American Civil Religion

I recently finished reading The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade. In one of the book’s concluding chapters Wade writes about American Civil Religion, the idea that the history and symbols of the United States have resulted in a sort of pseudo-state religion. The theory is not Wade’s, but it was the first time I had come across it (my history reading over the last fifteen years has been mostly limited to the Pagan/Magickal/Occult sphere).

Over the last few years the practice of American Civil Religion has become more and more pronounced. Many conservatives seem to see The Constitution as a near-religious document, second only to The Bible in terms of importance. While the whole point of the Constitution was that it could be changed and reinterpreted by succeeding generations, every line is now looked at as holy writ (at least when it’s convenient, no one talks much about counting some human beings as 3/5ths of a person), never mind that the Founding Fathers could not have imagined semi-automatic weapons or a healthcare system without leeches. In this way the Constitution is very much like The Bible, people pick and choose the things they want out of it, and ignore the parts that might stand in disagreement to their own positions (like the line “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” in the Second Amendment).

The Constitution is not the only “scripture” at the heart of American Civil Religion. There are several other documents and speeches that carry nearly as much weight. The most obvious of those other scriptures is the Declaration of Independence. Containing the rhetorical flourishes of Jefferson and Franklin the Declaration is not just a letter proclaiming American independence, but a document outlining the rights and hopes of the American people (or at least white male landowners back in 1776).

There are several important Presidential addresses that are also seen by many as American Scripture. The first is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a speech that was panned upon its initial delivery but is now looked at as the ten most eloquent sentences in the history of American discourse. Despite the best efforts of some, Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address remains an important moment in American history, with people still recycling FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear its self” line. Kennedy’s inaugural address retains a similar timelessness as does Eisenhower’s farewell address warning of “the military industrial complex.”

One does not have to be a sitting President in order for their words to be timeless and impactful. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is (to my mind) the most powerful oratory by any American in our history. It’s also the most recent example of a speech becoming a part of American Civic Religion.

The Pledge of Allegiance is nearly a state-prayer, and to some a litmus test on patriotism. With the insertion of the phrase “under God” into the Pledge back in the 1950′s it’s recitation has become a religious and social exercise. In a sense, the Pledge turns America into the new Promised Land (Israel), Yahweh’s favorite shining city on a hill.

American Civil Religion goes beyond the scripture of documents and speeches, it also contains other symbols of a quasi-religious nature. The United States is a country of archetypes, with many of them containing a pronounced pagan flair. With her sword and scales Lady Justice is a symbol of the idea that there is “liberty and justice for all,” a founding principle of America’s judicial system.

The Statue of Liberty has become the archetype Lady Liberty, and it’s hard for me to think of her without hearing the words “give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .” She’s the embodiment of being able to build a better life through the freedoms we have in the United States. The recent image of Ladies Justice and Liberty kissing is especially powerful as a symbol. With the end of DOMA, there is now even more liberty and justice in American society. Male archetypes abound as well. While sometimes overshadowed by his female peers, Uncle Sam remains a popular figure in America as a sort of Fourth of July Santa Claus.

Archetypes aren’t the only religious heroes associated with American Civil Religion. We’ve succeeded in turning a lot of our political (and military leaders) into near demi-gods*. Memorials for men like Jefferson, King, and Lincoln are temple-like in their grandeur and power. Not all cults are universal, one person’s deified hero might be someone else’s villain. Figures like Ronald Reagan and Cesar Chavez are hailed and scorned depending on certain political proclivities. Figures can also be regional or cultural in their appeal, as someone who grew up down South I can attest to just how many people admire General Robert E. Lee in the former Confederacy. (My personal choice here is Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse, he and Sitting Bull both deserve federal holidays.)

The heroes of American Religion are constantly being co-opted and misinterpreted for political gain. The deism of Thomas Jefferson has been overlooked by many who have attempted to insert an Evangelical Jesus into places where that messiah did not exist. Similarly, the Hellfire Club’s Benjamin Franklin has been romanticized to the point of caricature. Many of America’s deified heroes are now more myth than man; their failings ignored by a general populace that refuses to believe any of our “Founding Fathers” were capable of making mistakes.

America also has its own totem animals. The Bald Eagle, besides being our national bird, is also a symbol. To many it represents a certain ideal of American Freedom. To America’s first generation of leaders it was a symbolic link to the old (pagan) Roman Republic. Benjamin Franklin’s choice of national bird (the wild turkey) might not have won the day, but I’d argue that the turkey is our “other” national bird. As the Bald Eagle is celebrated on the Fourth of July (American Civil Religion’s most holy day), the turkey rules Thanksgiving as a symbol of abundance and as our national meal.

While having a great deal of respect and admiration for many of our national leaders and the documents and speeches that make up American Civil Religion, I am no fan of the institution. I love the symbolism of figures like Justice and Liberty, but the deification of words and men leads to a false sense of infallibility. America remains a great nation, but we also remain a nation capable of mistakes and a rigidness of thinking. The men who wrote the Constitution never thought that their words would be taken as holy writ. They were politicians and not prophets; men with flaws and limitations just like the rest of us. I think their humanity makes them more compelling and is worth remembering.

May you celebrate a safe and meaningful Fourth of July.

*Sadly we’ve turned far more men into demi-gods over the last two hundred and thirty odd years, but there are also several women who have also reached that exalted status. Betsy Ross, Susan B. Anthony, and Sakakawea (Sacagawea) are all examples of women who have come to be seen as nearly divine figures in American Civil Religion.

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About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • John Beckett

    Good analysis as usual, Jason. My question is whether it’s possible to have a unified nation without some sort of common civil religion. And here I mean “religion” in the wider sense of who you are, whose you are, and what’s most important – not the narrow modern sense of affirming or rejecting doctrines and creeds.

    A functioning civil religion must include all citizens, something that in our current political environment seems impossible.

    I’m not optimistic.

    • kenofken

      I think you do need a civil religion, or perhaps more appropriately, a shared founding myth or narrative about what it means, at the barest common denominator, to be American. Crafting such a thing from scratch may not be so critical in societies which are unified by ethnicity and ancient shared histories, like, say, Japan or Iceland.

      Here, we have no such inherent identity. Once you get past Native Americans on the timeline, the only common thread of American identity was that everyone was a misfit or opportunist of some sort. In the European imperial enterprise of the day, it was just supposed to be another colonial holding to rape of natural resources to bolster one nation’s strength against another.

      The Genesis chapter of our civil religion begins with the miracle of the revolution that shouldn’t have worked. That unique confluence of radical Enlightenment Age revolution which combined with the better nature of English rule of law, and dumb luck (The Brits had much bigger fish to fry than us), and the fools taught us how to run a navy!

      Our revolution would not have worked but for this rare confluence, and we would have become just another impoverished thugocracy from day one. It didn’t, and so “American” civil relgion offered this myth, this dogma that included the idea that anyone could make it here, and the scales were not (hopelessly) rigged, there was no rigid caste system, and we were, deep down, the Good Guys.

      Of course we fell far short of that, if you were a woman, or black, or non-Christian, or just about anything else, but we had this lofty thing we aspired to, something we really believed made us qualitatively different from the rest of the world. When we did fall short of it, it bothered us, sometimes to the point of doing great and terrible things to do better. The Civil War. Civil Rights.

      I think our problems began in earnest after Vietnam when we started to break faith with that “religion.” By the 80s, we felt we no longer had to aspire to anything but money or check our national conscience against any standard. We were history’s perfect product, and so anything we did was God’s will. Since 9/11, I think the mask just came off entirely. Now our political class and economic elite no longer feel obliged to even pay lip service to the old ideals or even observe the outward forms of the republic. The bulk of us have, out of fear or exhaustion or apathy, have largely stopped fighting them on it. Maybe we’re just out of ideas. Our civil religion enabled us to save the world in the last world war. In the next one, I fear we will be the ones the world needs saving from.

      I don’t think the civil religion, screwy as it often was, failed us. We failed it by letting it devolve into fundamentalism, a sort of hollow piety used to cover self-righteousness. We abandoned our ideals in the same way the Romans abandoned their gods, and the idea that being Roman meant anything larger than themselves. Of course when you abandon your gods, or your codes of honor or identity, you abandon yourself.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I always thought the American Civil War was about power.

        The Southern States disliked what they saw as the North’s power over them (via a tax burden they felt was too heavy) and so declared themselves independent. The North disliked this and refused to allow them to do what American had done from England only a short time before (and what the USA continues to support in other countries).

        Ignore anything further and it boils down to that very simple factor.

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          In part. But it pretty much boils down to Bloody Kansas and expansion of slavery into the Western territories. Trying to dress the Civil War up as being primarily about something other than slavery demands ignoring the platform that Southern Democrats adopted when they split their party, leading to the election of Lincoln.

          • Erin

            I had thought that the underlying current was states’ rights vs federal imposition, and one of the main points of contention in that area happened to be slavery, because without it the southern states would have been able to economically compete with the industrial northern states which did not rely on slavery the way the southern agricultural plantations did.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            Abolitionists didn’t have the votes, or the support of the Supreme Court to do much prior to the war. In fact, with the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and Dred Scott, abolitionists arguably were not in a good political position going into the 1860 election. Lincoln only won because the pro-slavery majority split their votes between moderate and radical candidates.

            Framing the issue in terms of “states’ rights” is rather interesting because the Fire-Eaters explicitly rejected both the compromise of Popular Sovereignty and the jurisdictional authority of non-slave states to recognize blacks as free persons. A better framing of the demands of the Nashville Convention would be to call them “slaveowners’ rights,” in that the convention demanded the freedom to buy, sell, and transport their “property” in any American jurisdiction, regardless of state law.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            The fact that it was slavery seems pretty unimportant to me (slavery is a pretty constant thing throughout history, whether we like to admit it or not).

            Why couldn’t the south just have been allowed to declare themselves independent?

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            I think if the facts are unimportant to you, then we’re not really having a good-faith discussion of U.S. History. Questions of emancipation, suffrage, and representation have been central from the American Revolution to the recent Supreme Court decisions.

            Now personally, I side with the perspective that the 13th and 14th Amendment merely codified pre-existing moral individual rights that had already been implicitly expressed through the Constitution. So no, the Confederacy was not justified in denying those rights, and was not justified in abducting through secession people who had those rights.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I was merely trying to remove the emotive argument and look at it in a more abstract manner.

            Would there have been a civil war had the South been allowed independence?

            Was the right choice made?

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            It’s not an emotive argument, it’s a legal one. Did the Fire-Breathers have the right to buy, sell, and transport persons they called “property” into any federal territory regardless of federal or local regulation? Can a state government systematically deprive a class of persons of their legal rights under the U.S. Constitution? Those were the fundamental issues at stake in the American Civil War. (And consequently, most issues of individual rights to the present day following the 14th amendment.) More importantly, those were the issues explicitly claimed by the most vocal secessionists.

            Historically speaking, I don’t think peace for an independent Confederacy was possible. Both sides had a history of terrorist militias, competing claims on western territories, and bellicose expansionism fueled by a belief in manifest destiny.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            If the southern states had withdrawn from the union, would they have been covered by the constitution?

            Had they withdrawn, they would not have been allowed to buy/sell/transport slaves to any country that forbade it.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            Yes, because the constitutional rights belong to the person, not the state government. The state government can’t legally say those rights no longer apply, or that they never applied in the case of slavery. Secession motivated by systematic denial of 5th amendment rights was both illegal and immoral.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Morality is a fuzzy thing and should be disregarded as often as possible in debate.

            Legality is a more complex issue. Do we maintain that people must always follow the law?

            The Constitution only covers those in the union. As soon as any state ceded, the constitution would no longer be valid for that state.

            Logically, the sensible thing to do would have been to allow the south to cede from the union and then use economic leverage to beat them into bloodless submission. But that’s just 20/20 hindsight in action.

            (I should probably mention that I am an anti-Globalist, anti-EU, pro-regional devolutionist, so my stance is likely biased by my political inclinations.)

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            How ironic in this discussion that the atheist is the moral realist, and the theist the moral nihilist.

            “The Constitution only covers those in the union.”

            Since you’ve rejected any moral claims, then this idea can be rejected as well.

            “As soon as any state ceded, the constitution would no longer be valid for that state.”

            No. Those rights are vested in the individual and not the state. The state can’t deprive an individual of those rights without due process of the law. Therefore secession was an illegal act.

            “Logically, the sensible thing…”

            Since you’ve rejected any moral claims, then this idea can be rejected as well.

            “(I should probably mention that I am an anti-Globalist, anti-EU, pro-regional devolutionist, so my stance is likely biased by my political inclinations.)”

            And apparently a complete ignorance of the history and law involved.

            And of course, since you reject any moral claims, none of this should be granted a lick of sense either.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I am not a moral nihilist. I am a relativist. What is right for one may not be right for all. As such, legislation should not be based on any one groups morals, but rather an overarching stance of societal stability where each individual is afforded maximum personal liberty to pursue their own morals as they choose (but limited only to not inflicting their own morals on others).

            “Those rights are vested in the individual and not the state.”
            What if the voting majority of that state decides they do not want to be part of the union (having never voted to be in it?)

            “And apparently a complete ignorance of the history and law involved.”
            I didn’t dispute that there were laws in place, but many laws exist to maintain the power of those in control. Surely acts of rebellion against a government the rebels feel ideologically opposed to is easy enough to understand?

            As to the history… I’m in England, any history of that period I will have learned will doubtless be skewed by the perspective of the British education system.

            I still think my original statement was right:

            “…the American Civil War was about power.”

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            “I am not a moral nihilist. I am a relativist. ”

            Having rejected all moral claims in this discussion then you can’t make any of the claims that follow.

            “As such, legislation should not be based on any one groups morals, but rather an overarching stance of societal stability where each individual is afforded maximum personal liberty to pursue their own morals as they choose (but limited only to not inflicting their own morals on others).”

            Certainly, and if you choose to abandon your relativist gibberish to recognize that a claim to “maximum personal liberty” is a critical one, then the rights of slaves to liberty (except when convicted via due process) and participation in representative government need to be considered.

            And of course, this principle goes all the way back to the Declaration of Independence, which stated that the rights of British Subjects under English Common Law are not less important than the needs of English government to pay war debts. My argument has been that this can’t be abstracted to the level of states without considering, in your words, the “maximum personal liberty” of slaves.

            “What if the voting majority of that state decides they do not want to be part of the union (having never voted to be in it?)”

            The will of the “voting majority” is dependent on the individual rights of the people in question. Therefore, the “voting majority” can’t decide they’re going to ensure their supremacy by denying certain enumerated rights to their own population.

            “I didn’t dispute that there were laws in place, but many laws exist to maintain the power of those in control.”

            Certainly, but the secessionists are not the good guys in this analysis because their explicitly stated goal was the perpetual enslavement of persons as property. Regardless of the politics surrounding the Civil War, the *result* of that conflict was the 14th Amendment which further clarified that *individual rights* can not be trivially suppressed by a popular vote.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            There were no good guys in this.

            Look at this another way. It wasn’t ‘legal’ for America to declare itself independent from England. But it did it anyway.

            In such a situation, I think it is better to allow independence than to start a war.

          • kenofken

            This question speaks to the core concept of the civil religion underlying the American experiment. That concept held that something profoundly different and sacred, something bigger than the sum of its parts was created with the formation of the United States. Something unique and valuable enough to warrant enormous battlefield losses, numbers that we cannot even conceive of today.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Yes, but do we force religion on others?

          • Erin

            Land and people to tax were too dear to give up I imagine- why else do large countries not like to see independent movements within them and seek to squash them?

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Sounds about right. Reminds me of the England/Ireland issue.

      • Erin

        Good points, and education reformer E.D. Hirsch has written about this also, that the Founding Fathers had intended public schools to be Common Schools in which a common curriculum was taught to both rich and poor students alike, to equalize education. He writes too in his books about American Civic Religion, which is where I first heard the term, and encourages it, and a Core Knowledge curriculum to be taught to all students to help unify them equally as Americans, whether well-off or poor immigrants. In this civic religion he includes public Christmas displays and concerts, for example, not as fundamentalist religious displays, but more in the founding fathers’ Deist point of view of upholding a common cultural story that espouses honoring what is good in the world. As these kinds of things have been torn down we have not replaced them with other common, unifying, affirming stories, and so we have lost that collective identity that the civic religion provided, and while diversity is all well and good, it does tend to lead to seeing oneself as an island with little larger context with reference to a national identity.

    • JasonMankey

      I think kenofken hits the nail squarely on the head with his analysis, and after reading his response I can’t really think of anything substantive to add.

      Your comment about how a functioning civil religion must include all citizens is something I wish the people who co-opt folks like Franklin were capable of understanding. This whole idea that only conservative white people are “patriotic” is completely unpatriotic. Jefferson and Adams disagreed, would we say that one is more “patriotic” than the other? In our current political climate one party has rebuilt its base around the idea that the other party is “un-American.” I didn’t like Bush, but I wouldn’t question his patriotism. Today not liking Obama nearly demands that you question how American he truly is. Sad.

      I share your pessimism.

  • Kauko

    …people pick and choose the things they want out of it, and ignore the parts that might stand in disagreement to their own positions (like the line “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” in the Second Amendment).

    Or like people choosing to ignore the latter half of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The right of the people (i.e. all people) to bear arms shall not be infringed, not the right of just people in a militia. In other words, all people having access to ‘arms’ is necessary for a potential ‘well regulated Militia’.

    • JasonMankey

      I am not an anti-gun zealot, nor do I believe that people should have unlimited access to fire-arms. I stand squarely in the middle of the debate. However, I chose the second amendment precisely due to the passions it instills on both sides, and because it is rather ambiguous.

      • Kauko

        You did choose to present only one side of that as your example, though- which, on some level, does make it seem like you are only picking on the pro-gun crowd- so I thought it was only fair to present the other side :)

        • Kauko

          But, aside from that, yes, I also roll my eyes at the Constitution-was-handed-down-directly-from-Jesus-to-the-Founding-Fathers crowd (like this piece of…..ummm art: )

        • JasonMankey

          In my first draft I had a little “*” with a note at the bottom on my gun views, but decided to not go with it.

        • JR Gray

          Just to add, as I read it made me think that Jason was squarely pro-second amendment & right to bear arms and was simply abbreviating…

          Seems to me that we argue so much about the founders intentions, when the fact is the malleable document they left should allow us to debate practical, real-world solutions to our issues, using the ”Does it work?”-litmus test.
          But first we need to make sure we are asking the right questions and having the proper debate. E.g. rather than should we be allowed to have guns or not, maybe we could ask: Is the masive surveillance and militarization of our police forces necessary or is it creating a class of people who feel threatened no matter how many guns they are allowed to have?

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      As a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I can accept that my view comes as an ‘outsider’. I would like to say that I feel that the whole piece needs to be considered as a whole.

      The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that a (well regulated) militia can be formed with short-to-zero notice.

      First thing I notice is ‘well regulated’. Without that regulation, the whole thing falls down.

      The next thing I notice is that the personal ownership of (fire)arms is not just a right, but a duty. As such, I presume that anyone who has a firearm will be ready for call-up whenever need arises.

      The concept of a right not being infringed, to me, seems like it is designed to ensure that any militia formed will have equal access to weapons as the official military. That seems vital, if people want to maintain the potential for a viable militia.

      Finally, I note it says ‘arms’, not firearms or guns. ALL weapons should be included in this, whether that is a knife, a spear a sword or a howitzer.

      • Kauko

        I totally think that people should be allowed to carry around swords, large knives, spears etc if they want to.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Hávamál 38.
          “Let a man never stir on his road a step
          without his weapons of war;
          for unsure is the knowing when need shall arise
          of a spear on the way without.”

          I believe that Heathens have a religious obligation to.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I always thought of America being a kind of cult. The pledge is a prayer, the flag is a relic, the Constitution is scripture…

    The concept of that level of dedication to the state seems very indoctrinated, to me.

    Over here, we not only don’t have that kind of fervour in most people, but those that do have that kind of ‘patriotism’ get labelled as extremists.

    As an aside:
    “The Statue of Liberty has become the archetype Lady Liberty, and it’s hard for me to think of her without hearing the words “give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .””
    I hate to say it, but I can’t think of the Statue of Liberty without thinking of Ghostbusters 2.

    • Anna H.

      I agree with this, especially the flag part. The flag is considered literally holy; I was raised with the idea that if the flag ever touched the ground, even accidentally, it had to be disposed of (I think ritual, private burning was how that happened but I could be wrong). This information was delivered quite solemnly. Where does this come from? Is it a deep, unconscious Pagan impulse?

  • Weaver95

    i’m coming at this from a different perspective – over 15 years interest in politics (and technology) and i’m new to being pagan. ok, well…I’m new to finally admitting i’m pagan, but that’s a whole other story. I digress.

    if you haven’t already gotten hold of it, take the time to read ‘The Family’ by Jeff Sharlett. he traces the origins of modern evangelicals and their infiltration into the current day Republican party. He also goes on to describe the theology behind the prosperity gospel, which (in short) is used to give a religious justification for greed, hatred and lust we so often see from our fine fellows on the right wing.

    I think what bugs me most about christian dominionist politics is the sheer hypocrisy of it all. lets grab just one rather obvious example – Rush Limbaugh. he’s one of the key spokesmen for the religious right and the Republican party. He preaches morality, talks often about the sanctity of marriage and is a vocal opponent of women’s equality and gay rights. All well and good, right? I mean he’s got a right to his opinion even if we don’t agree with him. But he’s also a recovering (?) drug addict who openly despised drug addicts as weak willed fools who should be punished harshly…and frequently made statements to that effect while high as the proverbial kite. He’s made comments about the sanctity of marriage…while he’s on what, wife #4? And you can google for yourself the issue of what he’s alleged to have done in the dominican republic. My point here is that Limbaugh (and quite a surprising number of other prominent, well known religious right wing Republican politicians, staffers and preachers) don’t live a ‘christian lifestyle’. In fact, their own lives openly mock and degrade the entire concept of Christianity, corrupting into a perverted warped ideology that bears little resemblance to it’s original creed.

    the reason why this is all so dangerous is because there is a confluence of political power, economics, and a warped religious ideology that impels the Republican party to expand their religious view right along side their greed and hatred. it’s not just that the Republican economic agenda is wrong, it’s also backed (in part) by their religious ideology (i.e. prosperity gospel theology). when you object to the Republican view on taxes, you aren’t just objecting to their economic models, you’re also – in their minds at least – rejecting their version of jesus christ.

    Can we stop the Republican party from spreading their message? yes. but remember its as much a battle against their religious propaganda as it is a battle over facts, figures and theory. For a significant majority of the Republican party, religion and politics are tightly connected. Don’t lose sight of the fact that to a True Believer, they cannot compromise on ANY issue – abortion, gay marriage, taxes, intervention in the middle east…to compromise on ANYTHING is to compromise their religious values. And that would be a mortal sin in the eyes of their god. Consider your strategies in that light.