A nation is not an indifferent condition for the happiness and social relatedness of its citizens, but serves as a kind of habitus for them, shaping and being shaped by discourse and practice. The following reflections propose that two key elements of the American project form rudimentary aspects of the national imaginary, the collective resource for the conception and practice of nationhood. These are exceptionalism and civil religion. The two are deeply interwoven. I propose to define them and to parse their relationship in the American case.
To begin with a familiar claim: at the heart of the American project is the bracing promise of starting anew and the conviction that doing so is possible, that citizens are able to clean the slate of old debts, bad ideas, and the burden of inherited injustices. It would be nice if matters were that simple, but of course they are not. In the first instance, full citizenship has never been universal. It began with white men and only slowly, fitfully, and violently has the circumference of the empowered been expanded. The circle is still not large enough. Each generation of Americans demonstrates this with renewed efforts at including both old and new citizens in the promises of liberty proclaimed by the Constitution and its many amendments’ reinvigoration of freedom. Yet the circle has expanded, and that is an achievement worth regarding as a portent of things to come.
It is tempting to continue with the bold assertion that we may discern in this primordial American yearning for the liberty of a fresh start a power that impels citizens in all their varieties. Deeper than their difference from one another is a root principle of nationhood: “Ours is an exception to the rule. You have heard that people seek only their private good; you have heard that the people are a mob incapable of the virtue of self-rule; you have heard that only might makes right; you have heard that kings must come from gods to govern the sheep (or wolves) of human kind. Not so with us.”
But where in this fable of exception do Americans recognize that this is an immigrant’s conception of a new world, and not the perception of native peoples or slaves? What promises the nation made to them, it took away or deferred. And promises it never made came only with struggle and the agony of long waiting. Still, that the Constitution’s guarantee of liberties can be afforded to those formerly deprived shows that freedom is not bound to its limited origin. Even the slow arrival of liberty, miserable to be sure, suggests that the exceptionalism that white male Americans originally conceived may have carried an idea larger than the race and gender and cultural boundaries that then constrained its present but not its future life.
If that is so, we may venture a more expansive definition. National exceptionalism is any nation’s compelling sense of purpose to recognize and promote human liberty. Liberty is the distinctively modern character of human purpose. The idea that we are each by nature free, in possession of the inalienable right and capacity to determine for ourselves the meaning of our lives and to realize this right while living amicably among other, equally free people—there is the very origin of exception. Indeed, the universally human exception. Why the polity of nationhood? Only because that is the modern form of the body politic, the prevailing social unit or body that persists in relation to other bodies of its kind as the level of organization best equipped to preserve the common and individual good of its members. The modern project of liberty is historically inseparable from the nation.
American exceptionalism comes in many forms, all of which unfold historically. None is final or essential; all convey the principal or archetypal exception, and do so for better or for worse. The idea that America is somehow better than “Old Europe” or any other government or nation is a jingoistic notion of exceptionalism. But that is not American exceptionalism tout court. Nor is the historical assertion of American Protestants that the nation was set aside by providence to perform a special millennial work. Nor is the claim of manifest destiny, clearing out or sequestering native peoples to make way for white settlement of the continent, or seizing territory from Mexico. Nor is the imperialist impulse to establish offshore colonies. Nor is the project of disseminating American capitalism abroad. Nor is the nationalistic enterprise of dominating the West and bullying those who do not conform to American interests. A better claim might be made for “making the world safe for democracy” or promoting economic justice at home and abroad or leading the charge against global warming or healing the catastrophic rift in the Middle East. Yet none of these captures the heart of exception, though each manifests its presence in American history.
Generally speaking, two broad views of America’s exception have dominated public thought and expression. Nationalism is the approach that stresses American superiority, separateness, and the need for protection against external and internal threat. Nationalism tends to prefer the nation-state’s norm of uniformity in key features of national life such as racial, religious, and linguistic characteristics. The prevailing perception of nationalists is that the sacred status of the nation will be preserved if change is resisted, indeed, if the nation returns to a cherished past, from which it has drifted owing to legislative jurisprudence, abandonment of the original intent of the Constitution, and loss of moral values and religious piety.
In contrast to nationalism’s exclusivist attitude (“America—love it or leave it”), another broad approach to democracy stresses civil liberties and the importance of dissent, and understands love of country not as an exclusivist drive to recoup a bygone uniformity, but as the preservation of liberty that results in a diverse nation whose task is an unfinished project of realizing the expansive career of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedoms. There is no pure American, only citizens putting liberty into practice. This approach embraces patriotism as love of liberty, the founding, animating principle of the nation.
The fault line separating nationalism and patriotism is especially visible when it manifests deep impulses that can only be described as sacred or religious. For example, where nationalists insist on the sacralization of the American flag, seeking to install a constitutional amendment banning its desecration, patriots will maintain that doing so confuses the flag with what is truly sacred—the ideal of liberty. Sacralizing the flag removes it from the contest of public discourse, where it may be used as a powerful symbol of dissent. When the state insisted on mandatory flag veneration in public schools, the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) in favor of those who refused to participate on the view that doing so violated their freedom of religion.
But is American democracy destined to religious strife? Exceptionalism is especially present in the different tonalities of American civil religion. As religions go, it is rather vague. It is a religion that is essentially public and representational. If it follows its adherents into the privacy of the prayer chamber, we never see it. When its themes and symbols are taken up in homilies from the church pulpit, civil religion metamorphoses into the formal religion of the sects, whose gods easily claim the nation for themselves by catching it up in their webs of providence, revelation, and sacred history. Civil religion belongs in the open for that is where it performs its compelling cultural work.
Civil religion, generally speaking, is properly seen and heard in public as the patrimony of all citizens and the tool of no party. All Americans sing the national anthem (or pretend to), stand at attention, look respectfully upon flag or monument. In doing so, they are all Americans. The gathering of crowds along the parade route, in the stadium, in the park, becomes “the people,” e pluribus unum, pulled together into a singular public self-consciousness. It is a religion that exists principally in the brief duration of its ritual staging, then dissolves into crowds milling about, finding their way home. Civil religion is what citizens do in groups to become bodily moved as a nation and to have deposited in each one of them a felt-memory of that moment of unity that transformed each body into an encompassing social body. Civil religion is ritual experience that gestures to the unseen national whole. It is an embodied, impassioned imagination of national community. For a moment, strangers seem friendly, aligned by purpose, history, and common liberties.
What is it that calls Americans to national unity? A common purpose: the guarantee of liberty. And whence this guarantee? On this, their difference must prevail if liberty is to do so. Some will say god or gods, some will look to historical destiny, others will attribute the origin of national purpose to human reason and ingenuity. In every case, however, there is the role of exception to consider, an auspicious intervention with a portentous difference. God, history, or mind crafted a juncture whose favor the nation has exploited. Civil religion installs this intervention of favor in a ritual cultus bolstered with the blood of martyrs. Auspiciousness, ritual, cultus, and martyrs all suggest the evocation and configuration of feeling familiar to institutional religions. Yet civil religion operates differently. Sectarian religions conduct their corporate worship within the controlled environment of their private ritual spaces. They gather on Saturdays or Sundays for formal services; their liturgies do not infringe on the universal secular calendar of workdays. Civil religion is able to re-invoke the encompassing liturgical time of pre-modern religions, staging its ceremonies on national holidays that universally curb the secular time of labor. Yet civil religion is not so much a religion as a kind of meta-religion that binds the many to the common task of national sympathy or fellow-feeling, to the ritual evocation of foundational unity.
In this regard it is important not to confuse civil religion with national religion, whether established religion, theocracy or a dominant sectarian religion. Civil religion does not flatten all religions into one or replace them with the tyranny of one. It fits over them all like an apparatus that mimics their solemnity and ritual cohesion, emulates their themes of sacrifice, virtue, magnanimity, and devotional remembrance, but insists on dim theological tropes, the better to unify and to limn an overarching sublimity. Civil religion is a crafting of momentous occasions on which the whole of the nation draws together to perform a moving presence of common purpose. And that purpose is the visceral recognition and commemoration of exception. Liberty and liberty together. This is the core of the American compact, a national project that is fundamentally modern, secular, and sacred. Americans perceive their mission in the ritual body of their civil religion and draw from it the shared presentiment of national identity.
[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]