Disappointing Civil Religion

In researching a book on campus ministry at the beginning of my academic career, the lead author (the Rev. Dr. Sam Portaro) thought about calling the book The Dis-appointment of Campus Ministry. For, to “disappoint” can mean “to lose an appointment, to be set aside.” In that vein, I believe civil religion has been dis-appointed.

Civil religion refers to religious interpretations of a nation’s origins, purposes, and destiny. A civil religion is expressed through one or more founding stories, the sense of what it means to belong here, the moral order of what citizens owe to each other, and the source of strength to overcome obstacles.

Being “as a city on a hill” is an expression of civil religion. Arlington National Cemetery, resting place of those who gave “the ultimate sacrifice,” is sacred ground in the civil religion. The Constitution, the Declaration, and speeches such as Lincoln’s Second Inaugural are sacred texts in the civil religion. Border policies and laws, and confidence in “we the people” to govern ourselves and solve problems, are manifestations of the civil religion.

In the 1960s, sociologist Robert Bellah wrote about civil religion and its problems at the time. In an essay, and later (1975) a book, he wrote that civil religion in the U.S. was built on the Bible’s historical importance, particularly the concept of covenant. Covenantal understanding of America plus Euro-American concepts of civic republicanism provided the frames for the how nation understood itself. The religions of the nation gave warrant to both covenant and a democratic republic. However, Bellah’s book was entitled The Broken Covenant. Civil religion in the 1960s and 70s was already in danger of being dis-appointed.

The primary religious traditions that fed and supported the civil religion were the denominations previously known as mainline Christianity: Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, Disciples, Methodists (including historically Black Methodist denominations), and some Lutherans. Unitarians and Reform Judaism were often close-by.

One point on which most parties seem to agree today: the current level of polarization cannot go on forever. What will resolve or lessen the tensions? I don’t know. I used to think an external enemy on the level of an alien invasion, or warning such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” would work.

These denominations fed the civil religion through tolerance, and sometimes acceptance, of “others.” They were, and mostly are, pro-democracy. These denominations provided the leaders in the ecumenical movement and then in interfaith dialogue and relations movements that widened the circles of who belongs and what we owe to each other. These are the religions that, at least by the mid-20th century, stood for labor rights, equal rights for women, the end of racism, peace through justice, denouncing the Doctrine of Discovery, and ecological justice.

In recent years, most of these religions, with the exception of the Methodist traditions, embraced LGBTQ+ persons (we United Methodists are going to split over our understandings of LGBTQ+ persons), including as ordained leaders. The UCC ad line, “God is still speaking,” expresses the progressive direction of what was mainline civil religion. America could be more than it has been: more hospitable, more just, more compassionate, more of (to use Dr. King’s phrase) a beloved community. Holiness is pure love.

And then arose the Christian Right, first stirred in opposition to civil rights as an instance of what they believed was federal overreach into the states and into private life (such as religious justifications for racially-segregated schools), and then galvanized by opposition to abortion, by a Christian-nation patriotism, and by the felt need to defend “the family” against perceived assaults on the natural, godly, patriarchal and heteronormative standard.

The social and policy expressions of Christian Right civil religion are evident in working to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, championing the Second Amendment, limiting or abolishing legal abortions, bringing about peace through military and police strength, and protecting the right to exclude based on one’s religion. Compromise is the language of the devil. Unclean and disloyal groups and persons are to be silenced, rooted out, cut out, and/or expelled. Holiness is purity. God’s appointed servants are authorized to be agents of God’s wrath.

Do you see a vortex of polarizing forces swirling at the deepest emotional-moral-spiritual levels, forces both echoing and reinforcing the nation’s current fault lines?

Now, add to this picture the recent Gallup poll which indicates slightly more than half of the U.S. population, for the first time in polling history, is disaffiliated from religious institutions. So, if questions about religion are asked one way, the “nones” are 23 percent of the population. But when you add in all those persons who were raised in a religious tradition, consider themselves Catholic or some kind of Protestant by tradition, but are not affiliated with any religious institution, we’re up over 50 percent “none.” How supportive are the nones of any version of civil religion?

To come back to Bellah: the civil religion is not merely broken. It is either dead or dis-appointed, when it comes to uniting a nation of persons from so many different nations, so many histories.

Civil religion without cohesion is no civil religion. Competing civil religions amount to another form of sectarianism, the kind that produced the Reformation-era wars.

One point on which most parties seem to agree today: the current level of polarization cannot go on forever. What will resolve or lessen the tensions? I don’t know. I used to think an external enemy on the level of an alien invasion, or warning such as The Day the Earth Stood Still would work. Now, I think we’d find a way to fold an alien into our battle stories rather than unite in purpose save the nation, or the planet.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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