This Wednesday will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s landmark “I have a dream” speech and the 1963 March on Washington. In commemoration of the great moment in American civil rights history, scholars and commentators have dedicated much of this past month to recognizing Dr. King’s legacy. At Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron and Adelle M. Banks offer insights from academics of religion and discuss the speech’s continued relevance.
Posts Tagged ‘civil religion’
This video is an excerpt of a lecture by Jürgen Habermas, delievered at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs on October 19th.
Ars Disputandi has recently published a collection of essays from the 2010 Conference of the European Society for Philosophy of Religion titled Religion in the Public Sphere. Edited by Niek Brunsveld and Roger Trigg, the volume—available online and in print—includes contributions from Nicholas Wolterstorff (“Does Forgiveness Violate Justice?“) and Richard Amesbury (“Secular State, Religious Nation?“). In the introduction, Trigg writes.
At Notes from the Social Field, Ernesto Castañeda reflects on President Obama’s rhetorical performance in the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson.
More than nine years (and a few weeks) have now passed since the events of 9/11, and as Religion in America blogger Paul Matzko noted on the attacks’ ninth anniversary earlier this month, the religious overtones of how Americans remember that day are palpable.
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.
Education Review, an open-access online journal, reviews the recently published Public Education, America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (Teachers College Press, 2009) by Carl Bankston III and Stephen Caldas. While critical of some aspects of the argument laid out in the book, the reviewer is intrigued by the authors’ account of the development of schooling in the United States through the concept of “civil religion” and their skeptical perspective on Americans’ devotion to education.
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?
Reviewing Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars: Washington D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape for Religion Dispatches, Michael A. Elliot reflects on the profound changes undergone by the National Mall in the last two centuries.
The American civil religion, Robert Bellah argued, was derived from two sources, one religious and the other secular: the covenant theology of the Puritans and the classical republicanism of the Founders. Writing amidst the collective funk of the mid-1970s, Bellah famously concluded that the American civil religion was an empty and broken shell. Though I agree with Bellah about the sources of this tradition, I disagree with his assessment of its vitality. Nor do I believe that civil religion is the only version of the American tradition. I argue that there were at least two others. To wit: religious nationalism and radical secularism.
At U.S. Intellectual History, Raymond J. Haberski, Jr. appraises Barack Obama’s implicit invocations of civil religion in this week’s speech on the war in Afghanistan. In taking this interpretive approach, Haberski contributes to what has become a new academic tradition. Haberski’s take on the speech in fact encapsulates the new tradition’s range of opinions, for he identifies civil religion in Obama’s language at the same time that he asks whether the concept of civil religion amounts to more than “hogwash.”
Charles Taylor has argued that those of us living in North America and Europe are witnessing a shift in our social imaginary from a “Durkheimian” self-understanding, according to which political identity is tied to religious belonging, towards a “post-Durkheimian” view, in which the two are no longer seen as intrinsically linked. In the emerging dispensation, Taylor predicts, “it will be less and less common for people to be drawn into or kept within a faith by some strong political or group identity, or by the sense that they are sustaining a socially essential ethic.” Whatever its merits as an analysis of contemporary European self-understanding—and these are surely significant—Taylor’s reading strikes me as underdetermined by the American evidence…
In my previous post, I outlined the civil religion that Robert Bellah and Sacvan Bercovitch both identify, though with opposed intentions. Surely, Barack Obama is working with and within this civil religion. He repeatedly narrates a jeremiad, the “prescribed ritual form” that “directs an imperiled people of god toward the fulfillment of their destiny.” He invokes every trope of individualism and individual mobility, and he identifies himself specifically as an immigrant who embodies that American dream of self-making. If he thereby avoids being consigned to blackness, and so to social fixity, deviance, and political marginality, he also affirms the sacralizing of liberalism as the very meaning of a freedom that is god’s gift. At the same time, he affirms the collective responsibility that Bellah considered the gift of biblical religion to Anglo-American liberalism.
For some scholars, “religion” gives the social cohesion and moral purpose without which a merely self-interested and fragmenting liberalism could not survive. Others see how, at moments of crisis, figures like Lincoln—or now we might argue Obama—draw on biblical language to call a special nation to its higher and redemptive purpose, and thus name common purposes that mobilize nation-building or rebuilding. In 1968, Bellah linked civil religion not only to consensus but to dissent: he invoked the examples of William Lloyd Garrison and Eugene Debs to argue that critics of racism or empire must speak in widely resonant, biblical terms, or they risk cultural marginality and political impotence. Critics who do not invoke “any genuinely American pattern of values,” the “better instincts of American patriotism” or indeed “the deeper moral instincts of Americans,” he argues, will fail, and a corporate and imperial regime will continue to “undermine essential American values and constitutional order.”
A nation is not an indifferent condition for the happiness and social relatedness of its citizens, but serves as a kind of habitus for them, shaping and being shaped by discourse and practice. The following reflections propose that two key elements of the American project form rudimentary aspects of the national imaginary, the collective resource for the conception and practice of nationhood. These are exceptionalism and civil religion. The two are deeply interwoven. I propose to define them and to parse their relationship in the American case. To begin with a familiar claim: at the heart of the American project is the bracing promise of starting anew and the conviction that doing so is possible, that citizens are able to clean the slate of old debts, bad ideas, and the burden of inherited injustices. It would be nice if matters were that simple, but of course they are not.
Here’s an “old thing” which relates, I think, to President Obama and the debate about civil religion—the primacy of practice. Usually in presidential inaugurations, civil religion is framed largely as a watered-down Judeo-Christian consensus, covering over the rough edges of existing differences in theology and custom. George W. Bush’s Inaugural Addresses stand out for their sectarian evangelical Christian tone, which rightly sparked a chorus of dissident voices. But this past January we saw a president in his Inaugural Address openly and honestly wrestling with the nation’s diversity—a “patchwork,” as he described it, “of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Non-believers? Their inclusion in the same breath with religious communities, especially on civil religion’s holiest of days, unsettled some, inspired others. Clearly, Obama would like to defuse this tension. More than just carefully chosen words, his was a performative act aimed at uniting believers and non-believers in a common citizenship.
“These things are old. These things are true.” With these words, Barack Obama reaffirmed America’s commitment to “those values upon which our success depends”: hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism. At first glance, these seem like strange words for a Democratic president to be uttering. By invoking the old and the true, Obama appeared to be channeling the late Russell Kirk, the godfather of conservative intellectuals and the “champion of the permanent things.” In a 1987 lecture, Kirk said a conservative is a person “who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night.” In the judgment of Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, the young president “intends to use conservative values for progressive ends.” Yet Obama’s vision for America does not resemble Kirk’s list of “Ten Conservative Principles,” which includes such ideals as prescription, restraint, and property rights. […]
Consider these words from the President’s Inaugural Address:
Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.
These are heady aspirations, and perhaps the kind of message a nation in crisis and in transition needs to hear. It would appear that this is a moment that is paradoxically imbued with a sense of clarity and ambiguity. And so it is that we at The Immanent Frame have chosen to honor and interrogate this moment—generated by the event of Obama’s presidency (and its corollaries “the Obama generation” and “the Obama era”)—by launching a new series: “These things are old.”
That devotion to the theme “E Pluribus Unum,” “out of many, one,” is among the things that are old in the United States of America, there can be no question. Since 1776 the motto has graced the Great Seal of the United States and is on presidential and other major governmental seals. Citizens carry the theme with them when they carry cash. Many thought of it as the motto of the United States, but it got pushed aside by God, as in “In God We Trust,” when Congress made that phrase official. Official or not, its presence on seals and coins, in textbook titles and legal encyclopedia entries, testifies to the fact that, when serious, leaders and ordinary citizens are devoted to keeping this “old thing” current.
Presidential inaugurations are occasions for civil religious drama. The inauguration of Barack Obama was no exception.
For a long time after November 4, I found it hard to believe that Barack Obama had actually been elected President of the United States. Even as his inauguration approaches I still find it a remarkable moment in our history.
Americans have elected the most theologically astute president since Jimmy Carter.
The East Coast media establishment—both “conservatives” and “liberals”—continue to ask the same question about Senator Barack Obama: why did he keep his membership at Trinity United Church of Christ, where the Reverend Jeremiah Wright was the pastor? The question is asked as though Obama is naïve and Wright is a madman, neither of which is true. But what I find rather more amusing, or perhaps alarming—at least from a religious perspective—is that most of the media personalities who ask this question appear to have never belonged to any kind of religious community themselves. And this is, to a large extent, why there is so much misunderstanding about the relationship between Obama and Wright. […]
In my essay “Civil Religion in America,” first published in Daedalus in 1967, exactly forty years ago—which, unfortunately, quite a few people think is the only thing I ever wrote—I discussed toward the end the possibility of what I called a “world civil religion.” Naïve though it may sound today, the idea of a world civil religion as expressing “the attainment of some kind of viable and coherent world order” was the imagined resolution of what I then called America’s third time of trial, an idea later developed in my book The Broken Covenant. […]