What’s So Civil about Civil Religion?

The Patheos overlords have a question:

The late sociologist Robert Bellah argued that American civil religion had become an “empty and broken shell” by the turn of the twenty-first century. Is it a concept worth reviving?

Eh, what a question. “Civil religion” is impossible to define, with multiple etymologies and a history of causing confusion. Bellah spent the rest of his career being ambivalent about the phrase he’d popularized, dropping it and distancing himself from other people who used it.

(Ray Haberski called it the Albatross concept and compares Bellah and “civil religion” to George Kennan and “containment”.)

Bellah was a chastened liberal, and his idea of civil religion was formed during the Vietnam war. Bellah defines the civil religion as the body of ideas and rituals not connected to a church which binds the population of the country together. It also acts as a moral guide for the country, at home and abroad. It was, in other words, an antidote to all that seemed to have gone wrong during Vietnam.

I’m going to play the liberal secularist here and say that I’m skeptical of the claim that America ever had a civil religion by Bellah’s definition. Certainly there are a collection of tropes and myths that lend themselves to inclusiveness, but more often than not they are used with the addition of “but we don’t want the Irish!” This is the country in which a slaveholder wrote our Declaration of Independence, opening with a phrase about how “all men are created equal.”

The civil religion can be sectarian or secular. One would think that a secular civil religion would be more inclusive. But witness the plight of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who battled the courts for years over the right not to say the Pledge. If Francis Bellamy’s little secular prayer is not anodyne enough, then what is?

I tend to think that America can only be united in its diversity. Expecting people to share a collection of ideas about what America means seems to me destined for failure. Far better to create a system that treats everybody equally than to try and convince people that everyone is equal.


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