U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Myth of Civil Religion

Does civil religion even exist?

For many scholars who have addressed this strange beast, the answer comes down to whether civil religion has empirical value; in short, whether civil religion acts like a set of laws, standing as a lodestar for generations of people who live under it.  The notion that civil religion functions in this way stems primarily (though somewhat mistakenly) from Robert Bellah’s influential 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America.” In that essay, Bellah famously suggested that “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.” It should not be surprising, though, that throughout American history groups have vied to project a single or unified understanding of the American experience based on a particular interpretation of a transcendent faith. As Bellah acknowledged in his best book on American civil religion, The Broken Covenant, he had been too optimistic about the symbolic power of special moments–JFK’s inaugural address, MLK’s “I have a dream” speech–especially in light of the reality of the interminable Vietnam War and the nefarious activities of Richard Nixon.  Civil religion’s moral value seemed utterly bankrupt as Nixon used language similar to Kennedy’s while at the same time ordering his dirty tricks and widening the war in Southeast Asia.

And so scholarship on civil religion has tended, since the early 1970s, to follow Bellah’s own disenchantment with the term, arguing that civil religion is little more than a dangerous pipe dream.  My S-USIH colleague David Sehat captured this sentiment in the conclusion of his fine book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, asserting that versions of civil religion are a fantasy when they “share a belief in…a society gathered around a common religious center whose uniform and voluntary support makes possible a harmonious and socially integrated whole.” That observation serves David’s argument well as he seeks to demolish the idea that there exists a moral common ground that, historically, a moral establishment has attempted to affirm for the good of all Americans.  Rather, civil religion becomes cover for coercion deployed by a moral establishment that David argues has stifled dissent in order to maintain and expand political power.

Few scholars would disagree with David’s specific dismissal of civil religion as a normative replacement for American religious conflict.  In fact, conflict has been at the heart of recent scholarship on civil religion.  Ronald Beiner makes clear that civil religion captures the fight within the history of political theory to make religion serve the ends of political authority.  Philip Gorski uses civil religion to chronicle the long-running battle over competing systems of truth and national understanding throughout American history. In this respect, Gorski has undertaken in a book-length study he is writing the most comprehensive reassessment of American civil religion to date.  Richard T. Hughes, a religious historian, calls civil religion a collection of “myths that America lives by.”  Hughes writes succinctly that while national myths are those “by which we affirm the meaning of the United States,” they are also myths that have been absolutized and thus “confuse the ideals of the creed with the realities of the present moment, and eliminate dissent.”

Art Remillard, a historian of the New South, mulled over such trends in civil religion when he produced his book Southern Civil Religions.  Art explains in a recent blog post  that he came to use civil religion to contextualize “the realities of American many-ness.”  Again, the emphasis is on the conflict rather than the potential unity that civil religion portends.  What Art discovered in his research on the post-Reconstruction South (or the New South) was a series of civil religions competing with each other to redefine the future “good society” that would follow the sea change wrought by the Civil War.  Moral visions conflicted and overlapped and canceled each other out; but the language and structure of those visions shared enough in common to act like civil religions.  I know that Art continues to think about his use of civil religion and I would like to know more about why the visions of these disparate groups seemed to share similar rhetorical structures.  I think this is where Phil Gorski’s future book will be a great help.  His bold claim appears to be that civil religion is normative because has been forged about of certain rhetorical traditions and competing systems of belief.

If, though, there is one reason why civil religion seems a long-suffering term, the reason lies in its popular understanding–or lack thereof.  Intellectual historian Wilfred McClay points out civil religion is very much a “scholar’s term…even though it describes a phenomenon at has existed very since the first organized human communities.” Thus, importantly, civil religion does not have the popular cache of a term like the “culture wars.”  Even though recent scholarship on the civil religion addresses conflicts and structures very much involved in various culture wars, civil religion has been saddled with the limited understanding attached to Bellah’s initial essay.  Whereas the Culture Wars clearly defines the sense of conflict that many Americans believe they have been living through for the last forty years, civil religion, when it has been considered at all, has not really risen above the notion of being either a silly myth or a lost chance.

Obviously, I think there is reason to change that perception.  Next week I will propose how.