Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another View on American Civil Religion

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.

Dear Norma,
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)


Marvin said...

While I definitely believe that we as Christians may attempt to use biblical imagery to understand our struggles, it is when these images are taken from the realm of the church and applied to the national realm. The danger comes in thinking of any nation as a "chosen" people without the humility of remembering that the "chosen" were chosen to be a blessing to all the nations.

I struggle constantly with finding the balance between a belief in the good this nation can accomplish and the honest appraisal that our practice of our credo as a nation is flawed, as we are all flawed. I am proud to live in this nation but cringe everytime I hear Christian labels applied to any secular institution such as the state.

Anonymous said...

Reading this post right after you read the post from March 14 (which I know was posted after this one) allows for an interesting cross section of American Civil Religion. The other post asks who are modern day prophets and this post asks what is the "NRSV" of ACR. I would challenge that we can not know the "NRSV" until we determine who the prophets are. In the Holy Scriptures we know the stories of the prophets were recorded long after the prophets had died so I wonder if we will not know the current "NRSV" until we see who voice is truly prophetic. It is true that we only see truth in hindsight or can it be that if we are listing to the right prophets and seeing the right material as scripture that we will be able to see truth.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting point of clarification between Barney's views of American Civil Religion and American Corporate religion. He says in the third paragraph of the letter,"It is only when it becomes nationalism that it is a false God." I would challenge this point. Are we not making a past interpretation of our history a false God when we cling to a story that we have grown our of in so many ways - a story that leaves out the Native Americans and the Slaves, separates us from how we have interacted with the rest of the world? It kind of seems that we are children who insist we cannot sleep without our pj's which are now to small. We are placing our trust in the wrong thing - and that is what it means to make something into an idol or false God.