So, is America a Christian nation? What we actually have in America, and what so many Americans pine for, is civil religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah says American civil religion has its foundations in Christianity, but is also composed of a public “set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” that are “neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.” The beginning of this civil religion is found in the “words and acts of the founding fathers” (especially the first few presidents) which shaped the religion’s concepts, vocabulary, and content. These men often referred to a clearly unitarian God, who was more interested in morality, order, and law than in love and salvation. This God was, they claimed, actively interested in and guiding the forming of the new nation and its mission, with parallels often made to Israel, the Exodus, and to the “chosen nation.” Freedom of religion, liberty, justice, equality, and the pursuit of happiness are all themes of this religion which compels us as individuals and a nation to carry out God’s will on earth.
How, then, has this mix of religion and patriotism been manifested in America? Consider that traditionally we have: prayed before athletic events, offered a generic prayer in the school house, placed both the Christian flag and the American flag at the front of the church sanctuary, pledged “one nation under God,” and printed “In God we Trust” on our money. Presidents and other elected officials take the oath of office with their hand on the Bible, witnesses in the courtroom swear truthfulness on the Bible, all Presidents from both parties have invoked God’s blessing on America, speak of America’s place in God’s plan, and plead for God’s protection when we go to war. These themes are most obvious and most fervently expressed during national holidays – Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving.
Three things to note:
First, whether or not these practices are beneficial to the nation, they are not necessarily reflective of Biblical Christianity and are often more confusing than anything. That is, placing the American flag in the church may be patriotic, but it does confuse patriotism with Christianity. Prayer in school or before a football game may be a good thing, but a generic prayer is not inherently Christian. At best these practices may reflect a Judeo-Christian religiosity. They are not necessarily or inherently Biblical.
Second, these practices and statements are generally accepted and manifested by both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. These may disagree on the meaning and extent of a particular expression of civil religion, but neither is willing to capitulate completely to secularism . . . yet. A cursory reading of Presidential inauguration speeches demonstrates that every one of them, regardless of party or personal piety, appeals to the common themes of civil religion.
Third, and paradoxically, while our civil religion is fading and moving from traditional Protestant themes through a vague religiosity onto full-fledged secularism, more and more political candidates, and every Presidential candidate, has felt compelled to declare himself a Christian of some sort. Prior to Jimmy Carter this was never much of an issue, although Thomas Jefferson was accused of being an atheist and Alf Landon’s Catholicism doomed his candidacy. For one, American civil religion expected and assumed every President was “Christian.” Kennedy’s candidacy and subsequent election forced Protestants to expand their civil religion horizons, but he was still a “Christian” who appealed to God in his inaugural address. Since Jimmy Carter’s declaration of being a born-again Christian and his rejection by the religious right, every President, including Democrats Clinton and Obama have declared themselves Christians. Whether any of them, including Reagan and the two Bushes, were genuine believers is not the point. The point is that they recognized the important of religiosity – civil religion – to the American people and knew what was politically necessary.
The Fading of Civil Religion
American civil religion is a historical and a current reality, but it has been fading and will continue to do so. The average Christian (who may confuse Biblical Christianity and civil religion) knows this and, as evidence of a growing secular society points to the absence of prayer in public schools, objections and even prohibitions to praying publicly in Jesus’ name, and a growing Biblical illiteracy in general culture. Whatever it may be called, that average Christian would say, the culture is no longer what it once was. What’s happening?
One, our ever-increasing cultural and religious pluralism has diluted the Christian content of and minimized the need for a civil religion. Although I have argued that America was not founded as a Christian nation, it was greatly influenced by a Christendom world view, some of the Judeo-Christian ethic, and Western Enlightenment values. Although at times oppressive towards minorities, there was still a fairly religiously homogenous dominant culture. The influx of European Catholic immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries forced that culture to be more heterogeneous, in religion and ethnicity. The new immigration waves after 1965 brought in millions from non-European nations and/or non-Christian backgrounds. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists have significantly changed the cultural and religious makeup of America. Our cultural “mosaic” or “stew” is no longer solely from European Christendom. This growing religious and cultural pluralism inevitably means that our heritage of a Christianized civil religion has little appeal and little relevance to more and more new Americans.
Second, the ever-increasing secularization of our society is pushing civil religion, and particularly the “Christian” elements of civil religion, to the margins of culture. Sociologist Phillip Gorski argues that civil religion has been in competition with both “religious nationalism” and “liberal securalism.” The former advocates “total fusion” of the religious and political communities while the latter wants to keep them as separate as possible. In much of our current political debates, and particularly evident in the culture wars of the last forty years, the prevailing rhetoric is between these two extreme positions. Gorski says civil religionists are in the middle, are certainly the great majority, and actually see these two spheres as “independent but interconnected.”
Therefore, with increasing religious pluralism and growing secularization, American civil religion is fading. It will not completely disappear anytime soon. It will, however, have less and less of a Judeo-Christian content and be more and more reflective of the “spirit of religious tolerance,” which will require references, appeals, and acknowledgment of a non-offending, generic god.
Part 2 next blog