U.S. Intellectual History Blog

In Münster, With and Without Bellah

munster castleI had the pleasure and the honor of participating in a workshop at the University of Münster as part of a German-funded scholarly initiative called the Cluster of Excellence in Religion and Politics. The university has a large and vibrant group of scholars studying some area of religion—ancient and medieval religion and theology to contemporary religious movements, including civil religion. The workshop I participated focused on civil religion in the United States (not surprising). Professor Heike Bungert directed the workshop with assistance from her recent Ph.D. student Jana Weiss, both of whom I had met previously at conferences at King’s College, London and the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, respectively. My role in the workshop was to give the wrap-up talk on an issue that I have been wrestling with since I first started a project on religion and war, how should we apply civil religion to American experiences? I want to address that question by summarizing the very interesting talks I participated in at the workshop.

As the presentations developed, the theme of the workshop took on a slightly ironic note, I thought. While all the presenters made solid contributions to delineating the parameters and effectiveness of civil religion as a term, they also made clear that Robert Bellah’s landmark essay had become more window-dressing than intellectual genesis—as it is often understood in discussions of civil religion. Perhaps I noticed something that Andy Seal noted regarding Sam Moyn’s “constitutional” aversion to historians who somewhat passively accept the intellectual lineages of terms. In almost all the presentations I heard, Bellah’s name appeared, a quote or two came up, but for the most part, as I remarked in my own talk, he was not really necessary as an intellectual partner or intervention. The presentations left me with two broad notions regarding Bellah’s use of civil religion: that either scholars have developed a different application of civil religion than his or he was not useful to the topic under discussion in the first place.

For example, Heike Bungert delivered the first paper on three different post-1945 national celebrations: the 350th anniversary of European settlement in Jamestown in 1957, the 350th anniversary of the foundation of Plymouth Plantation in 1970-71, and the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln in 1959-1960. The use of national holidays and celebrations is a classic way to employ and analyze civil religion. Conrad Cherry used this to great effect in his influential essay collected in his God’s New Israel (1971, 1998). Bungert has extended Cherry’s work by offering a precise operating definition of civil religion, as she writes: “civil religion has to be understood as a fluid construct that adapts to contemporary contexts and that, depending on interpretation, can support different political positions (of the political establishment as well as of its opponents), but is not always undisputed. Civil religion assumes three functions: legitimization, integration, and critical prophecy.” The point I found most compelling about her work, though, was how little of it owed to Bellah. I heard echoes of the construction of usable historical characters from the American past, created within the context of eras that determined the ideological nature and interpretation of events. In short, these holidays mattered because they had been remade into symbols of power for their times. I imagine that David Sehat’s forthcoming book on the construction and use of the “Founding Fathers” will have a great to deal to say about the political power of national myths.

Likewise, Jana Weiss provided a complex reading of the contested celebrations of Thanksgiving. From debates over where to locate the “first” Thanksgiving—Plymouth or Jamestown—to who should be represented in the depiction of it—which native tribes, any native tribes—to who gets to use it as a way to celebrate or denounce the people who claim it. After discussing Weiss’s paper, I mused that she should write a book on anti-holidays much as we have had studies of anti-heroes, anti-celebrities, and, well, anti-Christs.

Anthony Santoro’s fascinating discussion of “Raider Nation” or the civil religion of sport, actually convinced me that his work exposes a separate religion, well-outside of Bellah’s or perhaps anyone’s idea of civil religion. If for most of American history, a default understanding of American life was to see it through the lens of religion, Santoro’s analysis of popular commitment to the Oakland Raiders—in all its consistently colorful piety—demonstrates that we should now see American life through the lens of sport. Sport—especially American football—has replaced religion as the repository of symbols, myths, language, and metaphors. Who needs civil religion when we have the NFL. Art Remillard has made this case well and has, to my mind, opened a field of inquiry that he, Santoro and others have only just begun to mine for all its depth, power, and ideological complexity.

Among the most revealing presentations came from a Ph.D. student named Ulrike Stednitz, who is among the few I am aware of working on the intersection between Latino politics, evangelical religion, and ideology. Her work uses the lives Rev. Samuel Rodriguez (and his immediate predecessor) to discuss the power of the group they lead, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC). As the largest Latino evangelical organization in the United States, NHCLC has forged a relationship that defies current categorization in American politics. On immigration reform, Rodriguez is an outspoken supporter and advocate. As an evangelical, he often sounds like a cross between the prosperity gospel and Billy Graham. While Rodriguez has declared his desire to bring together the theological inspiration of Graham and Martin Luther King to bear on contemporary America, Stednitz demonstrated that Rodrgiguez is more interested in an American theocracy not an American civil religion. Stednitz convinced me that there is great deal to be done on the machinations of religious groups whose political allegiances resist categories that we often lump others into—thus throwing many other assumptions into question.

Two presentations that threw civil religion into some relief for me where diametrically different in their topics. First, Morten Braedner from the Aarhus University presented on his ongoing project that uses first-person interviews with Danish soldiers before and after their deployments. Braedner, wonderfully articulate because (I think) of his training in the history of ideas, sociology, and political science, offered a succinct explanation of how soldiers understand their military mission in a various existential terms. Somewhat like the work of John Bodnar (Indiana University) and Jonathan Ebel (University of Illinois), Braedner’s work offers insight into the creation of a theology derived from the experience of going to war—and the complexity involved in living at the axis of national and personal obligations. Petra Klug from Leipzig University discussed how the absence of religion among atheists changed the need for and perception of civil religion. Somewhat similar to Braedner, Klug illustrated how assumptions made about the existence of civil religion have little bearing on those who simply have little need to pay any attention to it. When faced with allegiances that do no require participation in national ceremonies, it is impressive how little regard one might have for civil religion.

The presenter who was closest to my own work is Anja-Maria Bassimir, who is working on a study of American evangelical magazines in the post-1970 period. I nodded enthusiastically when she spoke about the twists and turns of evangelicals writing on both sides of the political spectrum at once. And I found it especially compelling to hear her discuss how characters developed within the pages of these magazines as the people behind them moved across ideological categories and up in age. Her discussion of Jim Wallis and his move from Post-American (his first journal) to Sojourners is excellent. But Anja also seemed to be the one most sensitive to the development of civil religion as a term in the era in which it became popular. I think her attention to the development of evangelical opinion and its relationship to civil religion in the era immediately after Bellah’s 1967 essay introduced it anew to American audiences, has specific relevance to my work.

And it was during the question period following my talk that Anja asked a question that made me flounder, yet again, about the intellectual lineage of the term. She wondered about the relationship between Bellah’s use of civil religion in the American experience and his work on Japanese Shinto. Her point gets at both the particular historical origins of Bellah’s thinking about civil religion and the intellectual foundation of the term that Bellah found most important. To consider some of the most thorough work being done on the various contexts of Bellah’s thought see sociologist Matteo Bortolini.

For the much more limited argument I make regarding Bellah, see God and War.That was the argument I presented at the workshop: that we need to stop using Bellah as the all-purpose, go-to intellectual on civil religion; he is a historical character in the development and use of the term, not necessarily an intellectual godfather. He chose the term to speak specifically to the generation that was involved in debating the Vietnam War in light of the moral landmines scattered throughout the Cold War. Yes, he built on the sociology of Durkheim and his teacher Talcott Parsons; and yes, he was interested how a nation can manifest traditions that seem to have religious qualities. However, for me, the structure of Bellah’s original 1967 essay—moved along by his understanding of “times of trials” (or wars!) and the way it has been appropriated by historians of American wars, makes the association of civil religion with war significant—not that other associations are therefore illegitimate, but, rather, I don’t think they generate the same kind of significance. I argue that only through war does a civil religion in the terms Bellah understood it become manifest. As I have noted previously, we can look to other historians for similar insight: Harry Stout and George Rable on the Civil War; Will Inboden on the Cold War; and Wilfred McClay on the wars following 9/11. And as I told my generous audience at the workshop:

Bellah’s essay sprang, he said, from “concern with the American Vietnam War,” but he admitted that at the time 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, the Vietnam War made Bellah realize that the United States was in the midst of a period of profound doubt about the faith Americans had in the nation itself. The prospect of losing its soul forced Bellah to consider if America had one.

This workshop made me more determined to take Art Remillard up on his suggestion to pull together another working group to “move beyond Bellah.” I hope that Heike, Art, Matteo, Jon Ebel, Phil Gorski, and others would be willing to join me in that endeavor.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This was a fascinating post! Sounds like the workshop went quite well. The point you raise with Bellah not being the “intellectual Godfather” but, certainly, being important to modern conceptions of civil religion is key.

    I couldn’t help but focus in on the discussion by Anthony Santoro on American sports and civil religion. I think the same case can definitely be made for college athletics in the Deep South. I guess a question I have for this conception for sports and civil religion is: if we didn’t have sports, would something else fill that civil religion void? I’m just thinking out loud, but it seems as though conceptions of civil religion necessarily take on the cultural contours of the eras in which they’re created. Sports, perhaps, occupy a bigger place in American society than ever before precisely because there’s not much else there for people to band around–at least, just thinking off the top of my head.

    • Robert, as always, good points. When I listened to Anthony go deeply into a culture that has its own system of belief and support and meaning, I wondered whether we needed another term, other than sport, to explain its significance. This is where I think Art Remillard has provided a significant dimension to the use of civil religion. Art has written thoughtfully on southern civil religions and has gone deeply into the role sport plays in American life and he finds intersections but also serious differences. Frankly, I hope we can sort through some of these differences together, deliberately, in a workshop or conference in the next year or so. The question is, as you have identified it, whether we see civil religion as a way to describe the role of sport in our era or whether sport has filled the space once occupied by civil religion.

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