I had one exchange with Robert Bellah and I missed an opportunity to ask him perhaps the most obvious question: how did he know American civil religion exists? Our exchange was about my book, God and War, which the press had sent him in galleys. He wrote me an email, as I have blogged about before, explaining that while he thought I had “moved the discussion of American civil religion in a good direction,” he hoped to avoid association with the term. My fault had been to use his 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America” as a foundational text, or touchstone, for the argument in my book. In my defense, I explained to Professor Bellah that I hoped to introduce a somewhat novel reading of his essay. Rather than see it as theoretical piece, akin to Rousseau’s concept of a normative civil religion, Bellah’s essay was a historical piece, created amidst the Vietnam War and very much a product of the convergence of historical trends streaming out of the cold war. In short, Bellah’s civil religion was born of war. That was my basic contention in the whole book, that postwar America had developed a civil religion born of an almost constant state of war–the sacralization of war made it possible for Americans to affirm the moral authority of Martin Luther King as a leader of civil rights but condemn him when he spoke against the Vietnam War.
Recently, Cory Robin and Ben Alpers (at the S-USIH facebook page) have both mentioned the controversy Bellah encountered as a young scholar at Harvard in the mid-1950s. While I did not cover these events as exhaustively (see, rather, the great exchange in NYRB), I did try to link them to Bellah’s use of civil religion later. I have copied the part of my book that suggests this argument. I did not get a chance to discuss my argument at much length with Bellah, but I do intend to continue to discuss it with my students and colleagues, recognizing and writing about the deep irony he developed within his understanding of civil religion in a time of war.
While Bellah’s 1967 essay sprang from “concern with the American Vietnam War,” he admitted that he wasn’t “fully aware of the new religious phenomenon” that he had observed. “It was a sense of moral crisis in the United States being engaged in a war that had such negative qualities to it that made me [ask], was there anything in our past that would help us avoid this catastrophe we were in.” Indeed, in the middle of the Vietnam War Bellah had captured the way that war galvanized a moral understanding of the nation—not merely a moral critique of the nation but an accounting of whether the United States might be a force for good to its own people, let alone to other people around the world. And he came to his insights in quite a Niebuhrian way.
Bellah wrote his essay in late 1966, when he was a professor at Harvard University. That was his second stint at Harvard. His first experience there occurred in the mid-1950s as a graduate student with hopes of accepting an instructorship following the completion of his doctoral work. However, Bellah left Harvard for a research fellowship at the Islamic Institute at McGill University. It was a decision he was forced to make. During the mid-1950s, Harvard, like many other universities, colleges, and schools across the United States, experienced a wave of “loyalty” probes in which faculty and staff had to make clear their pro-American, anticommunist sympathies by helping authorities identify “subversives” on campus. Bellah declined to participate and had to leave Harvard for Canada. But this experience confirmed in Bellah a faith in what he referred to as a chastened, existential, Protestant liberalism. “For all its failures” he explained, “I came to believe that American society needed to be reformed rather than abandoned. In other words, politically I became a liberal, but it was the chastened liberalism of a man with few illusions.” From Montreal, Bellah understood that although his nation had forced him into a kind of exile, there was no other nation in which he could place his “hope.” Thus Bellah developed an appreciation for the Christian doctrine of sin and its application to national crises, a belief gleaned from the era’s two leading theologians, Niebuhr and his colleague at Union Theological Seminary Paul Tillich.
Bellah explained, “I saw that the worst is only a hair’s breadth away from the best in any man and any society. I saw that unbroken commitment to any individual or any group is bound to be demonic. . . . The totalism of Communism and the totalism of the ‘Free World’ are both equally destructive.” Like Niebuhr, Bellah feared the excesses of America’s “good” intentions. And also like Niebuhr, he believed that “modern Western society, especially American society, in spite of all its problems, is relatively less problematic than the developing societies with their enormous difficulties in economic growth and political stability.” Thus the Vietnam War did not strike Bellah as a natural extension of American life but as a moral crisis that required the application of “core American values, at least in their most self-critical form.”
Bellah’s chastened civil religion was born from the theological crisis precipitated by Vietnam. To start, Bellah believed it important to acknowledge the less-than-noble causes the United States had defended on the basis of its nationalistic morality, such as the general design of Manifest Destiny, which ran through from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1930s, and, following World War II, the lumping of those “on our side” into a single category of the “free world.” The key was to extend the role civil religion played in the struggle for civil rights and make it work in foreign policy. Yet that would require a sense of judgment that Bellah feared was fading from American life just at the moment when the nation needed a renewed sense of morality. In short, the nation needed God. “But today,” he observed in 1966, “as even Time has recognized, the meaning of the word God is by no means . . . clear or obvious. There is no formal creed in the civil religion,” Bellah lamented. Thus, he implored, “it is not [too] soon to consider how [this] deepening theological crisis may affect the future of [civil religion’s] articulation.”
Vietnam quite simply tested the fundamental existence and operation of an American creed. Bellah declared it the “third time of trial.” The first time of trial was “the question of independence,” the second was the “issue of slavery”; and each experience brought forth figures and symbols that contributed to a collective understanding American morality. Such experiences provided landmark statements on the shortcomings and promise of the United States. Figures such as Washington, Jefferson, and, most profoundly, Lincoln, reflected on struggles and sacrifices made by Americans who would not reap the benefits of their efforts. Following World War II, “every president since Roosevelt,” Bellah observed, “has been groping toward a new pattern of action in the world, one that would be consonant with our power and our responsibilities.” Thus, like previous periods in which civil religion was revised, the postwar period provided new leaders and symbols. But which leader and which moment would define this time of trial? In light of how civil religion operates—how it taps into promise and calls upon judgment—Martin Luther King seemed the obvious choice as the era’s defining figure. But that was not the case. Instead, Bellah’s essay punctuated a moment in which reforming the nation became an end in itself. King wanted something deeper than that to be revealed. Bellah, perhaps inadvertently, discovered that merely renewing faith in the nation was about as far as this reckoning was going to go. In short, the United States was too big to fail.