relations, talk of civil religion had largely dropped out of ARH. Many were interested in whether civil religion was a “good” or “bad” thing, especially as some in the audience understood civil religion to aid US foreign policies with which they disagreed.
But it quickly became clear that not everyone in the room was on the same page with what was meant by “American civil religion.” Is civil religion a kind of Diet Deism™ in American politics, with all the God Bless Americas and the In God We Trusts? Is it the practice of assigning transcendent value to American nationalism? Perhaps it's a palpable feeling in the hearts of Americans? Or is civil religion a term used by scholars to describe how people link the status of America to a set of transcendent claims to its authority and power? Or is it something else entirely?
I read Robert Bellah’s 1967 article, “Civil Religion in America,” before I started graduate school and it quickly became a favorite of mine. To a certain extent, it just made sense—I mean, I’d been to the Lincoln Memorial and read the second inaugural carved on the wall of that temple. I’d listened to Dr. King’s speeches. I’d watched the appropriate episodes of The West Wing. I got it. But then I started graduate study, and my easygoing notions of what was religion and what was politics—what was religious, what was secular—disintegrated. And so, listening to the conversation at RAAC, I wondered: why don’t historians of American religion understand “Civil Religion in America”—both Bellah’s article and the idea—as a disciplinary artifact from a time before the field understood religion and politics as co-constituted?
After all, there’s been confusion about what Bellah meant since shortly after the article was published. This is something Bellah noted in 1968: "It is clear that what I mean by ‘civil religion in America’ is not exactly what most of the commentators mean, nor do they agree with one another" (1). While I’m not sure figuring out what Bellah "originally meant" is the most profitable route, the confusion does have bearing on the term's usage today. Tracing the genealogy of American civil religion often feels like hunting for ghosts in a fog. It can be anything and anywhere, simultaneously everything or nothing. As James Mathisen would write in his 1989 reflection on civil religion, the situation shifted from "What is Bellah writing about?" to "What is Bellah writing about?" (2). Despite all this, I think the term might be useful if we're clear about how we use it. So, what to do?
If we want to make the term useful as more than a disciplinary artifact, we can use the work of a different Lincoln to think through making American civil religion more analytically useful, especially as a way to think about the relationship between American religion and the study of it. When sketching his of definition of religion, Bruce Lincoln begins by noting that religion involves “a discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent, and that claims for itself a similar transcendent status” that in turn shapes practices, community identity, and institutions (3). A framework like Lincoln’s gives us a straightforward way to think about civil religion. It also recognizes the way in which civil religion acts as a species of nationalism, one whose authority is explicitly rooted in appeals to transcendence.
To be clear, many other scholars have used “civil religion” in the way I’m describing. To take only two recent examples, Art Remillard’s Southern Civil Religions (2011) and Ray Haberski’s God and War (2012) both use the term to think about how Americans understood what is, and what ought to be, in relation to ideas of the state and transcendent authority. Yet the conversation at RAAC (both in the room and on Twitter) made clear that not everyone sees the term as a useful one. Mike Altman is certainly correct that civil religion is used to paint over American nationalism. And Kevin Kruse explained that he avoided using the term in his recent book, preferring “religious nationalism” instead. There is ample work for scholars who want to understand why some people use civil religion in lieu of nationalism. To riff on another ongoing conversation stemming from RAAC, this seems to be a perfect example of a genealogical history bursting with people (whether they be scholars, politicians, ministers, or bloggers) building, tweaking, and destroying categories.
If we understand American civil religion as a way to help us clarify our thinking about those who make claims about America rooted in appeals to transcendence, it should be clear that American civil religion applies as much to Dylann Roof, the Confederate flag, and the KKK as it does to the Gettysburg Address or the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. There is perhaps something unsettling in realizing that efforts by some Americans to achieve a “new birth of freedom” have long meant a policy of terror and murder directed at those—such as nine African-Americans praying in a Charleston church—who are understood to obstruct those freedoms. If calling this “civil religion” sounds like I’m debasing the term, I suspect that’s because we’ve freighted it with normative baggage that doesn’t make much sense in the study of American religion. In other words, I think civil religion could play a useful role in analyzing American religion, but that sense of the term is not widely employed.
So, for those scholars who think the term continues to be analytically valuable, my question is: why? Why don’t we think of “civil religion” as an earlier attempt by scholars to describe historical claims about America’s place in the world (which relied on religious rhetoric) at a time when the categories “political” and “religious” were seen as more clearly separated than they are now?
(1) Bellah, Robert N. "Response." Ed. Donald R. Cutler. The Religious Situation: 1968. Beacon Press: Boston, 1968. 388.
(2) Mathisen, James A. "Twenty Years after Bellah: Whatever Happened to Civil Religion?" Sociological Analysis 50.2 (1989). 137.
(3) Lincoln, Holy Terrors, 5-7.