Over the last few years, we have seen what Candace Lukasik has aptly termed “anxious scholarly debate” regarding the rise of Christian nationalism. Scholars are alarmed that an informal religious establishment seems to bar particular beliefs, actions, or even persons from inclusion in democratic life. Many accounts of Christian nationalism assert long historical origins, while others describe a recent phenomenon or an invented schema rife with category confusions. Regardless of its age or origin, this informal establishment is not the only one in the United States. Decades before white evangelicals delivered the presidency to Donald Trump, an entirely different set of theological beliefs inhabited the halls of power and shaped American life: a midcentury synthesis of Unitarianism and liberal Protestantism I’ve termed “syncretic civic moralism.” While its mid-twentieth-century progenitors might be considered ideologically apposite contemporary Christian nationalists, it similarly marginalized Americans of color, immigrant communities, and religious minorities. This subtle form of what David Sehat has termed “moral establishment” persists to this day in democratic institutions, particularly in public schools. Awareness of its enduring influence gives a critical perspective to contemporary analyses of Christian nationalism.

Some political commentators express dismay that a majority of Supreme Court justices belong to the same religious tradition. Contemporary pundits might be surprised to learn that in the mid-twentieth century, three of the nine justices attended the same church. All Souls Unitarian, on the corner of Harvard and Fifteenth Street in Washington, DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, was a spiritual home to Justices Harold Burton, Hugo Black, and William Douglas. From the 1940s through the 1960s, the justices heard Pastor A. Powell Davies and his successor Duncan Howlett preach a veritably political theology. For both Davies and Howlett, all religions taught identical central truths, and these central truths were exclusively moral and political. Douglas recalled a sermon in which Davies insisted that “religion that is not realistic, not practical, that does not enter the arena of public affairs—and enter it with importunate energy and relentless purpose—is not worth bothering with at all.”

For Davies, social change was the primary characteristic of true religion. He was suspicious of any supernatural claims because they might both distract the faithful from social action and discourage the rightly skeptical from joining the fold. He contended that a formal theology or belief in the divine was unnecessary for true religion. Rather, a “personal religion” expressed in any life-giving or selfless experience was all that was required. Davies went even further: the doctrinal and ecclesial trappings of “formal” religion were not simply unnecessary, they were definite obstacles. “Creeds have no place in the world,” he wrote upon his conversion from Methodism to Unitarianism, “because they transgress the free domain of the mind.” Doctrinal claims not only barred dissenters from membership, they also led to violence.

Howlett’s views had stronger political implications. He taught that Revelation approached humanity through the individual soul. Thus ecclesial and governmental institutions were of the same type and faced the same central problem—how to preserve organizational unity without impinging on the freedom of individuals. The solution in both cases included experimentation, free speech, and rights of individual conscience—even within religious bodies. Put differently, the normative relationship of a religious congregant to her congregation should mirror that of the citizen to the federal government; it should be shaped by separation of powers, the guarantees of the First Amendment, and democratic debate. Howlett even wondered if the state should intervene within religious communities to ensure this arrangement.

The three justices imbibed these messages in various ways, fusing them with their previous religious backgrounds. Harold Burton resigned his national leadership role in the Unitarian Church because he feared the official Unitarian position on religious clause jurisprudence to which he privately ascribed was so particular that his association might cause scandal. When Burton did share his religious opinions, he affirmed a view that religion is primarily an avenue for world peace and an individual search unbound by formal traditions. William Douglas was a quintessential modern religious searcher who dabbled in Eastern mystic traditions, Sufi poetry, and progressive Christianity. In his public writings and letters, he echoed Howlett’s syncretism; the unitary central tenet of all religions was brotherly love. He even went so far as to advise Christian churches to dispense with creeds in order to better bring about social harmony. Hugo Black was reticent to publish his religious views throughout his life, but in his conversations with family he intimated his suspicion of strong religious hierarchies and his view that religion was primarily a bulwark to moral action. In correspondence regarding his judicial opinions, he frequently insisted that prayer and religious belief were eminently private matters.

The operative theology shared by these frequenters of All Souls and their pastors is one I have termed syncretic civic moralism, a stylistic nod to Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s diagnosis of American teens’ beliefs. In brief, syncretic civic moralism encapsulates four central convictions: that all religious traditions, at bottom, contain the same content; that this content is merely moral—and not cosmological or soteriological—in character; that religion is best operationalized as a boon to prosocial morality; and that theological particularly is a source of civic division and even violence.  

This peculiar theological vision invariably found expression in the midcentury Supreme Court’s religion clause jurisprudence. The narrative of religious violence caused by theological particularity formed the backdrop of Black’s Everson v. Board (1947) and McCollum v. Board (1948) majority opinions. While Reynolds v. U.S. (1879) first introduced Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” in the court’s jurisprudence, it was Black’s insistence on this framework—born in part from Jefferson’s suspicion of strong ecclesiastical institutions—that garnered its place in popular parlance. Released-time programs, in which public school students received religious instruction from local ministers, were only permissible under Douglas’s Zorach v. Clauson (1952) opinion because diverse religious beliefs could be synthesized into presupposition of a “Supreme Being” (343 U. S. 313). Engel v. Vitale (1962) represented the zenith of syncretic civic moralism in religious clause jurisprudence. Informed by his study of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Black’s majority opinion declared religion “too personal, too sacred, too holy” (370 U. S. 432) to permit civil interference. When the decision was handed down, Black added, “The prayer of each man from his soul must be his and his alone,” an extension of liberty of conscience from a civil matter to an intra-religious principle.  

The midcentury court’s establishment clause decisions ironically constituted a veritable moral establishment, not because of their legal outcomes, but because of the messages they conveyed regarding normative religion in the United States. True American religion was deeply personal and personalized. The individual as religious congregant would maintain freedom from the undue influence of religious superiors and coreligionists. The individual could certainly not expect communal religious experience to touch on her capacity as a citizen. Finally, the corporal nature of some religious communities made them potential threats to democratic life. That is to say, those religious communities in which authority or group belonging was emphasized over radical individualism became targets of suspicion.

At the time of their promulgation, these messages affirmed the religious lifeways of some Americans over others. Those with rather “thick” or corporate ecclesiologies, in which the locus of religious truth lay outside the self, were on the outside of the court’s true American religion. Public expressions of faith, even if rightly removed from public schools, were indicted as anti-democratic. In practice during the 1960s, this meant that Eastern European Jews, Catholic immigrants, and members of the Black Church were excluded from the normative religious frame. As Johnathan Zimmerman has chronicled, a large portion of black Americans objected to Engel, but were reticent to criticize the court and thus undermine recent segregation law victories. Today, the boundaries of syncretic civic moralism would exclude many of the same groups as well as Muslim Americans, a prime target of Christian nationalism.

Measured by polling numbers and quantities of critical letters, Engel was by far the most unpopular Supreme Court decision up to its time. In a creative effort to shore up democratic legitimacy for the court, Justices Douglas and William Brennan became involved in a new curricular movement aimed at educating American high schoolers about the Constitution. Through the new “law-related education” curricula, classrooms across the country were imbued with the tenets of syncretic civic moralism. Early texts even centered theological works from colonial American ministers that supported Justice Black’s reasoning.

The influence of the curricular movement persists today. Just under half of the College Board’s recommended Advanced Placement (AP) US government textbooks endorse the narratives of privatization and suspicion of particularity that animated the midcentury moral establishment. One textbook even contains a rephrased quotation from Black’s Everson opinion without attribution; these narratives are either subconsciously ingrained in the American psyche or surreptitiously presented as uncontroversial.

Syncretic civic moralism persists in contemporary politics as well. The most obvious cases involve the legal rights of corporal religious communities, calls for the exclusion of theologically informed views from public life or dismay at their inclusion, and issues involving religious schooling. If Christian nationalism is mostly the province of white evangelicals, this competing political theology is often embodied by white progressives.

Perhaps this is the relevant insight we might draw from the endurance of syncretic civic moralism—that Christian nationalism is not simply a burgeoning theocratic movement assaulting a naked public square, but one of many competing theopolitical visions that find expression in the United States. The fact should not surprise us; insofar as political narratives involve anthropological, cosmological, and even a form of soteriological assumptions, they are necessarily theological. Henry Manning’s dictum—“All human conflict is necessarily theological”—fits our present moment. Our circumstances drive home the fact that political culture by necessity includes theological culture. Like many structural phenomena, the dominant vision—in this case syncretic civic moralism—remains invisible as the “default” or “neutral” culture. The struggle against Christian nationalism is therefore not simply an attempt to root out a dangerous quasi-religious ideology; it is also an attempt to reaffirm the position of the current dominant (and so unnoticed) theological establishment. Any examination of Christian nationalism must acknowledge our dominant moral establishment. And any effort to change its dominance must ask which theopolitical vision will replace it, and who will decide.