Civil Religious Revivals and Awakenings

Art Remillard

If you haven’t been following Raymond Haberski’s posts on civil religion and his new book, do yourself a favor and read them  (herehere, and here).  I promise that you will find them enlightening.  For me, they were a relief.  Ever since I began writing about civil religion, I worried that I was stuck in the 70s.  Alas, Ray's book is one of many recent studies that use the category.  Indeed, we are in the midst of a civil religious revival.

I will confess that I wasn't always a fan of civil religion.  In fact, for the longest time, I hated it.  Then I had an awakening, which fittingly enough began with a crisis--a dissertation crisis.  Here's the scene: I had five chapters written, but nothing holding them together.  Yes, I had a vague sense of what I was doing—looking at reflective pronouncements of public morals.  But I lacked a vocabulary, a cohesive conclusion about what all of this stuff meant.  I hoped that writing the introduction would clarify things.  But when I finished my first draft, it looked like a Jackson Pollock painting.  My canvas was a mix of Dewey, Freud, Foucault, and even Heraclitus, with drips of Geertz, Bell, and Grimes clumped along the edges.  All the while, I gazed over at the unused buckets of Bellah and Rousseau. I was, though, determined not to use these civil religious shades. They were passé.  A little too Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer for me.  In fact, I remember telling a friend that I was not going to even mention civil religion in the entire dissertation. Take That!

But the crisis continued, until a book review awoke me from my civil religious dogmatic slumber.  “Here is a very rare bird indeed,” Ira Chernus said of Richard Hughes’s Myths Americans Live By“a new book on U.S. civil religion, written by a credentialed scholar in the academic study of religion. People still write about U.S. civil religion. But the academic study of religion largely abandoned this subject years ago, and with good reason. It had become something of a prison.”

At this point, "We Will Rock You" was playing in my head.  Confirmed were my suspicions that academics had moved beyond civil religion.  But I continued reading.  Chernus’s beef was not with civil religion, per se, but rather with the term's common usage.  Too often, he explained “we” have a sense that “our” civil religion is the civil religion.  I found his closing remarks to be particularly poignant.  “We need studies of civil religion that claim no supposed consensus but allow ‘us’ to speak in all our diversity,” Chernus announced. “Perhaps we must study only civil religions, in the plural. Or, if in the singular, we need to see civil religion as a broad, dynamic field of contending forces rather than an imagined unified tradition. We need studies of civil religion(s), and myths Americans live by, that invoke no sub rosa theological agenda or summons to a higher, more moral Americanism. Myths America Lives By is a timely reminder of how important the subject is, how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.”

Move over Freddie Mercury, here comes some “Hallelujah Chorus.” Here in front of me was the golden thread, an idea to pull together my disparate five chapters.  As I dug into the post-Bellah literature, I found that Chernus was not alone.  N. J. Demerath and Rhys Williams are the Bizarro-Bellahs of this intellectual exercise.  Their 1986 article, “Civil Religion in an Uncivil Society,” encouraged future studies on “the contexts and uses of civil-religious language and symbols, noting how specific groups and subcultures use versions of civil religion to frame, articulate, and legitimate their own particular political or moral visions.”  

The rest of the dissertation flowed, and, eventually, Southern Civil Religions came to print.

But I still worry about the problems and perils of civil religion, which I try to address in the book.  Definition seems to be an ongoing problem.  Bellah stopped using the term, explaining that he “grew weary of the whole definitional debate.” Rhys Williams did too.  But they both have said that they remain interested in the “substance” of the category, which, as Williams told me in an e-mail, is “the moral formulations that shape political discourse and action.”  Additionally, both Bellah and Williams have framed their post-civil religion writing using the term, “the good society.”  Hence, the subtitle of my book, Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era.

So with this in mind, I focused attention on the nexus of religion and public life in the New South, where social values assume transcendent status.  Here, I pay attention to difference, competition, and conflict.  I also look in less-than-obvious places.  Most studies of civil religion seem to focus on statues, memorial day celebrations, presidential inauguration speeches, etc.  For studies of the New South, this has led to a concentration on the Lost Cause.  But as I dug through the sources, I noticed that there were plenty of other civil religious conversations at work in daily discussions, private ponderings, public pronouncements, and physical places.  So, for example, I found that in the New South, railroads were not simply transportation devices.  They were symbols of prosperity, growth, or—for detractors—northern intrusion.  City designs had a similar symbolic weight.  Specifically, in the era of Jim Crow, public places bore the stamp of racial distinction.  Blacks who transgressed the physical geography of white spaces, also transgressed a white moral geography.  The consequences could be dire for blacks, and the rules set forth by white society were often vague.

As I understand it, when Bellah wrote his article, he was genuinely concerned about what holds “us” together in a post-Protestant age.  It’s a noble aim, one that is probably still worth discussing.  And to say that I admire Bellah and his work is an understatement.  But his concern is not my concern.  I’m interested in contextualizing the realities of American many-ness, complimenting Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh’s insightful, One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics.  Why? Because in my brief history of a tiny sub-region of the American South, I found different groups, pulling from different cultural resources, coming to different conclusions about how society ought to be.  Does that mean that everyone had an equal say?  Of course not.  But if we want to understand us, it’s worth understanding how the many voices of our past and present have made sense of themselves and their society.  I like to think that the revival of civil religion as a category of analysis will help bring us closer to this end.


Paul Harvey said…
Art: "Bohemian Rhapsody" is notably absent from your analysis here.
MB said…
I was thinking more of a Jackson Browne song or a Jim Pollock piece of art.

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