My contribution to these discussions seeks to expand the analytical horizon of the foregoing discussion of civil religion both chronologically and geographically, with special attention to the growing importance of what I call “dark green religion,” and the possibility that it might precipitate the emergence of a global, civil earth religion. Dark green religion, as I have constructed the term, involves the perception that nature is sacred and has intrinsic value, the belief that everything is interconnected and mutually dependent, and a deep feeling of belonging to nature. Often rooted in an evolutionary understanding that all life shares a common ancestor, dark green religion generally leads to a form of kinship ethics that entails ethical responsibilities to all living things.
Reconsidering civil religion
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.
Since the publication of Robert Bellah’s 1967 article “Civil Religion in America,” discussions of the topic have tended to devolve into debates between those who find the very idea morally objectionable and those who regard some form of civil religion as sociologically necessary. … Yet, if there is a benign form of American civil religion in the making, it has been a long time coming. The problem is not simply the proclivity to idolize the nation or the state, but the apparent impossibility of articulating our social bonds without relegating significant segments of the population to second-class citizenship. Because the “imagined community” of a nation rarely maps neatly onto the actual citizenry of a state, the quest for unity, however minimal its basis, ironically issues in exclusions. This may make perfectly good sense from a sociological perspective, but it presents a profound challenge to liberal democratic claims about equality.
The United States is an empire in decline, as well as a nation under enormous economic duress, and civil religion remains the language by which people here struggle to engage and make sense of those circumstances. The very decline of American power will intensify attachment to the language and symbols typically associated with civil religion, and politicians will feel incredible pressure to invoke it, because they strategically seek electoral legitimacy, and because they themselves are deeply invested in, gripped by, an “American” political identification. The only alternative is that Americans mourn their investment in empire—i.e., in being god’s chosen nation and the “world’s greatest superpower”—to confront and accept the loss of a beloved identity and worldly power.
Montreal [site of the 2009 AAR meetings] was a particularly appropriate site for a return to civil religion. A civic polity not part of the United States, shaped by both the political traditions of Rousseau and the Roman Catholic Church, its very foreignness forced the US-based panelists to catch themselves when using what David Kyuman Kim called the “register of the collective ‘we’.” At the same time, Quebec’s own conflicted history of “civil religion,” rooted in profound contests over sovereignty, was a reminder of how civic identity is premised, at least in part, on the violence of imperial conquest—in this case, the French subjugation of the Mohawk, Cree, and other First Nations, and in turn that of the French by the English. These legacies of conquest still haunt any possibility of civic covenant in North America, and probably always will.
It is interesting to revisit civil religion discourse in the context of a new time and its discontents, and the consequent rethinking of the theme. Three of the four posts in this discussion (Gorski, Moosa, Morgan) address the civic-religious complex in terms of Robert Bellah’s well-known concept of civil religion. The fourth (Kim) does not, but invokes Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson in ways that echo some of the dialog of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Bellah thesis was fresh and new. Given this general ambience, I would like to situate these rich and evocative posts by reviewing what, in that time, was called the civil religion debate.
There is a question that has been haunting me about our times and our collective condition, specifically in regard to American imperial decline: namely, how do we effectively mourn the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism? My short answer is that our age of catastrophes—the catastrophic being one of the primary markers of the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism—is in need of poetic responses and, in particular, what William James might call a poetic temperament.
Very different from the mode of civil religion that I discussed in my previous post are the experiences of religious communities in South Africa. Anticipating the emergence of a constitutional state, religious communities, under the auspices of the South African chapter of the inter-religious group called the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP), began to position themselves for the emerging new political order. Careful observation of the way the religious sector itself defined religion, and of how that notion was grafted onto the 1996 Constitution, will help to illuminate the discussion. “Religion” was defined in the Declaration as “belief, morality and worship” in the recognition of a divine being, and/or in pursuit of spiritual development, and/or as a sense of expressing one’s belonging. In the pursuit of all of these rights and responsibilities, the religious communities bound themselves to an “expression of religion [that] shall not violate the legal rights of others.” In so doing religious communities thus affirmed a form of religious freedom that was subject to the surveillance of the law. Religious rights were to be circumscribed by an authority outside of religion.
Civil religion, on one hand, links the US to the biblical tradition; on the other hand, the moral and political philosophies of the Enlightenment instill a deeply utilitarian orientation. Civil religion portrays a divine order of things and provides Americans with a sense of worth and direction in relation to ultimate purposes. Utilitarianism provides Americans with proper governmental procedure, legitimates the economic system even in a time of recession, and underwrites the importance of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All of this has been radically challenged in one manner or another in post-9/11 America. Civil religion has also been tested in the post-November 2008 environment, when the economic collapse precipitated by Wall Street’s reckless casino capitalism began to expose the vulnerability of the American capitalist system. Yet these moments of national shock and setbacks have created an insufficient amount of questioning of the American civil religion project.
American civil religion has taken several forms. One type is preoccupied with national cohesion, claiming that the bonds by which the nation coheres are strengthened through the common observance of non-sectarian devotion centered in the sacralization of the nation’s cause. Another approach focuses less on coherence than on what directs citizens to a higher aim, that is, the ideal to which the nation is dedicated. This approach asserts that civil liberties and social justice will thrive when a broadly shared, minimally coercive, and civilly invested set of practices and symbols inculcates moral self-government. God and sacred texts have played a key role in the definition of all versions of American civil religion. But in light of the growth of unbelief documented in recent social surveys, I would like to ask if, in order for any such religion to be effective, it must be grounded in the transcendence of a deity. In other words, must an American civil religion espouse a deity in order to be compelling and effective, however its purpose is conceived?