At U.S. Intellectual History, Raymond J. Haberski, Jr. appraises Barack Obama’s implicit invocations of civil religion in this week’s speech on the war in Afghanistan. In taking this interpretive approach, Haberski contributes to what has become a new academic tradition. Haberski’s take on the speech in fact encapsulates the new tradition’s range of opinions, for he identifies civil religion in Obama’s language at the same time that he asks whether the concept of civil religion amounts to more than “hogwash”:
Bellah’s 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America” written amidst another divisive war, reminded Americans that they possessed a common heritage that they might call upon, as he said, in times of trial. He argued that this “American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” Thus Americans had a common creed that unified them but that also provided a means to evaluate causes to which soldiers might give their last full measure of devotion to their nation.
Last night, Obama worked within the civil religious tradition when he called upon Americans to unify around a common understanding of American ideals and to reassert a claim to moral authority in the world.
But is it all hogwash? Many of us are well versed in the abstract dimensions of the strange beast that is civil religion—it can mean almost anything to anyone at anytime.
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