Can Civil Religion Be Saved?

Art Remillard

"This may merit a blog post full of quotes from David Chidester," Tweeted Michael Altman.

To our good fortune, Altman did write a Chideblog that calls attention to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius's commentary on the poll results from the Pew Research Center.  "The data show," Ignatius summarizes, "that even as the developing world is getting more modern, it is also getting more religious, with especially sharp gains for both Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa."  To this, Altman retorts, "Apparently there was no religion in Africa before Islam and Christianity showed up."

Indeed, one suspects that the journalist's intentions were good.  But his choice of words revealed an assumed definition of religion that simply does not match the realities of sub-Saharan Africa.  Altman's response brings to mind the compelling insights of scholars interested in taking to task our assumptions about what is, and is not, religion.  Consider the recent issue of Religion, wherein an all-star cast writes about, "The Study of American Religions: Critical Reflections on a Specialization."  (Check out Paul's post on this and the discussion that follows.) I see the authors dealing with the challenges that have emerged from, as Tracy Fessenden phrased it, the "narrative turn from Protestantism to pluralism."  This transition calls for studies that are suspicious of any assumptions about religion, and opt instead for a more rigorous investigation of what we mean when we say "religion."  Kelly Baker offers a paradigm example of this in her treatment of the Klan, rejecting the notion that the group's Protestantism was a "false religion."  "Christianity," she insists, "played an essential part in the collective identity of the order, and neglecting religious commitment ignores a crucial self-identification."  Similarly, Tisa Wenger's We Have a Religion identifies how Native Americans adopted Euro-American discourses on religion in an effort to resist government suppression and gain religious freedom. The care with which the author contextualizes the competing definitions of "religion" is simply remarkable.

Still, as Ignatius's article indicates, there are plenty of people who didn't get the memo.  Scholars, therefore, must persist, hopeful that the message and methodology will spread beyond our universities.  I would like to see the same thing happen with "civil religion."  Perhaps we too could force a "narrative turn" from civil religious consensus to civil religious diversity.  I find civil religion to be a valuable category of analysis.  It offers a point of departure for me to understand how people define, defend, and deploy the social values that they believe transcend individual interest and contribute to their perceived common good.  I have found in my studies of civil religion, not a placid pool of agreement, but rather a raging river of competition, with many voices articulating their vision for how society ought to be.

Still, the tendency to link civil religion with American exceptionalism and a mythology that "we" are God's chosen people has a tenacious hold on the popular imagination.  This is enough to to prompt Ira Chernus--the person who I credit with reviving my interest in civil religion--to announce: "We Need to Stop Using the Phrase 'American Civil Religion.'"

He explains:
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.

Chernus then cites--well--me as a "vocal advocate of pluralism" who ultimately, "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 probably still worth discussing.'"  Indeed, in that blog post, I stated my admiration for Bellah's initial effort.  I also said that "his concern is not my concern.  I'm interested in contextualizing the realities of American many-ness."

But Chernus raises an interesting point, that the default definition of civil religion is simply too strong to overcome.  I'm not prepared to give it up just yet.  I will follow the lead of my colleagues who use religion as a category of analysis.  The Sisyphean task here requires that we purge "civil religion" of its normative assumptions.  Doing this requires that we listen more closely to what our sources tell us, and less closely to what we think civil religion is and is not.  And if we're lucky... really, really lucky... David Ignatius will hear us.


Edward J. Blum said…
great blog! Bye bye "American civil religion" hello diversity of civil religion and religions in conflict
BTW, if anyone wants to read my post on the Ignatius piece, complete with David Chidester quote, it's here:

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