Boardman (Barney) Kathan, Prospect, CT, is former General Secretary of the Religious Education Association, current REA archivist, and recent author of "A Church Set Upon a Hill: The Story of Prospect Congregational Church, United Church of Christ." Barney is a longtime friend with whom I have had many conversations over the years; he responds to recent postings on American civil religion.
You and I have had good conversations about American civil religion, going back many years, and I remember especially a fairly recent Religious Education Association annual meeting, when we talked after a group where you had presented a paper on the subject. At the time I had a problem with calling the Super Bowl a high holy day of American civil religion. You make a good point, however, in referring to it as part of "American corporate religion."
American civil religion, as I understand it, relates to the religious and biblical images and references in American history, as these people in a new world, beginning with the Puritans, saw themselves as a "light on a hill," an "errand in the wilderness," a new "promised land" and "chosen people;" in effect, as part of salvation history. This was not a "false god," unlike American corporate religion, consumerism, etc., but rather an attempt to interpret their experience in sacred terms. Properly understood, American civil religion was not a "presumption of entitlement to global dominance," but a creation of a model or ideal of liberty, equality and democracy. However flawed or imperfect, this model or ideal has been the guiding principle in American history, and we were fortunate to have Lincoln in the 19th century and Dr. King in the 20th century to recall us to that principle.
In our conversation a couple of years ago, I told the story of three persons I knew well and worked with: the mayor of our town whose only religion seems to be the American civil kind, who never attends church except for a patriotic occasion; a pastor who was so opposed to any display of American patriotism that he refused to allow the country's flag in the sanctuary and gave hardly a nod to the Fourth of July and Memorial Day; and my mother, who was a deeply religious evangelical Christian and at the same time was fervently dedicated to American civil religion. The point I am making is that ACR is not necessarily opposed to the "cross and resurrection." It is only when it becomes nationalism that it is a false god.
Sometime I need to share with you a lecture given on the Lincoln birthday bicentennial at the New Haven Historical Society by David Gelernter, a Yale professor of computer science and the author of a new book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. He calls Americanism a "biblical religion" that is global in scope and fuels what he calls the "chivalry" of fighting against dictators in other parts of the world in order to spread democracy. I asked him how he would compare his concept with American civil religion, and he gave a long answer, essentially rejecting and dismissing the concept of ACR. I disagree with him in many ways.
As far as a "new revised standard version" of ACR, I agree with you that it is an evolving and complex concept. The inauguration of Obama as the 44th U.S. President as the culmination of a remarkable, successful two-year campaign holds out the promise that he might do for the American democratic faith in the 21st century what Lincoln and King did for the preceding centuries. Again, you were right to focus on the remarkable closing prayer by Joseph Lowery.
Best wishes, Barney
A story of my visiting Barney at First Congregational Church of Cheshire, CT, where he and I climbed into the church steeple, is included in my book, "Open the Doors and See All the People: Stories of Church Identity and Vocation" (Augsburg Fortress, 2005)