Reconsidering civil religion:

Confronting the mythical beast

posted by Ira Chernus

The notion of “American civil religion” reminds me of the legendary vampire. It has a seemingly irresistible tendency to take innocent blood. “The American language of civil religion is inseparable from expansionism, racialized domination, and state violence,” as George Shulman points out; “though some have indeed invoked elements of civil religion to oppose those practices, such critics were and remain marginal(ized).” And, like the vampire, it is virtually impossible to kill. No matter how hard anyone tries, the damn thing just keeps coming back to life.

I recall a course I taught on “American civil religion” a few years ago, when I was beginning to prepare an essay on the subject for a volume of essays that will appear this spring. For weeks, I patiently guided my students through some three decades worth of cogent criticism of the concept. I made it clear that the thing is indeed an artificial concept, not a natural object—an invention of American scholars (most notably Robert Bellah), drawing on European thinkers (most notably Durkheim, with the inevitable nod to Rousseau). I pointed out a recurring concern of the scholarly critics: If no one can say exactly what the thing is, perhaps it should be written off as (like the vampire) a mythical beast.

When it was all done, the class discussion made it clear that the students, having understood the validity of all the critiques, nevertheless clung to the concept. For reasons that they themselves could scarcely understand, they just didn’t want to let it go. I get the same feeling reading some of the previous contributions to this discussion.

The most recent contribution, from Richard Amesbury, offers a valuable clue to the persistence of “American civil religion”: “Pluralist democracies like the United States depend on unifying acts of collective imagination,” Amesbury asserts (without demonstrating, as far as I can tell). “The moral challenge posed by the democratic ideal of equal citizenship is to imagine anew, to think differently about what ‘we’ mean when ‘we’ talk about ‘ourselves’ as a nation.”

The mythical “America” seems as resistant to attack as the mythical vampire because “America” gives so many of its inhabitants a sense of belonging to something vast, grand, even pivotal in world history. Who would want to be a small lonely individual, a cosmopolite with no anchor, when one can be firmly rooted in an enduring project of cosmic import? Who would want to sacrifice that sense of collective importance when it can be purchased at the mere price of imagining and saying a national “we”?

At this point, though, some readers may recall the immortal response of Tonto, when the Lone Ranger warned him that “we are surrounded by Indians.” (“What you mean, we?” was Tonto’s reply, for those who have forgotten the old joke). Readers who have followed the whole discussion on the subject know that some of the contributors are indeed skeptical about Amesbury’s assumption of a meaningful “we,” and with good reason. As Amesbury himself acknowledges, “the moral borders of a democratic state are inherently fuzzy and contestable, always provisional and subject to being redrawn.” In other words, no one knows who this “we” is or might be.

My argument against continuing to use the concept relies partly on this empirical observation, but more on theoretical concerns about the dangers of insisting on imagining an American “we.” However “American civil religion” may be defined, the very use of that combination of words is likely to contain a tendentious agenda and to foster the belief that there should be something “religious” (in a largely Protestant sense) about American identity. It surely perpetuates (albeit sometimes unintentionally) the underlying Durkheimian premise of the whole “civil religion” discussion: that all Americans should, or even must, share some common values that are acted out in the political realm. The very words “American civil religion” always suggest that it is legitimate, perhaps even necessary, to debate about right ways and wrong ways to be American. Thus, the concept divides society unnecessarily and mitigates against a thoughtful, open-minded public life that truly values diversity.

Any act of imagining a “we” tends to do the same. Whenever “we” are imagined and common values articulated, the process is hardly shared in equally by all the inhabitants of the land. Some have more power than others in shaping the process and its outcomes. So the premise that unity is necessary will most often end up privileging the views of the most powerful segments of society. They typically define themselves as the upholders of supposedly common values, hence as the most virtuous, and pit themselves against purported evildoers. Thus they undermine the very unity they seek—which is probably a good thing, since the unity they seek is bound (again, as Amesbury acknowledges) to exclude other members of their own nation.

Even more inevitably, it will pit their America, and all too often its armies, against other nations—which brings us back to the tragic matter of bloodshed and the vampiric nature of “American civil religion.” Despite the long history of compelling arguments against the concept, no one has been able to forge a stake strong enough to pierce its heart. Or perhaps the stake is already there in the copious critical literature, but no scholar has had the requisite combination of strength and accuracy to drive it home.

Which brings me to one last concern about the ongoing debate over “American civil religion.” Even the best scholar has limited energy and limited time. Every moment and every drop of mental sweat spent in theoretical debate about “civil religion”—even in efforts to kill it—takes a scholar away from more important subjects. Those who are drawn to this debate obviously have a strong interest in what John F. Wilson once called the “cultural materials in which we might locate the potential for an American civil religion.” Those materials, Wilson added, “are better understood as aspects of an incredibly rich and internally complex culture.”

In my own field, the academic study of religion, those particular aspects of American culture have tended to be neglected for a long time—largely, I think, because studies of them were suspected of being surreptitious ways of reviving the study of “American civil religion,” a field that most scholars in religious studies have eschewed for nearly three decades. Yet in those three decades immensely important events and processes have unfolded in the U.S. public arena which cried out for carefully scholarly analysis.

Now the cry is finally beginning to be answered. Yet I fear that the response may get bogged down once again (as it did in the 1970s) in endless speculations about a mythical beast. What we need instead are illuminating analyses of the cultural traditions and practices that allow the palpable, and all too often murderous, injustices of the state to continue. Both the content and the methods of the academic study of religion afford unique insights into that thicket of questions.

Having made my feeble effort to push the stake at least a few millimeters into the heart of “American civil religion,” I shall return to the daily task of untangling a few branches of that thicket, keeping in mind John Wilson’s wise observation: “Recalling the civil religion exchanges opens the door to asking whether less condensed and more diffused means of attachment to the collective society may exist that link Americans in whole or in part to the nation. As this line of questioning has been pursued, it is increasingly disconnected from the civil religion question.” And so it should be.

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4 Responses to “Confronting the mythical beast”

  1. avatar Mark Silk says:

    I’m sympathetic to the (longstanding) critique of Bellah’s reification of a doctrinally coherent American Civil Religion. But it seems to me silly to ignore the various and sundry civil religious beliefs and practices that did and do engage Americans (to varying degrees) in their civic lives. Like them or hate them, there needs to be some way to talk about them, and the relevant rubric is civil religion. To declare war on this analytic category is both quixotic and a kind of ideologically motivated wishful thinking.

  2. avatar Richard Amesbury says:

    I appreciate your points but am puzzled to find myself cast as a defender of the view I criticized in my most recent posting. That the moral borders of democratic states are inherently contestable and that civil religion is inherently exclusionary—two views I am said to have “acknowledged”—are hardly grudging concessions on my part; they were my central theses. And the quoted line about pluralist democracies depending on acts of imagination (a notion borrowed from Benedict Anderson) is a little misleading when taken out of context. My original sentence reads as follows: “Even if pluralist democracies like the United States depend on unifying acts of collective imagination, there is nothing inevitable or necessary about American civil religion, and scholars would be wise to avoid taking upon ourselves the role of its apologists.”

  3. avatar David Knowlton says:

    Professor Chernus makes a mistake when he notices that any “we” is troubled because it cannot apply to all Americans in the same way. This does not mean that such first person pronouns are not used within America civil discourse, beginning with the political “We the people” or “the American people.” Even though inherently invidious, such usages must be studied and comprehended if we wish to understand the ways in which religion fits into the America process and especially how religious ideals are argued to as a means of claiming political advantage through the construction and establishment of a “we,” especially because it does not include everyone.

  4. avatar Rex Styzens says:

    Isn’t civil religion what academics in public higher education in the field of religious studies undertake to teach? Since they are prevented, ostensibly, by law from teaching parochial or doctrinal material and still have a field of focus called “religion,” it seems to me that such is the ‘seminary’ of civil religion. The job is to develop the theology of unity in diversity and not settle for sociology or psychology of religion.

    I am pleased the practice exists. I read such academic discussions whenever I can, since I find that it counters the hoary and narrow-minded religious primitivism that haunts the United States. Rather than ask “What is religion?” I prefer something like Nelson Goodman’s approach to art where he tells us the more useful question is “When is art?” When is religion: when belief contributes to commitment conducive to activity. And, yes, for a religion of unity in diversity, we must ask people what they believe.

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