U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Civil Religion: The Revival of A Slippery Term, Part II

In last week’s post, I wrote about the philosophical foundation of civil religion through the recent study by political theorist Ronald Beiner. The upshot of this argument is that civil religion is the appropriation of religion for political ends.  If we accept this basic definition of what civil religion is, then we might ask, what are these ends and has there been a common thread running through examples of civil religion?

When I look at how other scholars have understood and employed civil religion, I am most interested in how they characterize the development of those ends.  Of course, we can describe the political appropriation of religion and, likewise, religious involvement in politics without referring to civil religion.  In short, combining religion and politics does not necessarily produce civil religion.  So why use it? And when does it seem sensible or even imperative to use the term?

A good test for the usefulness of civil religion might come when looking at a period saturated with politicized religion and religiously inspired understandings of the nation.  For this reason, I admire George Rable’s recent book, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War which came out in early 2010 and stands as astute example of how to employ civil religion almost in spite of the term’s slipperiness.  He writes early in the book that “however pervasive civil religion proved to be in both the Union and the Confederacy, it is far from being the entire story.”  Indeed, the great lesson to be learned from Rable’s book regarding the scholar’s use of civil religion, is not to assume that we know what civil religion is before watching it unfold through the historical record.  Rable argues that to emphasize “an all-encompassing civil religion would present a much simpler tale but miss important exceptions, ignore significant dissenters, and overlook paths not taken.” (6)

Andrew Preston makes a similar point in his new book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (2012) contending that a religious understanding of American both held up the nation as exceptionally well-suited to exercise imperial influence and exceptionally obligated to resist doing so.  But I see a problem with Preston’s assumptions about this civil religion–he gestures toward the product of a mixing between religion and politics as something that we might consider as civil religion but chooses (for good reason) to resist delving too deeply into the contradictions imbedded in  civil religion (the paradoxes I wrote about in the last post).  Thus Preston sees civil religion as set of rituals  to be deployed by political leaders when useful rather than a historically contingent and contested term.  Across time, the contest over civil religion to Preston is over how to make America live up to its promise.

I do not dispute that Preston’s view of civil religion is certainly part of what makes the term so intriguing, but it is only part.  For Preston’s argument about the role of religion in the making and exercising of foreign policy, this angle makes good sense.  And because he did not set out to write a book on civil religion, he has no real need to address it much further.  That is what makes Rable’s view so interesting, though. He too did not set out to write about civil religion, but determines in the course of his story that he need not avoid it, and in fact should explore it.

Rable writes in a passage that struck a chord with me in large part because he came to his insight through Reinhold Niebuhr (which is how I came to my understanding of civil religion as well), he writes: “The crosscurrents of civil religion pulled Americans toward repentance and arrogance at the same time, and the line between righteousness and self-righteousness nearly vanished.  Recognizing the hand of God in human history fostered neither humility nor even an appreciation for the majesty of inscrutable providence.”  For me, Rable locates the forging of a civil religion in the tension that Preston sees between competing civil religious view of American foreign policy.  Where Preston finds civil religion useful to describe the tension between different appeals to a higher calling for the nation–whether to be imperialistic or not–Rable finds civil religion growing out of a paradox of holding two conflicting views of the nation at the same time in the same group.

It makes sense that Rable would come to this conclusion because he reads the Civil War through a lens similar to what Lincoln used, at once, to condemn and inspire all Americans in his Second Inaugural.  In this way, I make a point similar to Rable’s but about post-1945 America, rather than Civil War America: civil religion does not merely describe how politics used religion or how religion used politics but how civil religion became itself a challenge to both traditional religions and traditional politics and as such would, inevitably, change and even disappear as the historical situation changed. In other words, civil religion during the Civil War is different than the one that emerged after 1945, even if they include similar characteristics it matters what the conditions were that forged them.

If this last point seems self-evident, the historical literature on civil religion does not confirm it.  By and large, civil religion is used to describe the most basic way religion and politics mix to create a ritualized way to regard the nation as a moral entity.  Which means that the nation can either be seen as good or bad, but not necessarily both at the same time by the same group and it almost doesn’t matter which group one speaks about, it’s pretty much all the same.  Thus, civil religion is often used almost as an analogy for American Exceptionalism in which the historical narrative revolves around the conflict between groups that see America as either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad at trying to be good.  For example, T. Jeremy Gunn’s book, Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion (2009) proposes that an unholy trinity of governmental theism, military supremacy, and capitalism as freedom conspired to overwhelm any tendencies toward national humility and instead “shaped Americans’ understanding of who they were in a way that they do not even realize,” and presumably would not like. (11, emphasis in the original)  Walter Hixson arrives at a similar if even more radical conclusion in his book The Myth of American Diplomacy in which he posits: “Masses of citizens consciously and unconsciously consent to Myth of America identity as they repeatedly engage in such rituals as pledging allegiance to the flag, singing the national anthem…Pervasive nationalist discourse and representation effectively contain conunterhegemonic challenges and marginalize purportedly subversive critics through a cultural process that is ongoing (organic) and integral to national identity.” (9)

If religion is more than merely the affirmation of a statement of right, as I think it is, then it stands to reason that civil religion, in its various iterations, holds within it the ability to be complex and paradoxical.  For this reason, I like George Rable’s fine book, God’s Almost Chosen People.