U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Obama’s Civil Religion

Last night, December 1, 2009, Barack Obama claimed ownership of the war in Afghanistan. Of course, the moment he won the presidency Obama inherited this war. But he embraced the war morally this evening. He made clear in his speech that he sees the war in Afghanistan as a “a time of great trial.” He hopes to rally Americans behind his military strategy by reminding them that “when this war began, we were united – bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear.” That unity remains vital to the success of his war policy. “I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again,” he declared. “I believe with every fiber of my being that we – as Americans – can still come together behind a common purpose.”


Would Robert Bellah be pleased with this address? Bellah’s 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America” written amidst another divisive war, reminded Americans that they possessed a common heritage that they might call upon, as he said, in times of trial. He argued that this “American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” Thus Americans had a common creed that unified them but that also provided a means to evaluate causes to which soldiers might give their last full measure of devotion to their nation.

Last night, Obama worked within the civil religious tradition when he called upon Americans to unify around a common understanding of American ideals and to reassert a claim to moral authority in the world.

But is it all hogwash? Many of us are well versed in the abstract dimensions of the strange beast that is civil religion–it can mean almost anything to anyone at anytime. As a cross between nationalism and biblical religion, civil religion has an intellectual flexibility that is intoxicating because it is so evocative, elastic, and deceptively complex. It seems to explain the intersection between religion and politics, faith and civic obligation in a way that allows one to imagine a healthy, almost liberating mixing of truth claims without manipulation. As if the president doesn’t play upon the religious faith of his audience and the people don’t mythologize the meaning of their nation.

And yet, listening to Obama, I was struck yet again by the way he seemed to become more earnest, almost more genuine once he moved away from the actual military strategy he has proposed to the ideals on which he bases that strategy. As he said, “We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might.” That neatly captures the promise and dilemma of civil religion: we presume to know what is right and we act with our considerable might based on those presumptions.

Obama spoke to a public that nine years ago gave considerable consent to another president for this same war. Since that time, this public has, if we can take something from opinion polls, thoroughly picked apart the nature of that consent. Americans no longer believe in democracy promotion, state building, or preemptive war. They fear the loss of prestige among their allies and the degrading image of the United States around the world. But most of all, Americans have largely lost confidence in their civil leadership (especially Congress) to be effective agents for American ideals.

The one institution that has grown in popularity among the American people is the military. While that might seem ironic, it makes sense and it might be part of the reason Obama spoke at West Point. In poll after poll, Americans have indicated that the military has done its duty to the nation better than any other institution–whether that be the office of the president, Congress, or, the new villain of the hour, Wall Street. These polls suggest that Americans believe the military represents the common good because soldiers sacrifice for values all other institutions profess to support but seem to undermine.

Thus when Obama spoke to the cadets at West Point, he did so understanding that they carry a double burden: they are the soldiers who will fight his war and they are symbols of a civil religion that is real enough to many Americans to die for.

One Thought on this Post

  1. One of my problems with civil religion is the lack of a check on when that zeal becomes extreme. Ray, can you speak to Bellah’s cautionary notes in that regard? I have not read the 1967 essay (even though I think I own it—in one my library’s edited collections—sigh). What balances civil religion’s ability to become extreme? I mean, one can act civilly to one’s own citizens and still be complicit in bad behavior abroad.

    And as far as Afghanistan and “picked apart” consent goes, well, aren’t all religions alive in cycles of more and less enthusiasm? I mean, if Bush could excite us to what, in my opinion, was a false cause in Iraq, then surely a Niebuhrean realist like Obama may be able to excite us to a legitimate (in my opinion) revival of mission in Afghanistan? Furthermore, are revivals necessarily dependent on Billy Sunday-like enthusiasm? Does Obama have to let his inner preacher out? Or can he create revival in a more subdued-but-rock-starish John Paul II fashion? – TL

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