Wyrd Words: Civil Religion Isn’t What It Used To Be

Greetings, and welcome back to Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora! This week we’re tackling the Patheos Public Square challenge!

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According to Robert Bellah, American civil religion is a belief system that is structured around culturally relevant holidays, rituals, and values. It is a nationalist faith that extols prophets like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, and it passes along the Lore in parables of cherry trees and the first Thanksgiving, handed down from generation to generation. Its temples are the monuments to Washington and Lincoln; its liturgy is recited before class and at every football game. Bellah’s “Civil Religion” runs parallel to its theistic counterparts, unifying people of various faiths in a common drive for patriotic fervor. I believe that civil religion, as Bellah conceived of it, may not be dead (yet), but it’s certainly not the same anymore.

Anthony D. Smith wrote a book called Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity, which addresses the concepts of nationalism and civil religion. The essence of Smith’s proposal is that civil and theistic communities are related social organisms, with some very fundamental aspects of human psychology acting as a kind of common ancestor. The idea of gathering into communities beyond the scale of extended familial bonds was the greatest and most fundamental social achievement ever accomplished by humanity. It allowed us to move up from small family troupes and work as larger units to accomplish infinitely more complex tasks as a civilization. Moving beyond that small, familial scale required humanity to acknowledge and embrace other unifying ideas beyond immediate relation. Smith supports three common bonding elements within the concept of “community”: Ethnic, Cultic, and Moral-Legal. Ethnic communities are bound together through an idea of shared ancestral bloodlines, which is essentially an extension of those early familial troupes. Cultic communities are bound together by the idea of shared religion, gods, or traditions. Finally, Moral-Legal communities are bound together by a shared set of social norms and moral ideals.

At the time when Civil Religion in America was written, we were just past the height of the Cold War, and not even out of the woods yet. Our culture had been swept away by the “Red Panic” and was still reeling from the McCarthy witch-hunts. Under the perceived threat of a foreign culture, America rushed to identify what was “properly American” and separate itself from the godless communists in any way it could.  After two world wars had shown us that we needed to band together in Civil Orthopraxy, the Cold War taught us how to identify the outsider through the birth of Civilist Orthodoxy.

Many of Smith’s contemporaries argued that the modern age isn’t conducive to theistic religion, which was doomed to be driven extinct by nationalist ideals. Smith proposed that social organisms, like religion, adapt to their environment. In an age where Bellah’s civil religion was fast becoming the norm, theistic religion would have to learn a new game. Placed in a world of national borders and politics, religious communities adapted to use the borders of “The Nation” as a way to establish religious and cultural boundaries.

Civil religion today exists more as a tool to divide ourselves, separating the true believers from the heretics by promoting a constant competition to see who is MOST American. In the 2012 elections, Americans watched the various Republican candidates compete with each other, each trying to show that they were somehow more American than the others. We watched the infamous “Birthers” try again and again to support their candidate by questioning the president’s “American-ness” rather than by advertising their candidates policies.

In a particularly memorable speech, one candidate invited Pastor Dennis Terry to give the opening address at their rally. Mr. Terry sparked a fierce (if brief) controversy with the following words:

“Listen to me. If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say: get out! We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son, Jesus Christ.”

Regardless of historical fact, these religious communities have created a rhetoric which allows them to usurp a certain amount of the social power of national identity. They utilize the nation, and nationalist sentiment, as a way to enforce an in-group/out-group, tribal mentality. If you don’t agree with their views, you are dismissed as being “un-American.” This is Civilist Orthodoxy in action.

So does America need a civil religion? I’d say America HAS a civil religion, it simply no longer does what Bellah envisioned. Can we put the cat back into the bag? Can we start over and try again for that sense of national unity? I honestly don’t think so. The foundation of any religious community is shared belief, and America’s civil religion is no different. As a culture, we may all still recognize the symbols and liturgy of Bellah’s vision, but we’ve divided ourselves into tribes, each claiming exclusive rights over those symbols. It’s no longer about what makes us all the same; instead it’s become about who “does it BEST.” Rather than looking at the flag and appreciating that we’re on the same side, the red tribe and the blue tribe point fingers at each other and fight over who has the right to hold it.

Civil religion has the potential to be a great force for motivation and unity. Unfortunately, civil religion as it has come to be practiced in America is a tool of partisan politics. Until we resolve this underlying tendency to divide ourselves, this in-group/out-group behavior, civil religion isn’t going to be able to accomplish any lasting good.


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About Alyxander Folmer

Alyxander Folmer is a student of Anthropology at ASU, focused on analyzing and building religious communities. He is a devoted Heathen, and married to a Rabbi in training. Interest in Pagan interfaith relations lead him to join the committee for the formation of the Pagan Chapter at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, where he hopes to utilize his training in community building and cultural exchange. The majority of his work can be located at http://www.heathenhof.com/

  • John Blatzheim

    I agree with most of this, except this one bit…

    “the red tribe and the blue tribe point fingers at each other and fight over who has the right to hold it.”

    I rarely find it useful to pretend as if “both sides do it” when clearly that is no longer the case. I can’t think of a single prominent Democrat who would utter such non-sense as the quote from Mr. Terry above. I think this idea comes from a kind of relativism that is not particularly helpful, there are various differing political ideals, which are generally incompatible with one another, competing at the moment. To fight for the ideal one believes in, and against those that one finds dangerous, isn’t being needlessly devisive as some claim, it is taking a stand for what you believe in.

    • Wyrd Wiles

      The perspectives I offered were predominantly from Republican rhetoric, because that’s where the religious elements in our politics have gravitated. The purpose of my article was to point out the influence of faith communities on Civil Religion in America, which unfortunately means you’re gonna end up examining the “christian right”.
      However, while the Democrats may not use the same KIND of rhetoric, they play a similar game. Instead of utilizing theistic language, Democratic political rhetoric centers around a more humanist perspective.

      So when the blue team decides to attack the red team it’s: “You’re a terrible person!” or “You obviously aren’t educated in this subject!” instead of “Jesus says you shouldn’t do this!” or “You’re not a good Christian!”.

      Now don’t get me wrong here. I am a dyed in the wool social liberal. I LIKE Humanist philosophy, but politics is a dirty game. I tend to lean blue because they support causes I also happen to be supporting, but I am under no delusion that they are somehow above playing political games.

      • John Blatzheim

        Oh absolutely. My politics are far enough to the left that I generally dislike the policies of both parties. I guess that because I too am a social liberal, I sometimes find myself cheering for the Dems in the way that, as a Colts fan, I find myself rooting for whoever is playing against the Patriots, whether I really like the team or not.

        I guess my original point was more that Republicans (and the Right, in America at least, in general) plays much dirtier than the Democrats and the Left. At least that is how it has seemed in the decade during which I’ve observed politics.

        Beyond that, it seems to me that if there are two Civil Religions, it is possible that one is better than the other. And if I had to pick one, it would be the Lefts. The Civil Religion of the Right seems exclusionary, theocratic and sometimes downright authoritarian. The Civil Religion of the Left strikes me as the old school Civil Religion, but with a Humanist twist.

        Either way thanks for the article, it got me thinking about something I hadn’t really paid much attention to before!


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