Two civil religions

In this contentious environment, fundamental myths, rituals, and symbols have all been drawn into the ideological debate. Historically, there has been an operative, yet somewhat amorphous, civil religion, or a set of generalized myths, symbols, and rituals by which Americans have interpreted their historical experience in relation to a transcendent power. Sociologist Robert Bellah argues that this civil religion is not reducible to worship of the state because, at its best, it has fostered a sense of mission to carry out God’s will on earth and thus related the country to a power and purpose beyond itself. At its best, the God of the nation is broadly conceived, and belief in this Deity is reinforced by non-sectarian prayers and rituals. Although many early figures in American history were Deists, Judeo-Christian values solidi­fied in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to create a civil religion drawing off biblical archetypes such as the Exodus, Promised Land, Chosen People, Sacrificial Death, and Rebirth.25

Judeo-Christian values as interpreted through the American experience gave rise to several distinctive myths: the myth of origin, or the view that America is a new beginning for humankind in relation to a divine order; the myth of innocence, implying that the nation is righteous, just, and superior in a world filled with demonic forces and shadowy figures seeking to destroy that which is good and right; the millennial myth of a Redeemer Nation, or the notion that the country was brought into being for the final fulfillment of God’s work on earth, at home and abroad; and a primal myth, locating the nation’s identity outside of ordinary time, that is, as a people suspended in the eternal present with unbounded possibilities and a glorious future. President Ronald Reagan articulated many of these themes, especially the latter in his State of the Union message in 1987 when he said, “The calendar can’t measure America because we were meant to be an endless experiment in freedom, with no limit to our reaches, no boundaries to what we can do, no end point to our hopes.”26

It is argued that there are “two civil religions” today, differing in their views of how best to relate religion and public life.27 Conservatives privilege the myth of origin, and to a lesser extent the millennial myth, relating the nation to divine purposes: “One Nation Under God” is their rallying cry. In emphasizing the historic connection between the country and God, right­wing Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians lay claim not just to a religious foundation for the country but to themselves as the custodians of the American experiment. For them, faith in God mixes easily with free­dom, patriotism, strong military defense, capitalism, rejection of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the American Creed with its emphasis on freedom, individualism, democratic politics, and the work ethic. In its more strident version, as voiced by President George W. Bush, the Redeemer Nation must extend the freedom that God has granted this country; indeed, if it does not, it fails to live up to its responsibility of ridding the world of tyranny and oppression. Justifying the war on Iraq, President Bush said on November 6, 2003, the United States seeks “to promote liberty around the world because liberty is both the plan of Heaven for humanity, and the best hope for progress on earth.”28 Manifest Destiny as a theme underlies his comment although this doctrine is transformed in two important respects: one, rather than territorial expansion it includes resources such as oil, military bases, and economic markets; and two, freedom and prosperity, that is, the fruits of the market system, are seen as the gifts the American experiment has to offer the world.29

In contrast, liberals draw upon civil religious symbols not to emphasize the nation as a “Chosen People,” but to focus attention on the responsibility to which it is called. “With Liberty and Justice for All” is their motto. A Redeemer Nation does not impose its ways upon the world out of self­righteousness or in the interest of imperialism, but rather uses its resources to help alleviate the world’s problems. Human rights, international justice and cooperation, peace, scientific progress, the relief of hunger and AIDS, and the environment are all issues they champion. The compatibility of science and religion is emphasized as opposed to creationism. Civil religion in its more liberal version challenges the nation to live up to its moral and ethical ideals. President Clinton in fact on occasion drew upon this tradition in pointing to the responsibilities attending the role of the United States as a superpower on the international stage. In 1999, he said, “Because of the dramatic increase in our own prosperity and confidence in this, the longest peacetime economic expansion in our history, the United States has the opportunity and, I would argue, the solemn responsibility to shape a more peaceful, prosperous, democratic world in the twenty-first century.”30 Com­mitted to social justice, liberals interpret this responsibility drawing upon biblical injunctions to feed the poor, to stand up to the arrogance of power, and to let justice roll down like waters.

Updated: 18th July 2015 — 3:16 pm