The End of Civil Religion in America

Yes, I know. Being civil about religion in America is already long dead. Stridency is the order of the day, with politicians, pastors, imams, rabbis and news commentators trying to outdo each other in inflammatory rhetoric and wounded indignation. America’s public space is like a kindergarten playground at recess.

But if we aren’t civil about religion perhaps its because there is tension in the air as America’s civil religion reaches the end of its long productive life, and the children are already fighting over its legacy.

Recently Muslims in Michigan protested the formation of a new legislative caucus that is “a bipartisan body of believers of Scriptural Truth, adhering to established Judeo-Christian principles and Religious Liberties that were widely practiced by the Founders of these United States of America and the state of Michigan.” ( The problem, according to Dawud Walid of CAIR, is the “exclusionary language.” The group denied it was excluding anybody, inviting anyone to come pray with them. “Our goal is to let folks know what we believe in.”

Discrimination and exclusion have been political hot buttons for decades, and at the moment they are nowhere hotter than in regard to who is included and excluded in political forums on the basis of religion. And that in turn stems from the near systemic confusion as the United States drifts into becoming a post-Christian nation.

Representative Kurtz, quoted above, reflects that confusion. He identifies his group with scriptural truth, Judeo-Christian principles, religious liberties, and the founders of the United States and Michigan, as if these were parameters within which all Americans could find a place.

For a long time most could. The uniquely American invention of the Christian denomination allowed Americans to have very different, and even exclusionary beliefs, under the assumption that these were all subsets of a larger Christianity that itself was our national, civil religion. We could all swear on the Bible either in court or taking public office even if we didn’t agree at all on what it meant. We could all pray together at football games even if many of us believed God had pre-determined the outcome and others believed that most of the players were bound for hell because they hadn’t had a believer’s baptism.

Of course there were some rough edges to our inclusion. For most of our nation’s history most Protestants didn’t believe that Catholics and Mormons were Christian, and Catholics at least returned the favor. Jews were never so very welcome, and the concept of “Judeo-Christian” values dates only to the 1940’s. Mormons were and are derided by Christians as a non-Christian cult even as they take patriotism and family values to their limits.

But if Mormons can now be included because they are “our kind of people” despite their unusual doctrines, and Catholics can be let into the fold (either grudgingly or even admiringly for their social conservatism) it is because the presence of neither seriously interrogates the naive conflation of scriptural truth, Judeo-Christian principles, religious liberties, and America’s founders.

Muslims are a different matter. If by “scripture” you mean the Bible then most Muslims believe that much of its content is corrupt, as is the Christian interpretation of its message. Muslim legislators have asked to be sworn into office on a copy of the Qur’an. And of course few if any Christians would acknowledge the Qur’an as scripture or the teachings of Muhammad as inspired. Not much common ground there for a Judeo-Christian-Muslim civil religion. Although there are efforts to promote the common values of the “Abrahamic Faiths” as a basis for a new civil consensus.

But what about Hindus and Buddhists and Jains and Sikhs and a whole variety of so-called “new age” religious groups that remind us that the assumed basis of the old civil religion excludes rather than includes many Americans. Is the only alternative a thoroughgoing cleansing of religion from the public space; something that appears to make many Christians and non-Christians alike uneasy?

In the last blog I sketched the reasons that Christians can share in governing and being governed by non-Christians. Can we join in a dialogue with non-Christians about the basis of a common civil religious identity? Even a shared concept of religiously committed citizenship?

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