Memorial Day often provides the most fertile context for thinking about civil religion in America. Recently, a professional athlete, who is also a devout Christian, used social media to post a picture of a t-shirt with an American flag on it bearing the caption: “There is no greater love than this, when a man lays down his life for his friends.” The comments section of the post immediately filled with tributes to “the troops” and “those who protect our freedoms,” in anticipation of a high holy day of American civil religion. Jesus’ words, re-purposed.
Discussions of civil religion took off in the late 1960s when sociologist Robert Bellah published his essay “Civil Religion in America.” Bellah argued that in America, alongside traditional religion, another religion exists, one that contains the kinds of symbols, rituals, and doctrines that sociologists typically identify with religions in different cultures. American civil religion borrows many of the symbols of Biblical religion, including exodus, martyrdom, salvation, repentance, and creation. George Washington plays the role of Moses, leading the people out of bondage, away from the tyranny of King George III, into the promised land. We have a number of symbols, rituals, and doctrines associated with this first phase of American civil religion: July Fourth holidays, the Declaration of Independence as the sacred scripture, and freedom/democracy as the central value and proclamation. Abraham Lincoln becomes the savior, liberating not only slaves from bondage, but slave-owners from their sins. Lincoln’s assassination fits within the martyred-saint typology. The Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural are the holy writ, and freedom and equality are upheld as America’s sacred values. American civil religion expands beyond the borders, as Americans seek to spread the “gospel” of democracy and freedom not only for the benefit of the rest of the world, but for America’s own well-being. Bellah refers to this as the “third time of trial”: “the problem of responsible action in a revolutionary world, a world seeking to attain many of the things, material and spiritual, that we have already attained” (Bellah, np). The “gospel” is spread to “the ends of the earth” by the American soldier and businessman. Bellah is obviously speaking of the Vietnam conflict in which we have “been tempted to rely on our overwhelming physical power rather than on our intelligence, and we have, in part, succumbed to this temptation.”
What is the state of American civil religion today, nearly fifty years after Bellah’s essay was published? Philosopher James Smith has provided a concise presentation of Charles Taylor’s analysis of the current philosophical, theological, and moral predicament that may prove helpful in answering this question. Taylor describes a shift from premodern religious beliefs which were oriented toward an end for human life that was eternal, that transcended “mundane” flourishing in this world, to a modern kind of faith in which “we lose any ‘idea that God was planning a transformation of human beings which would take them beyond the limitations which inhere in their present condition’” (50). In this new context, religious beliefs become more generic. Eternity is eclipsed; all that matters is life in this world. God is reduced to the creator of this world; religion no more than a set of moral rules to follow within it (51). When doctrinal and ecclesiastical institutions lose their authority and specificity, the political and social institutions that traditionally accompanied them also are no longer wed to specific doctrines and principles. The “modern moral order” “amounts to an ordering of society for mutual benefit” and will “reflect the generic nature of this [less determinate, specified, embodied, practiced] religion” (Smith, 53–54). Taylor suggests that, in this context, a certain type of civil religion arises to meet the demands of a people who long for the transcendent, but who no longer can live fully immersed in a doctrinal and ecclesiastical tradition. The new civil religion is one free from denomination or sectarian conflict. In other words, the religion that succeeds in the “modern moral order” is one that lacks specificity and can be nurtured in a political and social order in which “the primary—yea, only—value… is choice: ‘bare choice as a prime value, irrespective of what it is a choice between, or in what domain.’ And tolerance is the last remaining virtue” (Smith, 85).
A curious interplay between Taylor’s modern moral order and the vision of Bellah’s American civil religion comes with the collective nature of Bellah’s American civil religion. Any civil religion is collective in nature. Bellah describes American civil religion as “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity.” Individualism must give way to a commitment to some collective good, but Taylor’s analysis suggests that the only remaining good in the contemporary moral order is “choice” and the only virtue this good requires is “tolerance.” So tolerance and choice are paramount, but these values are devoid of transcendence and unable to call us beyond the limitations of our selves (50); thus they are often superseded by a fundamental commitment to a general notion of America, embodied in the narrative, symbols, rituals, and doctrines of American civil religion. Americans are willing to sacrifice for others because the notion of sacrifice is embedded in our civil religion. And it really does not matter what we are sacrificing for, as long as it is hitched to the narrative. That is why we commonly hear or see phrases like “Thank you for your sacrifice” and “My child fights for your freedom.” As Taylor suggests, it is increasingly difficult for contemporary Westerners (and even Christians) to locate transcendence, and American civil religion may fill that need, no matter how shallow the collective good it offers. Though it may ultimately be a false sense of transcendence, American civil religion does at least transcend the self. And perhaps this is why it is so very dangerous for orthodox Christianity. It supplies the form of transcendence without providing any of the substance.
One difference in emphasis between Bellah and Taylor is Bellah’s highlighting the use of the American military to spread democracy, an idea that perhaps is introduced in Taylor’s exclamation that “the sin which is not tolerated is intolerance” (85), but not developed substantially. One cannot help but think of the past decade and a half of “war against terrorism,” in which America’s doctrinal commitment to freedom has become the rally cry of the most prolonged period of war our country has ever experienced. The attempt to turn such a massive retaliation for the attacks of September 11, 2001 into a global battle for “freedom and civilization” seems clearly rooted in the narrative of American civil religion.
When I recently saw the movie American Sniper, I was not so much disturbed as saddened. While the film does place the main character in morally complicated situations, those situations almost always get resolved in the simplistic moral framework of American civil religion. The opening scene of the movie has Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a sniper and Navy Seal, having to make a snap decision about whether or not to kill a child who appears to be hiding a bomb underneath his clothing in an attempt to injure US soldiers. The moral dilemma is not “should I kill a child who has grown up in a society ravaged by war due in no small measure to US foreign policy, even though he is trying to hurt my companions?” Rather, the only quandary seems to be “does the child have a bomb?” An immensely complex moral narrative is reduced to “We are the good guys, and I must do what it takes to support my side.” Near the end of the film, Kyle makes the decision to lead a team into a hostile area so that he can get one last shot at his arch-nemesis, a sniper for the insurgency that has killed many Americans. Kyle’s decision ends up getting a number of his comrades killed, a price that yields the perfect shot and kills the enemy sniper. Kyle’s eventual murder, killed by one of his own people no less, elevates his service and loyalty to “our side” to a sacrifice of religious magnitude, redeeming a host of sins in the chaos of war. Kyle becomes a character in the self-sacrificial narrative of American civil religion, taking himself away from his family repeatedly to fight the enemy of the American values of freedom and equality. The depth of the moral decision-making and moral resources in the film is severely limited. The film’s conclusion reinforces the thread of American civil religion, and, on more than one occasion I am told, left the audience applauding through the credits.
Why does American civil religion have such a tight grip on the moral discourse of American culture? Following Taylor, it is because American civil religion offers a transcendence that all people long for and that is scarcely found in the modern moral order. But it is a transcendence that is the creation of the modern moral order and whose goods fail to further animate “tolerance and choice.” A critical question that confronts moral theologians, clergy, and Christian thinkers of all types is whether or not American civil religion helps or hinders Americans from experiencing the transcendence of Christian orthodoxy. Does the American narrative of sacrifice, freedom, and equality prevent Christians from understanding repentance, the sovereignty of God, and the love of enemies? Or can American civil religion exist peacefully alongside orthodox Christianity? The general cultural reaction to American Sniper suggests that there exists significant tension between the two. American civil religion may encourage a simplistic view of our moral and spiritual existence that is incompatible with the Christian life. American churches should start identifying American civil religion for what it is. A
Geoffrey C. Bowden teaches in the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Savannah State University, with specialties in ethics and politics and political theology.
Bellah, Robert N. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus, Vol. 96 (Winter 1967): 1–21.
Smith, James K. A. How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.