Civil Religion: It’s What America Needs

Connor Wood

US flag

Robert Bellah, the sociologist of religion who popularized the idea of an American “civil religion,” died over the summer at the age of 86. In an age of stultifying political dialogue and rabid partisanship, Bellah’s passing marks an era when the American myth has, for many, lost a tremendous amount of its luster – and believability. But two recent events – a moon rocket launch and a presidential speech on Syria – remind us that myths take participation in order to be made real. While cynicism may rule the day in Congress and across the internet, I think that a little openness to the civic myths of our culture – or whichever culture you inhabit – is something the world can’t do without.

Let me clear up something right off the bat: civil religion isn’t the mixing of church and state. It is not the use of crucifixes and the Ten Commandments to advance a religious agenda, say, in public buildings. Instead, civil religion is, to paraphrase Robert Bellah, the shared reverence for sacred symbols drawn from a nation’s history. It is not, properly speaking, a “religion” in the way the word is used by most English speakers today. In the US, civil religion has traditionally revolved around symbols such as the Declaration of Independence, the flag, Martin Luther King, the Grand Canyon, or the Apollo moon landings. The use of, and reverence for, such symbols and myths is what links people emotionally to the larger society and inspires them to strive for its well-being.

Here’s where the story starts for me: it’s 1990, and I’m a 9-year-old kid living in Maryland, only a few hours’ drive from some of the most sacred sites in the American mythological corpus: the U.S. Capitol, the Smithsonian, the Liberty Bell – and also Antietam, Bull Run, and the Appomattox Court House. Right around then, Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War aired on PBS. My family watched it religiously every night, following the story of the bloody conflict that took 600,000 American lives, tore the country apart, and became the fulcrum upon which the entire history of the United States would pivot ever since.

The thing was, Burns’s documentary was beautiful. Not because it made the war beautiful – it didn’t. War isn’t beautiful. But it made the story of the United States seem as if it actually meant something. Burns is a master storyteller. He used music, old photographs, and letters written home from soldiers to their wives and sweethearts to evoke the pain and sadness of the war. He used diary entries and private communications to provide shockingly personal glimpses into the inner worlds of Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln himself. And throughout the entire 10-hour series, the haunting fiddle lament “Ashokan Farewell” transported viewers from their living rooms to the dusty, sun-beaten battlefields where brother fought against brother.

Burns’s documentary left me with a lifelong reverence for the history of this strange country and a desire to know what it might mean. Now, flash forward to recent years. Last November, in Chicago for a conference, I found myself having beers downtown one night with a professor of religion who could not have been more cynical about the Civil War. “The Civil War was just the first step for American imperialism,” he snorted. “It paved the way for the Spanish-American War. There was nothing noble about it. Just pure, rank imperialism.” Then he tossed back the last of his stout and looked at me pityingly.

Now, if you spend any time at all around universities you’ll know that “imperialist” is a blanket insult many academics bandy about to indicate that they don’t like something. But it’s also a clue to a deeper fault line running beneath the surface of our culture. The fact is, the United States is a deeply flawed entity whose actual history is nothing like the romantic visions of it conjured up by weepy Civil War fiddle melodies or Saturday Evening Post cover paintings. The U.S. has meddled tyrannically in the affairs of other countries, built its wealth on slavery and conquest, and – let’s not forget – achieved its economic dominance by exploiting the staggeringly abundant natural resources that were taken at gunpoint from American Indian tribes.

But there is one serious problem with stopping here, shrugging our shoulders, and saying, “Well, to hell with America, then.”* As the French sociologist Émile Durkheim argued, societies need sacred values and symbols if they are to survive. A society with nothing sacred binding it together will quickly degrade into merely an agglomeration of individuals, and unity – as well as the ability to effectively address problems – will evaporate. The fact is that sacredness – a sense of inviolability, reverence, and supreme value – is utterly necessary for group life to succeed. Groups whose membership is based on sacred beliefs, symbols, or myths will, all other things being equal, always outcompete groups whose membership is based on, say, mere mutual economic interests like owning stock in the same office-supplies manufacturer.

What I am trying to say is that, if the United States is to continue as an experiment in how to construct a society of equals, each of us must find some way to realistically overcome the cynicism that reality encourages and allow ourselves instead to be moved by the symbols of an America that never was, and never will fully be.

This – the ability to be moved by symbols of things that themselves are never realized – is the trick of participation in a sacred world. It is the great secret. Sacred things are not perfectly manifestable – but you have to allow them to move you anyway.

What would happen if we were hardnosed realists about everything, as my stout-drinking professor friend advocated? The anthropologist Roy Rappaport gave us a hint by pointing out that if we let reality – that is, how people actually behave – define our moral principles, we’d end up with no morals at all. For example: in most societies we have a moral principle that says that people shouldn’t kill each other. But that principle is an ideal. In real life, people actually do kill each other. It doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen sometimes. This means that the moral ideal of non-killing is objectively not realized in the actual world.

But if we decided to be strict realists and adjusted our moral guidelines so they matched what actually happens in real life, we’d end up with a deflationary cycle that would end with a radically weakened moral code. In fact, it wouldn’t be a code at all; it’d be more like a statistics printout. (“In an average year, 12 out of 100,000 people will be murdered. It is unacceptable to murder others unless the quota of 12 has not yet been reached.”)

In other words, when it comes to guiding people’s behavior within a social milieu, realism is not actually the way to go. We can’t just look at the ugly reality and say, “Oh, well, I guess murder is okay after all.” Instead, we retain our ideals, even in the face of contrary evidence. We do this by participating in the rituals and sacred stories that evoke these ideals. We can, and should, do this regardless of the weight of evidence against the ideal. Even if you lived in a horror movie world where everyone but you and your closest friends were murderers, it would still be right to affirm that murder is wrong.

The same is true for more complex and sticky ideals, like those of an abstract entity like “the United States.” The United States as an ideal claims to stand for freedom, equal opportunity, honor, wide-open spaces, industriousness, and so forth. The actual historical political body is deeply morally compromised, and it always will be. If Vietnam didn’t convince you, then the Tuskegee syphilis experiment ought to. But the question is, should the reality of the U.S.’s behavior prohibit you from feeling moved by its national symbols, affirming its values, or partaking in its mythology?

No. It shouldn’t. A few weeks ago, NASA launched an unmanned probe to the moon (we still had a government back then, you know, so we could do things like that). The launch happened in Virginia. I live in Boston, but because of the sheer height the rocket attained I got to see the actual rocket rising over the Eastern Seaboard at night,† a rust-red bright dot arcing above the lights of Boston. I was thrilled, but unexpectedly, I also felt deeply, deeply moved. My grandfather worked for NASA during the Apollo program. When I was a child, visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was like walking into the Hagia Sophia. This meant something. Our nation, a collection of individual human apes united under a bunch of objectively meaningless symbols, was reaching once more into the still waters of space.

The following Monday, I tuned into President Obama’s speech to Congress on Syria (remember Syria?). I am not a big news-watcher; in fact televised news often makes me recoil as if I had been forced to witness a raw grub-eating contest. So I am generally left out one of America’s traditional civil religion rituals: watching important figures say important things on television while, at the exact same time, millions of other Americans are (figuratively) right there beside me. This time was different. I watched the president’s speech, and although I was not sure I believed what he was saying, I felt as if I were somehow synced up with a country – a country I hadn’t really felt bonded to since I was a child sitting on a couch in Maryland, wrapped in a blanket, watching The Civil War on PBS.

I’m an academic. I know how far away reality is from our romanticized self-images, whether we’re talking about America’s calling as a freedom-ringing “city on a hill” or, say, the universal hope the Catholic Church believes it offers. All our institutions, all our nations, are corrupt. All our lofty ideals pale in comparison with the gaudy and stained colors of reality. But even as we live in reality, we can allow the ideals to live in us. Robert Bellah understood that a sincere belief in, and admiration for, the sacred symbols of the idealized American narrative was a vital ingredient in the functioning of our culture. As political battles reach new heights, and the fabric of the nation seems stretched to its breaking point, civil religion – responsible, earnest, and humble, fully aware of our tarnished history – might be exactly what we need.

Note: I apologize to readers from other countries for the U.S.-centeredness of this piece. It’s a subject that’s been weighing on me for a while. With the government shutdown, congressional battles, and various and sundry other political unpleasantries dominating the newspapers around here recently, I thought now was a good time to get it off my chest. 

Edit: I added a paragraph to stress that “civil religion” is not the mixing of church and state, something that wasn’t entirely clear in the original version.


* Although plenty of my friends do this.

† This was the awesomest thing ever.

Michael Shermer thinks he’s more moral than you
America’s public ritual gone terribly wrong
How separate are science and religion, anyway?
Why the religion-science dialogue needs secular religious studies
  • unkleE

    Hi Connor, I am from Australia, not the US, but I still appreciated this. I saw the Civil War documentary and found it fascinating, even though I hate war and had little interest in the US Civil War. I agree with you in your criticisms of some US actions – from outside, it looks like Americans really think their lives and comfort are far more important than anyone else’s, and anything (rendition, torture, endless imprisonment, bombing civilians, drone attacks, etc, etc) is justified if it suits.

    But I can’t help wondering whether “civil religion” is the answer. Civil religion supported the absolutely sickening and useless World War 1 – it should never have happened. The second gulf war was judged by the Bradford University peace studies department as a religious war because of how the US government used religious justifications for it.

    As a christian, I think Jesus promoted non-civil religion (civil in manner of course!) and non-violent resistance to aggressors. I suggest that if the churches and christians of America followed Jesus rather than civil religion, there’d be less wars and less shame to be repented of.

  • connorwood

    Hi unkleE, thanks for weighing in. I think it’s important to point out that “civil religion” is NOT the mixing of church and state. I might even go back and edit the article to make sure that this is clear. Instead, American civil religion is, in Robert Bellah’s terms, a nonsectarian “faith” that venerates and certain symbols and myths from American history: for example, the Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge (where George Washington and his troops spent a grueling winter in 1778), or the Apollo moon landings. It is NOT the use of explicitly Abrahamic religious symbols to legitimate the nation or its agendas.

    > But I can’t help wondering whether “civil religion” is the answer. Civil religion supported the absolutely sickening and useless World War 1…

    This is the question, I think. A belief system might be misused to justify or legitimate something evil. Afterwards, is that belief system permanently compromised, such that one should avoid partaking in it? My suggestion is that, in general – and right now in particular for Americans – the answer is no. ALL our belief systems are compromised. Christianity was used to justify the (unspeakably barbaric) conquest of South America. Islam was used to justify the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Confucianism was used to justify centuries of staggeringly oppressive aristocracy and patriarchy in Korea. So what if you threw away every belief system that had become morally compromised? You’d be left with no beliefs, nothing sacred at all. Richard Dawkins and his followers might say, “Yay! Great! Nothing sacred!”, but this is because they do not understand how human social worlds work. We NEED sacred values to inspire long-term participation in collective action. Without sacred values, there is no collective. There’s only a bunch of people.

    And “a bunch of people” is what the United States is currently in serious danger of becoming. The closer we come to turning into a random assortment of disengaged individuals rather than a society bound by sacred symbols, the greater the divisiveness will become, the less people will take part in the truly difficult projects of civic life, and the closer the upper classes will get to achieving permanent, crystallized hegemony over the culture.

    Sinclair Lewis wrote that “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” And he was right. But this doesn’t mean the cross or flag are evil in themselves. They are simply powerful tools that can be used by anyone to inspire sacred sentiments in others. For this reason, I think civil religion – the continued reference to, and reverence of, the sacred symbols of the American mythology such as George Washington, the Declaration of Independence, or the moon landings – is what we need in order to inspire ourselves to take an actual INTEREST in the affairs and continued well-being of the country. Otherwise, the only people using those symbols will be the most cynical ones of all: those who intentionally manipulate the sacred for the purpose of selfish gain.

  • Jim

    I’m not sure that an American civil religion, as defined above by Robert Bellah, can be divorced from a mixing of church and state. Our history of American mythology and symbols is tightly bound to a generic god who supports America over other nations. The Declaration of Independence is almost primarily a religious document, since it begins as its justification for independence with a call to God who endows us with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This generic American god is often at odds with God as described by the religions of the world. This mixing manifests itself in Christian churches that have huge fourth of July services that present America as God’s gift to the world (like the church I attended as a child).

  • Brad dayag

    We used to have “sacred beliefs, symbols, and myths” that the vast majority of Americans believed in. They were taught in the homes, reinforced in the schools and expanded upon in universities. Unfortunately 60 years of po-mo revisionism has destroyed them and we have been producing an elite class that despises the once cherished symbols of America along with the average working folk who still believe in them.

  • stanz2reason

    Connor… We have American flags all over public spaces and no shortage of them displayed on private homes. We celebrate our national independence every july 4. Many school districts take a week off in february for presidents week. We have not 1 but 2 holidays for our armed forced (Memorial & Veterans Day). Most kids pledge allegiance every day to the US flag. And if the circus of the government shut down is any indication, it’s that we support the up keep of countless national museums, memorials and parks, all which celebrate our country. Within these museums we proudly display, amongst countless items, a few sheets of paper in the for all to see and read that tell our story and showcase our laws. I’m uncertain why you feel there is some sort of shortage of reverence amongst US citizens for their country.

    While present political bickering is often the result of puppets dancing for money, it is ultimately supported by people who genuinely care a great deal about their country. That they might ignore fact, reason or any sense of fair play doesn’t discount that many of them are genuine in their sentiments that a law that provides greater access to medical care is somehow an indication of the end times.

    Perhaps ‘civil religion’ isn’t the best term, as you can suggest the studying and appreciation of US achievements (and recognition of shortcomings) without the use of a fairly loaded term, one you’ve wisely gone back to address. It might be wiser to eliminate it entirely.

  • connorwood

    >I’m uncertain why you feel there is some sort of shortage of reverence amongst US citizens for their country.

    stanz2reason, I think the best answer to your question is that I’m not writing for the entire country. I could be wrong about who reads this blog, but I think of myself generally as writing for the more educated, cosmopolitan, and (usually, but not always) coastal people, who are the most culturally influential folks in our society but among whom reverence for sacred American symbols is generally much lower than among, say, working-class people. I write blog posts like this one because I think the divide between elites and non-elites over sacred attitudes is far more important, and serious, than most people realize. The extent to which many people simply write off most opinions held by educated people – because they perceive such people to be fundamentally hostile to the sacred attitudes they hold dear – is hard to overstate. This is a large part of the root cause of the culture wars over science, climate change, and many other pressing issues.

    The cultural elite has lost a lot of credibility with the working class and other groups who tend to have more reverence for sacred symbols. Such reverence is important and actually valid because, for the vast majority of people who have ever lived, sacred symbols, beliefs, and myths have been the basic tools that bind communities. Since communities are the only bulwark humans have against a hostile and deadly natural world, people actually have very good motivations to participate in sacred worlds – community equals survival. Elites and highly educated people, though, are an exception to this rule; they have enough economic and social power that they can realistically harbor illusions of real independence – a lack of NEED for community. They thus can afford to spurn sacred symbols. The rejection of sacred symbols has, in fact, become a marker of elite status; just go to a party in Boston and say something unironically patriotic, and see how people react. Be ready to walk yourself home that night.

    I think this is important, and something that should be addressed, because we have really big problems in this country – and world – that need solving. The massive and growing divide between generally secularish cultural elites (who are the ones who do and know the science about, say, climate change) and generally sacredish (my word) non-elites (whose assent to any major programs for solving climate change, income inequality, or other massive problem is usually politically necessary) means that we are becoming less and less able to solve these problems, because people simply don’t trust each other across those lines. I’m advocating for educated, intellectual people to allow themselves to have some reverence – REAL, emotional reverence – for the sacred symbols of the United States because they are the ones in charge, and they are the ones who most need to feel emotionally invested in the collective project of America. If there were a movement among intellectuals to make a humble patriotism socially acceptable, or even desirable, it could be a major step toward disarming some of the paralyzing (and justified) distrust that non-elites have towards them. Then we might be able to start forging social consensus around the looming problems of our century.

    Caveat: I could very well be wrong about all this. But it is what I currently think, and I also think it’s important.

  • jdens

    I think the term “civic religion” is less confusing than “civil religion”. Thought-provoking piece.

  • Ymoore

    Interesting article and comments. As an African American, the Civil War and WWII were the only “just” ones in US history.

  • stanz2reason

    We can probably stop dancing around using terms like ‘cultural elite’ and ‘coastal’ and stick with liberal & conservative, as they’re understood in the American sense. And I’ve read Jonathan Haidt as well so I believe I understand the point you’re driving too. I think it’s important to note that the divide isn’t growing between liberal ideas & conservative ones, but between conservative ones and reality. That conservatives have a puzzling dislike of science and what it has to say isn’t really an ideological divide that can be bridged by compromise. I sympathize that science, especially Darwinian Evolution, make a compelling argument that makes conservatives uncomfortable, but I don’t see a way around denying facts and diverging from reality to ease their minds without being irresponsible or dishonest. That’s the root cause of the much of the culture wars. That educated people might have a firmer grasp of such things leads to some sort of presumption that they’re looking to pull one over on the ignorant and misinformed, when all we’re doing is stating the obvious and supporting such statements with empirical evidence and peer-reviewed study. They they’ve decided to deny climate change really isn’t my problem beyond the fact that energy is being spent to climb the oppositional wall of mis-information rather than finding a solution for the actual climate change. And I’m uncertain what sort of reverence might assist in addressing viewpoints that aren’t consistent with reality.

    Conservatives have spent such a long time vilifying liberals, that they’ve come to stand for nothing other than the opposite of what a liberal might say, even if that is just the regurgitation of scientific fact rather than ideology. They use words like ‘patriot’ like they own the term, while blindly engaging in acts that are objectively detrimental to the country. Apparently shameful stunts like that silly photo-op at the WWII memorial of veterans in wheelchairs and republican members of congress who are actually responsible for the shutting of the monument is the only thing that qualifies as patriotism. Please.

    That people have reverence for objects, symbols or ideals is also not something that’s unique to conservatives, though as Haidt suggests, when forming a moral opinion this seems to be more relevant to a conservative than a liberal. I agree that the notion that ‘the sacred’ helps bind communities, whether it’s a cross, a book, a flag or a football jersey. I disagree with the notion that liberals, highly educated or not, lack a sense of community, though it manifests itself in a wider general sense than it does for conservatives.

    Consider liberal policies of protecting our environment, or concerning access to healthcare, or assistance to the poor, or in public education. The liberal sense of community manifests itself in raising up the community via public policy and state agency. The conservative viewpoints on these topics are all, in my opinion, very short-sighted. We wouldn’t need environmental regulations if people weren’t harming the environment to begin with. We wouldn’t need to address our citizens not having access to affordable healthcare if they actually did. We wouldn’t have to aid the poor or elderly if the community conservatives find so sacred was doing this already. This isn’t to suggest the government does everything the best, nor does it suggest that public policy in areas where it does do something best is perfect. I’d go even further to suggest that in an all things being equal sort of situation, that the state shouldn’t be involved. (ie. the tie goes to the private) But the conservative notion that ‘private’ does everything better and the government messes up everything is simply false. Some stuff ‘private’ does better. Some stuff ‘public’ does better. The best policy figures out which is which and should, frankly, write itself.

    The ideological tug of war is ultimately a good thing when it is reasonable and honest. That is not what’s happening when one side goes off the deep end and complains that they’re not being met halfway. To solve this conservatives must understand they are not the only people living in the US and that our country is as important to us as it is to them. They have to understand that compromise doesn’t mean driving the country off an economic cliff because you didn’t get your way. It means that the ACA is law, one that was already a significant compromise to begin with (don’t forget that it is not a single payer system, nor does it have a public option, both things that had wide liberal support). To request it be altered means you’re going to have to give up something as that’s how negotiations work. You want a delay in the individual mandate? OK, you give us comprehensive immigration reform. You want spending cuts? OK, you give us more revenue. If you can’t stomach these compromises, don’t waste our time. Offering not to wreck the national (and possibly global) economy is not a negotiation. It doesn’t occur to these people that had they governed responsibly and reasonably to begin with and pushed for more moderate policy from the get-go, they’d be in a better position to get what they want. They lost big time in ’12 and were it not for conveniently drawn districting and disproportional support for democrats in urban centers, they’d have been relegated entirely to the sidelines. Perhaps if conservatives had more reverence for the sacredness of objective fact and reasonable compromise, the current political circus would die down.

  • connorwood

    I share a lot of your frustrations, standz2reason. The resistance to science among big swathes of our culture is really bad news, especially when it comes to climate change and the environment. I disagree with you when it comes to conservatives’ resistance to climate change science not being your (or my) problem, because quite clearly environmental catastrophes are everyone’s problem. If there were less resistance to the science we might have a shot at real action. Right now, we are simply standing on the beach, watching the tsunami rush towards us.

    Jonathan Haidt and others who work with him and his ideas, including myself, also make a pretty hefty distinction between economic “conservatives” in the US and traditionalists. This is one of the reasons I opted not to use the word “conservative” in my original reply to your comment; it’s actually not a conceptually clear term, although we use it as if it is. Traditionalists’ values are, in my opinion, not naturally well-aligned at all with the fiscal conservatism of the Republican Party and the current economic elite. The marketization and monetization of virtually all of life, along with the radical increase in economic inequality, is terribly harmful to the local-scale, religiously grounded communities that traditionalists value. There may even come a time in the near future where the ad-hoc alignment between the fiscal conservatives and religious traditionalists – a union forged in no small part by Bill Buckley in the 1970s and 80s – starts to buckle, because traditionalists become exasperated by the inimical effects of fiscal “conservatism” on the traditional religious communities they wish to defend.

    I do think your frustration with, and apparent writing off of, conservatives is not a tenable stance if we actually want to solve any of the serious problems you and I have both identified. I agree that conservative obstructionism in Congress is bad news. (I grew up in the National Park Service, so the shutdown is personal for me in more ways than one.) But part of the reason why there is such gridlock in our era is that the “liberal” and “conservative” (or progressive/traditionalist, or coastal elite/heartland working class) factions of our culture no longer recognize or affiliate toward virtually ANY of the same sacred symbols. What are the sacred symbols for liberals? The environment, organic foods, gay marriage, walkable cities, polar bears, internationalism, and so forth. What are the sacred symbols for traditionalists/conservatives? God, family, scriptures, flag, Jesus, etc. There really is very little overlap there.

    My contention is that we will not overcome our current cultural divides, and will be unable to solve our biggest, most looming problems, unless there are at least a few sacred symbols upon which all of us agree and are GENUINELY moved by. This is why I suggested civil religion; without specific religious traditionalist valences, symbols such as the flag offer a shared symbolic locus that both progressives and traditionalists could orient themselves towards, even while holding divergent sacred values in other areas of life. Currently, however, the flag and other civil religious symbols are mostly the social property of the conservatives. This turns the very symbols of our country into partisan identifiers. This is incredibly, incredibly dangerous. And this is why I advocate for increased, unironic, patriotism among liberals and intellectuals. We cannot allow the sacred symbols of America to be only the tools of one side of the ideological rift.

    So while frustration with today’s Congress and political situation is absolutely warranted, giving up on the possibility that the various factions could find shared sacred symbols and attitudes is, practically speaking, an admission that we will not solve the problems of our era.

    Thanks for the discussion; I feel much clearer about what I think than I did beforehand, which is one of the best outcomes in any conversation, off- or online.

  • stanz2reason

    With regards to conservative reservations of acknowledging climate change, I meant it wasn’t my problem that they are uncomfortable with fact, not that their resistance isn’t itself problematic to addressing climate change.

    I think the breaking up between fiscally conservatives and traditionalists is already well underway, and too be honest wasn’t a great marriage to begin with other than helping win a handful of elections, and then subsequently helping to lose some. Traditionalist views aren’t aligned with reality, a fairly simple notion that tastes and values change as time goes on. Certain things move higher in the collective priority list, while others drop. The expectation that things will remain the same is an illusion, and makes it all the more difficult to drag them, often kicking and screaming back to reality.

    I don’t write off conservative views. I see the value of many of those views and in fact share some as well. However, in order to have productive policy, both sides have to be operating in the same reality, and that’s just not happening. We could blame congressional gridlock on both parties, but to place equal blame here is just to abdicate the responsibility of honestly evaluating the present situation. The ACA is law. It passed the house. It passed the senate. The president signed off. It passed the SCOTUS. The house has voted over 40 times and failed each time to wreck this bill. The American public voted multiple times (in ’08 on the promise of reform, and in ’10 & ’12 after it) keeping Democrats in the senate and White House (and even winning a plurality of votes for democrats in the house in ’12). To then shut down the government and threaten greater economic damage unless the bill is defunded is a course of action that can not be defended as reasonable. They ask for ‘negotiation’. Explain to me exactly what they’re offering while avoiding hyperbole about ‘hostage taking’ or ‘ransom’. I’m unable to do so.

    That conservatives are more likely to find religion sacred isn’t something that conflicts with liberals (or more specifically with non-believers). It’s when they feel their beliefs should be (or demand to be) made public policy. Believers must come to terms with the realities (and ultimate benefits) of secularism and also note that this isn’t the equivalent of endorsing atheism. Even in a society with zero skeptics, you could make a compelling argument for the benefits for a secular government.

    Myself and other liberals take great offense at the notion that conservatives find ‘family’ sacred while somehow we do not. They support via granted marital rights a scenario where a drunken father beats his wife and child over a homosexual couple that care for each other and their adopted children. That, to me, is an indefensible position.

    We also take offense at the notion that we’re unpatriotic, like somehow ones inability to note and correct our shortcomings is somehow the only measure of patriotism. Conservatives love using ‘the founding fathers this’ and ‘the founding fathers that’, but fail to provide context or deliberately distort history so that it aligns with their worldviews. It seems lying about and otherwise forgetting actual US history while hiding behind the American flag is the only thing that counts as patriotic. It’s not ironic to suggest that American exceptionalism is rooted in our ability to address our faults and become better for it. If liberals were unpatriotic, we wouldn’t spend so much energy trying to make our country better.

    These things are only or ‘mostly the social property of the conservatives’ because that is what social conservatives say. They do not have a monopoly on things that are sacred. Nor of family. Nor of patriotism. And are often perfectly content to ignore empirical evidence because Jesus will save them. It might be better, rather than advocating liberals to be unironically patriotic, to consider how liberals actually are patriotic and instead defend that position as I’ve started to above.

    I enjoy your contributions to this site very much. It’s good that you spend a week or so preparing a comprehensive essay rather than a daily blog. I think your placement in the middle is necessary, though I maintain that a solution must involve the right coming back to the middle rather than the left meeting halfway. Keep it up. You’ll see more of me around these parts.

  • ValPas

    Yes, I agree, a healthy respect for our national symbols helps us relate to our fellow citizens, regardless of whether or not we agree with their politics. And I certainly agree that having “sacred symbols” in common can increase cooperation and hence success of a culture – a sort of sports-team booster enthusiasm.
    But civic morality is also actually programmed into most of us neurologically (psycho/sociopaths probably excepted) because we humans are social animals. I just attended a talk/conference in Atlanta with the Dalai Lama, who is keenly interested in the neuroscience of compassion. He is pushing what he calls “secular ethics” based upon the very real positive psychological rewards experienced by people when they cooperate and show altruistic behavior.

  • Robert

    As usual, very stimulating and thought-provoking. But the natural question that follows, in my mind at least, is: What exactly is the proper relationship between the ideal and the real? Granted, we all need ideals to survive, both in our individual lives and our communal life. But when these ideals become so far removed from reality, they become untenable and actually make life unbearable. Continually falling short of our ideals can easily produce despondency, helplessness, or shame and guilt. Ideals that have no connection to real life can also become the target of mockery and cynicism. (I think the general zeitgeist of irony as we see it in media reflects our ideals’ disconnection from our lives.)

    Yet, as you point out, ideals that are too close to our real lives do not serve their intended purpose either. Without lamplights in the night to guide our path and elevate us beyond our daily lives, we can become mired in the despair of “Is this really all there is?”

    I think your statement that we must “allow ourselves instead to be moved by the symbols of an America that never was, and never will fully be” is half true. An ideal by necessity “never will fully be” but it has to be in the realm of human possibility or else it will ring false. A Christian whose deeds can never live up to those of the Gospel he claims to follow will eventually give up his creed or dissuade others from belief. A country that claims it is the bastion of freedom yet enslaves its people will either have to abandon those ideals or strive to live up to them. Ideals must be seen to be in the realm of possibility or else they will dissipate like air.

    What ideals of our country still ring true? What myths still serve to capture our imagination and spirits? Norman Rockwell’s paintings served to capture an America we all yearned for and believed was within our grasp even if we didn’t see it now. It today they seem puerile, unsophisticated or saccharine, then we need to ask ourselves what we have to replace them.

  • connorwood

    Hi Robert, thanks for your incisive commentary and critiques. I agree that there must be a balance between the “idealness” of ideals and their accessibility; an ideal of being a country in which no one ever died would not be a very useful ideal, for instance.

    But one thing that occurs to me when reading your comment is that I don’t think I’m properly talking about defined, propositional moral or ethical imperatives. In other words, the ideals I think we ought to be cultivating in the US – particularly those of us on the more liberal, cosmopolitan side of the spectrum – are better thought of as “totems” in a Durkheimian sense, or “ultimate sacred postulates” in the sense of Roy Rappaport. Rappaport’s analysis is especially enlightening; he argues that a culture’s or society’s ultimate sacred postulates – the symbols and claims that undergird the sacred life of a community – actually MUST be propositionally vague in order to function. In other words, the imperative “the US must provide healthcare to all its citizens” could not function as a valid ultimate sacred postulate, because it is too semantically definite. It means something practical and actionable in English. A more proper ultimate sacred postulate would be something like New Hampshire’s state motto, “Live free or die.” This set of words is much less actionably precise, and in fact could be interpreted to mean almost anything related to freedom. Therefore people can PROJECT their own unarticulable feelings of allegiance, duty, and moral good onto such a phrase. It is only these types of claims and symbols that can actually motivate totemic allegiance to a culture, because they are not vulnerable to falsification or, as you point out, chronic unattainability.

    In other words, the type of sacred symbol I think progressives need to start taking seriously is not the concrete ethical ideal, but the semantically open, emotionally inspirational phrase, symbol, or totem: examples are the flag, the concept of “liberty,” images of the wide-open spaces of the West, etc. (The last one is especially moving for me.) I think traditionalists and conservatives have a better gut feeling for how important it is to allow oneself to be moved by such totems or images, while progressives tend to spurn or be suspicious of them for the good reason that they have been historically abused by elites to motivate colonialist, imperialist, and otherwise rapacious national behavior. But if we leave such totems to be the sole bailiwick of the hungry elites, the hungry elites will be the only ones who use them. This simple fact on its own explains a lion’s share of the “What’s the Matter with Kansas” phenomenon in contemporary US politics.

  • robert

    Connor, thank you for your response and the clarification. Your essay does make this clear; I somehow got sidetracked on the notion of ideals. I do agree with you, Bellah and Rappaport–not that you guys need my agreement!–that sacred symbols have extraordinary power to reach directly into one’s spirit, more than intellectual argument or even participation into public or communal activities. As you point out, today people in our secular society are very suspicious of symbols, as they have been misused in the past. But that’s like throwing the baby out with bathwater: just because symbols have been used of tools of manipulation does not strip all symbols of their sacredness.

    I do have the same questions about Bellah’s use of the term “religion” as defined by “the shared reverence for sacred symbols drawn from a nation’s history.” Without God, one wonders how much of a religion a “civic religion” can be. But Bellah is indeed sensitive to the powerful nature of symbols that all religions harness to instill reverence in both the individual and the community.

    America is, as you say, a “strange land”. It is this quest to uncover its heart that have led many on quests to “find America” in a way that people never speak of “finding Italy” of “finding Japan”. In those countries, like many others, its identity is much more clearly located in the intersection of religion, history and state. Since America–officially at least–misses the first component, Bellah’s civic religion might be the closest we can get to finding its heart.

  • Collin237

    I don’t agree that Americans have lost civil religion. I think the problem is worse — a new civil religion in which our own country is a devil.

  • Matt Davis

    European countries do fine without a civil religion. You won’t find many places more secular than Sweden, Denmark and even the UK to a large extent, and they’re not in the mess the US is, with the parties at each other’s throats, the gun violence and everything else.