Civil Religion: It’s What America Needs

Civil Religion: It’s What America Needs October 7, 2013

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.

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  • 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.