The Future of America's Civil Religion Lies in New Directions
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Civil Religion. Read other perspectives here.
America is unique in being founded on a set of ideas rather than tribal identity. Encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence, those ideas were strong enough to help give unity to a nation of immigrants and override the worst of tribalism and ethnic nationalism. This movement toward unity was rooted in the North, and it provided a framework within which the major events of American history could find meaning. When combined with certain Christian ideas, it also led to ideas of "manifest destiny" and "American exceptionalism." But this supposed unity was not universal.
American civil religion died early in the antebellum South. After the Founders passed away, Southern leaders found their revived enthusiasm for slavery could not be harmonized with our founding principles. An alternative counter-culture arose that shared the millennial view of American exceptionalism and expansion, but turned its back on the liberal ideals expressed within the Declaration of Independence. Fundamentalist versions of Christianity and the explicitly religious civil religion of the Confederacy took its place.
After the Civil War, this alternative culture comprised a junior partner in American society, one rendered relatively powerless until recently (for various historical reasons). But in the 1970s and '80s, the NeoConfederate South was brought into the Republican Party as key to its "Southern Strategy." Once closely allied with traditional American conservatism, the greater passion and unity of the Southern counterculture enabled it to dominate that party.
Why did this occur? Because Northern conservatism honored its version of American history, not the Confederacy's.
I think this happened because American civil religion had been in a long decline, its liberal Christian and deist moral underpinnings eroded by the growth of modernity and the rise of mass industrial society. Today, American civil religion's ethical core is very weak, and has been largely replaced by pride in political and military power. The acceptance of torture by so many Americans is an illustration of this degeneration, and that it finds its highest level of support among evangelical churchgoers a sign of the influence of Southern religion. The language of rights has been replaced by the language of economics, the values of citizenship by the image of the satisfied consumer. One can consume in isolation, but one cannot be a citizen alone.
Any conception of government by consent of the governed has been abandoned abroad in favor of endless war and intervention. Citizens are now considered "natural resources" for those who would rule us rather than considering the government as the servant of the people. Sociopathic institutions like corporations are treated as human beings, and privileged ones at that, while voting is made increasingly difficult for genuine citizens.
Gus diZerega is a Gardnerian Elder with over 25 years practice, including six years close study with a Brazilian shaman. He has been active in interfaith work off and on for most of those 25 years as well. He has conducted workshops and given presentations on healing, shamanism, ecology and politics at Pagan gatherings in the United States and Canada. Follow Gus on Facebook.
Gus blogs at Pointedly Pagan.