When Americans turn to god,
which god is it?
Americans are a praying people. Praying gets even more popular in a national crisis, though
Americans have always recognized god and prayer as important. We have "IN GOD WE TRUST" on our currency. We say "One nation under god” in our
pledge of allegiance. In many research
reports almost all Americans say they pray regularly, and more than half claim
they pray “every day.” When national tragedy strikes, even the politicians who argued against
the Lord’s Prayer in schools, will call their constituency to prayer. There is prayer
to god in congress, at white house prayer breakfasts, even in the Supreme
So, who is this god we so often call upon as a nation? Is it the God of the Old and New
Testaments--the “Christian God”—the Father Son and Holy Spirit? The answer is “not exactly.” This is why
congress and the Supreme Court can have their prayer while our kids at school
can’t. The two prayers are directed to
different gods. The Lord’s Prayer is a
narrow prayer of Jesus Christ, (or at broadest only a Judeo-Christian
prayer). The prayers offered by “civil
religion” are to a expansive god-behind-all-gods—a
national unifying god. 1
was probably the first to introduce the idea of "Civil
Religion." Civil religion is a
unifying nationalism that uses religious means and words to promote
national values and patriotism. In
Rousseau’s book, The Social Contract he suggests three primary dogmas of
civil religion: 1) There is a God; 2)
God rewards virtue and punishes vice; and, 3) The chief sin is religious
intolerance. This, of course is the
trinity of doctrines governing America’s
current outbreak of civil religion.
Civil religion is the common ecumenical ground where we all can
gather—not just all Christian denominations, but all
religions—Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and even the great host of people
who practice no formal religion at all but believe in god and prayer. This is civil religion. The god of civil religion is the "higher
power as you know it"—the god behind all religions and everything else.
In the early 1960’s Protestants feared what would happen if John Kennedy were elected President. As a Roman Catholic, they wondered if he
would “take orders from the Pope.”
Kennedy did make frequent references to god—three times in his inaugural
address. Robert Bellah,
in 1967 first made the keen observation that John
Kennedy's use of "god" however
was not in the narrow sense as a Roman Catholic, but in the broader sense as a
the god-of-us-all, the god of American civil religion. Bellah
suggested that Kennedy was doing exactly what his predecessors had
done—referring to the unifying god of American civil religion, not any specific
narrow denominational god or even the god organized religion like the Christian
god, or Roman Catholic understanding of God.
It was the god-above-all-gods, the god of American civil religion.
Civil religion is not a state religion, but rather an expression that religionizes national values, national heroes, national
history, and national ideals. It is
something like Unitarianism or Bahá'í but even more
foundational than these religions—for it proposes a God behind all gods that
especially favors America—a
totem god. Thus, American Civil religion
becomes a common ground where all Americans can stand to pray—Jews, Christians,
Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and non-religionists. The unifying thing is not the object of
prayer (god) but the source of the prayer—we Americans. Granted when
Christians see “In God we Trust” on a coin, they “load” the term with Biblical
meaning—i.e. we trust God as known in the Trinity. But, those from other religions do the same
thing, for the god of civil religion is the great unifying ground-zero god of all.
Civil religion came easy for Americans.
Since the beginning we frequently saw ourselves as a "New
Israel" coming out of Europe to freedom
and plenty in our own promised land. We
believed we had a "manifest destiny" to stretch our enlightened way
of life from sea to shining sea, and eventually to export the “American way of
life” around the world. We saw ourselves
as God’s chosen people. He had other
sheep, but we were god’s favorites. He
wanted to use America
to spread freedom (especially) and justice (a bit less so) across the
earth. We were God’s tools.
Even our symbols remind us of this way of thinking. Consider the unfinished pyramid with the eye
on top that appears on our one dollar bill.
Over the top are the Latin words, Annuit
Coeptis -- "God/Providence has smiled on our
beginnings." At the bottom: Novus
Ordo Seclorum --
"A new order of the ages."
Taken together these mottos merge national and religious beliefs. God was especially smiling as we started building
this nation, and we will establish a new order of the ages together under
god. Which god? The god of civil
There are several ways of looking at religion. One is by abstract definition. Another way to examine religion is “phenomenologically”—that is, examining the phenomenon we
see in religions in order to seek a kind of definition. What then does civil religion look like
looked at phenomenologically? When examined this way civil religion sure
looks like a religion. Civil religion
uses religious-type words and methods to produce a unifying national
religion. Civil religion offers a common
three-fold doctrine, a "salvation history" telling how
God saved us from our enemies, a series of hallowed rituals like the
state of the union address, the national funeral of a President or
inauguration. Civil religion finds its saints
in the national heroes like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and others. We even
carve their images in giant mountains and make national parks out of the
space. There are more images of our past heroes in Washington D.C.
than St. Peter's has in Rome.
We have enshrined the sacred text of the constitution and line up to
glance at the original autograph housed in a sacred shrine under thick glass. The Civil War to us was our great sacrifice,
and the death of Lincoln
is our own story of giving one’s life so that others may live—the substitutionary death in our own country. Arlington cemetery is
just one of a dozen sacred places for us, complete with its
"eternal flame." Our flag is
such a sacred object to us that we urge our congress to pass a law
nobody may "desecrate" it—one can only desecrate what is sacred. We often merge our piety with our
patriotism. Freedom is the ultimate
value and we are willing to die for it—even kill for it. So many Christians go off to war merging
their faith and patriotism singing (the original wording of the battle Hymn), “As He died to
make men holy, let us die to make men free.”
Daniel Marsh of Boston
University pointed out in
his book Unto the Generations: the roots of true Americanism the
similarities between biblical history and American history. The American’s book of Genesis is the
Mayflower Compact. Our exodus is the
Declaration of Independence. Our book of the law is the Constitution and the
Bill of Rights. We have our periodic
prophecies, the greatest being Washington's
farewell address. Our psalms include the
Star Spangled Banner and God bless America. The gospel of true Americanism is Lincoln's second
Inaugural address, and so forth. Civil
religion provides religious means and modes for the expression of
patriotism. Civil religion and regular
religion are so similar in mode and mood that it is easy to merge the two into
one worship service, like many American churches do on the Sunday near July 4th.
This of course is nothing new, for all through the middle ages nations
merged Christianity with nationalism. It
is common to see in stained glass windows of European cathedrals St. Andrew, St. Paul, and Jesus right
beside some local crusader-hero or patron, and the cross, crown and basin to
appear near a national flag or local rich family’s coat of arms.
This is what civil religion does. It
uses the means and words of religion to unify the state. What comes out is something near enough to
religion to be a decent substitute for those who reject organized religion, and
the rest of us can “read our own god” into the god-talk of civil religion. Will Hergerg calls
civil religion a “folk religion.” As the
Roman Catholics discovered, folk religions are hard to stamp out—it may be
easier to just incorporate them into regular worship. Civil religion is a
cosmopolitan faith that is unifying, tolerant, and provides a banner under
which all of us can pray.
And it promises a lot! Civil religion
is able to accomplish what the ecumenical movement, Unitarianism, Bahá'í and the New Age movement could not do—it provides a
common unifying religion for us all. It
is the religious cement for the nation. It enables Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim,
Buddhist and non-religionist to all gather together to pray to the
god-above-all-gods. It is not so
important who the God is, as who we are—we are Americans.
Civil religion is good for America.
But, is it good for Christians? Is
it acceptable to merge national and religious passions? Can Christians pray at the patriotic altars
of civil religion so long as in our own mind we are thinking of the One True
God? Some early Christians did
something like that in the minor civil religion required by Rome.
Was that OK for them to do—a sort of a mental
crossing-of-the-fingers behind the back while offering respect to the
state. Or, did the early Christians face
something totally different than civil religion? If civil religion is OK, how
far is too far? Can a Christian practice
two religions at once? Is civil religion
OK so long as it is more generic and basic—not as complete as
Christianity—yet not contradicting it?
If you say yes, will you extend your view to college students who dabble
in other Unity religions that “do not deny but unify on our common ground?” Or
is such dual religious practice limited for you only limited to civil
religion? Or, do you deny that there
even is such a thing as “civil religion?”
Where do you come down on these issues?
Is civil religion bad, good, or neutral?
So, what do you think?
So what do you think?
Related later article
January 20, 2008
1. I am deeply indebted for the ideas in this article to
long conversations and reading papers by the late David Smith, long time friend
and professor of theology at Indiana
Wesleyan University. It is honor of the
life of David Smith that I submit
this article for your consideration.
Interested in more reading about civil religion? Try these:
Shanks, Civil Society, Civil Religion
Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious
Bellah, Civil Religion in America
Christ and Culture
Herberg, Protestant, Catholic and Jew.
N. Bellah Religion in America,
L. Marsh, Unto the Generation: The Roots of True Americanism
Cherry, God's New Israel
G. Jones, Russell E. Richey
American Civil Religion