Monday, February 9, 2009

The Pervasiveness and Persuasiveness of an Ever-changing American Civil Religion (Part 1)

My interest in American civil religion (ACR) relates to religious formation and leadership and ecclesiology (theology of the church). My thesis is that American civil religion continues to evolve as a complex systematic theology (in my view counter to a theology of the cross and resurrection), with its own creeds and mission statements, and with an exclusive ecclesiology for a nation professing to be an inclusive, democratic, just, peace-seeking nation. What is American civil religion? How did it come to be? How is it changing? Is there competition over the creeds of civil religion?

Civil religions, alongside beliefs of specific faith communities, shape attitudes and actions of individuals and of entire peoples. American civil religion, with its presumption of entitlement to global dominance, presents a particular problem. Civil religion is a social phenomenon, a sacred citizenship. The term appears in Jean Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract. Alexis de Tocqueville empirically observed a form of civil religion that emerged precisely in the situation of church-state separation.

Robert Bellah's article in 1967, "Civil Religion in America," Daedalus 96 (Winter, 1967), gave words to what others had long felt:

While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of "the American Way of Life," few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-instituted civil religion in America...this religion—or perhaps better, this religious dimension—has its own seriousness and integrity and requires the same care in understanding that any other religion does.

In his 1975 The Broken Covenant, Bellah outlined more fully the historical evidence of American civil religion, clearly describing both the “chosen” character of America’s story of origin and two great flaws: the fact that the American dream from the beginning did not include the dreams of all, particularly African slaves and indigenous peoples.

For my extensive article on American Civil Religion, written one year ago, click on title of this post.

1 comment:

Allison said...

Reading Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz' comments on American Civil Religion in his book "America's Battle for God" raises both interesting resistances and agreements in my mind. I guess I am probably demonstrating that I am thoroughly American, but I think that any nation should, if it believes in God at all, think that God uses it in the world and hope that it might be used for the greater good. Yes, thinking we are the savior of the world is not only arrogant but ridiculous and has led to some horrendous actions in our past, but to strive to be a positive influence isn't a bad thing and to seek to be used by God isn't either. What I heard in both Kennedy's and Obama's inaugural addresses was a call to be a people working for the good of the world (Bush's sounded to me much more triumphalist). America has done much good in the past and will hopefully do so again in the future. Of course we need to learn to listen. Of course we need to recognize that we do not always know what is best for others and must be in dialogue with them to determine what works for everyone. Of course we need to be willing to balance the good of others with our own and seek only what benefits both. But to not seek to have a positive influence or to not think that God ( in whatever way we believe) cares about our national actions seems sadder and perhaps as dangerous as what America does. Perhaps some of our strident over-achieving arrogance comes about as we fill a gap left when the other western nations, being too weighed down by their history, fail to act. I pray that we will grow as a nation as we encounter more and more of the world and I pray that our knowledge and compassion for others will continue to grow. There is much to critique about America but the fact that we care about our place is the world is not all negative.