Robert Bellah’s idea of civil religion, captured in his now famous essay “Civil Religion in America,” can in a moment of naïveté not only be seductive, but could almost pass as something universal: all countries have a civil religion of some kind, one that creates common values and a certain kind of tolerance.  If you are a sports fanatic you might be inclined to say: the British have the game of soccer (or football), one kind of civil religion that creates common values.  But in the light of horrendous soccer hooliganism, soccer might not qualify as a civil religion.  The Indians have cricket, but when it comes to encounters with its former colonial suzerain England, or with its trying neighbor Pakistan, it does not turn out to be such a civil occasion. South Africans have rugby, which has shown its potential to create a certain kind of national reconciliation (tolerance) and common values as the movie Invictus portrays. As art the film fails, yet it manages to dramatize the role of Nelson Mandela and his use of the sport of rugby to create a climate of nation building and co-existence between whites and blacks in South Africa.

This brief reflection will explore and critique the notion of civil religion as it is debated within the United States. I will then turn in a subsequent post to South Africa, where the notion of civil religion is not formally known.  But, I will argue, something analogous to a civil religion exists there, which might be explored for its merits and could serve as a counterpoint to the US experience.

American Civil Religion

American civil religion, as Bellah pointed out, was framed by the crucible of three definitive trials in US history: the War of Independence, slavery, and responsible action in a global atmosphere that fostered revolution, namely, the Cold War. In short, many have argued and observed that Bellah has basically shown that America legitimates itself with a dynamic of sacred and secular myths.

Civil religion, on one hand, links the US to the biblical tradition; on the other hand, the moral and political philosophies of the Enlightenment instill a deeply utilitarian orientation. Civil religion portrays a divine order of things and provides Americans with a sense of worth and direction in relation to ultimate purposes. Utilitarianism provides Americans with proper governmental procedure, legitimates the economic system even in a time of recession, and underwrites the importance of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

All of this has been radically challenged in one manner or another in post-9/11 America. Civil religion has also been tested in the post-November 2008 environment, when the economic collapse precipitated by Wall Street’s reckless casino capitalism began to expose the vulnerability of the American capitalist system. Yet these moments of national shock and setbacks have created an insufficient amount of questioning of the American civil religion project.

Bellah has himself noted that some disturbing developments have occurred in post-9/11 America.  He was especially critical of what he saw as America’s flexing of an imperial posture.  Yet, paradoxically, after 9/11 American civil religion has been updated and supplemented by a further trial, namely, America’s confrontation with Islamic terrorism.

It might be worth reiterating that what Bellah described as American civil religion in the late 1960s was a product of a unique American experience that welded together the rhythms of state and society, which Bellah, as the theologian of that secular/civil/religious moment in 1967, best described.

It is also important to recall that the conception of civil religion in Rousseau that Bellah drew on is similar to ideas favored by Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.  But the civil religion of Rousseau or Franklin was quite different from how Bellah ultimately framed American Civil Religion.  The Rousseauian model emphasized a certain form of deism, but, more importantly, it searched after tolerance.  By contrast, Bellah’s civil religion finds its genealogy in a discourse of alterity; that is, with reference to those things to which America was opposed: British colonialism, slavery, and its Cold War adversaries.

John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson—and the God they invoked—are the two presidents whom Bellah recruits for his model of civil religion, which placed America in a providential orbit. Providential preference tied America to its manifest destiny in the world and sowed the seeds of a messianic future.  At its core, it is a form of idealism or a certain kind of progressivism. If one were to take recourse to Karl Popper, then American civil religion would betray an impoverished kind of historicism, one in which there is no contingency but only certainty, since history’s outcome is already known: America will always win.  Apart from the absence of contingency and unpredictability, there is also a remarkable inability to hear the ‘others,’ whether they are internal minorities or global partners. This inability to hear others still occurs even at a time when the US President is black, smart, and the son of an immigrant father.

This might also be the moment to make a further point.  When the organizers of the American Academy of Religion panel on civil religion described its purpose a year ago, they were fairly optimistic and upbeat about the Obama-era. They wrote wistfully: “the Religious Right’s political capital has subsided and a new White House may take a different direction […].” Did anyone anticipate the rise of the tea-party network, rowdy town-hall meetings, Democratic Party electoral setbacks in the New Jersey and Virginia governors’ races, or that Obama would intensify American military adventures in Afghanistan and beyond?

The larger comment to be made concerns the way the concept of the political is tied to Bellah’s notion of civil religion.  The political, it is widely agreed, is marked by contingency.  To build a normative framework of civil religion around political contingency implies that in order to give it a modicum of stability it has to be retrofitted with the equivalent of a political spine: call it a political theology or a metaphysics.  Everyone might not be in agreement about the kind of political theology or metaphysics at work, but often these are hidden aspects of political life, and only come into question in instances of critique or crisis.  It may well be that at the time when Bellah framed his thesis, the kind of political theology in use went unremarked or was not challenged.  But, in an increasingly diverse and assertively plural America, where multiple political theologies and metaphysical projects compete for attention, this issue might have to be revisited.

For instance, Bellah’s idea of the deity is the God of Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, and Johnson.  These are capacious invocations of the deity, which might in theory sustain a humane ethos.  But why should we not also take seriously the God of George W. Bush?  For George W. Bush’s deity is one of hyper-masculinity, hyper-manifest destiny, and hyper-imperialism—if not apocalypticism—and it remained so even as Bush’s flawed ideological projects seemingly crashed in the sands of Mesopotamia or on the rock-filled hills of the Hindu Kush mountains, drenched in human blood.  In short, the idea of civil religion has strong features as a rallying cry for unity, but it falls short of serving as an instrument of critique.

I say this with the knowledge that in a 2002 essay Bellah bemoaned the “New American Empire.”  But he did so without reviewing or revising some of the crucial assumptions embedded in his idea of American civil religion, a topic to which I will return later.

Bellah explains that he invoked the term civil religion “as a source of opposition” to the Vietnam War.   He believes that his goal was to put American civil religion “in a powerful, ethically charged, narrative perspective.”   Having endured some serious criticisms that portrayed his idea of civil religion as the “worship of the state,” Bellah says he dropped the term altogether.

Perhaps another way of exploring the phenomenon of American civil religion would be to probe it from the perspective of those on the receiving end of the effects of Bellah’s normative paradigm.  If civil religion unites America around a certain set of values and creates tolerance at home, what are its effects on other shores?  The true taste of the civil religion pudding must include how it tastes for those on the receiving end of it.

Was George Bush’s God not the same God who also legitimated Hiroshima, Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the invasion of Granada?  Would one be wrong to draw a straight line from Kennedy to Kandahar, and from Reagan to Ramadi? The results of such a thought experiment will not be very favorable to civil religion’s foreign policy reflexes.

The incoherence or shortfall in the narrative of American civil religion might not be apparent if one uncritically belongs to the two dominant religions marked by the term “Judeo-Christian tradition,” constituted in the American context by mainstream as well as evangelical Christianity, along with a spectrum of Judaisms, especially those tied to Zionism.

But if you are a Spanish-speaking Catholic living in America as a political minority, and the war on drugs affects the well being of your relatives in Colombia, American civil religion becomes a source of anxiety.  Furthermore, it followed from the impetus to protect America that foreign nationals in Latin America were killed as victims of the plots hatched in the School of the Americas in Georgia.  What kind of work does civil religion do when your relatives are subject to punitive sanctions in Cuba? Recall that civil religion fosters certain common values, and that America’s wars are conducted under the sign of its values.

The same set of questions could also be posed about Muslim-Americans.  The harassment and spate of unwarranted arrests of Muslim-Americans after 9/11, and the repatriations and continued monitoring of Americans who have an Islamic heritage are all indications of a state apparatus targeting a particular community.  Of course, it would be premature to pass any judgment on the 2009 arrests that placed some individuals under charges of terrorism, but some observers have raised questions about the cases brought against those accused.  And on the foreign policy front, US military and security involvement in majority Muslim countries is one major source for increased militancy, at home and abroad.

To be fair, Bellah’s essay on “Civil Religion in America” does envisage what he calls “some kind of viable and coherent world order.” In his words, he longs for “the emergence of a genuine transnational sovereignty” that would infuse a “vital international symbolism into our civil religion […] American civil religion becoming simply one part of a new civil religion of the world.”  He sounds like an incorrigible internationalist when he proclaims that “a world civil religion could be accepted as a fulfillment not a denial of American civil religion.”

There is no doubt that Bellah was also deeply disturbed by what he saw as the new American empire emerging after 9/11.  In his 2002 essay he eloquently petitions for an international police force, a network of treaties and also calls for a reconsideration of how American national interests are defined.  He rightfully predicted that America’s post 9/11 standing in the world, in his words, “will mobilize most of the world against us.”

But Bellah still thinks of American civil religion as a benign form of social cement.  After nearly four decades since he floated his theory, Bellah neither revisited nor recanted some of the fundamental building blocks of his 1967 essay. Despite recognizing the place of manifest destiny in American civil religion, he does not factor into his analytic how such deeply held sentiments, if not civil theologies, can morph into forms of toxic nationalism and, ultimately, into the very “arrogance of power” that he decries.  In other words, Bellah does not recognize that American civil religion is part of the problem and not part of the solution.  For in many ways it is a form of nationalism coated with a no-name brand theology. And the theory contains very little by way of the restraint needed to play the role of a critical civil religion.  At times of crisis most American theologies, because caught in the web of national jingoism, are ineffective in protest and policy. Far from playing the role of a deterrent of moral excess, they specialize in conducting post-mortems of what went wrong.

Take, for example, the case of American Muslims. Many American Muslim organizations before 9/11 were deeply invested in the American dream.  These were largely immigrant Muslim communities, who were prepared to purchase into the mythic qualities of American civil religion.  But they were oblivious to the struggles of other Muslim Americans, especially African-American Muslims, who had seen only the underside of American civil religion.  Many African-American Muslims experienced both the civil rights movement and Jim Crow, and African-American Islamic religiosity differs fundamentally with that of their immigrant co-religionists.  In other words, race and racial experience were critical differences in the appreciation of civil religion.  Those who had longer memories of America were skeptical about the healing powers of civil religion, whereas those who were recent arrivals saw the glitter of the melting pot.  But as all Muslims became suspect in the post-9/11 hysteria, many Muslim immigrants to the US realized that civil religion was marked by both race and creed: you had to be Christian and white to be counted among those people who automatically have a God; others must prove to the rest that they have a God and, moreover, make sure that their God resembles the Christian God.

President George W. Bush’s visit to a Washington DC mosque and the distinctions he made between good Muslims and bad Muslims did not efface the stain in the minds of many.  After 9/11 many Muslims in the US realized for the first time that the civil religion they aspired to partake of was represented by a white God; they were thus left to seek shelter in a black God and in the embrace, in a few cases, of a ‘Left’ God. Otherwise they were on their own, despite a good number of palliative voices calling for calm.

Clearly President Obama is doing a great deal to rehabilitate the image of Islam and Muslims nationally and internationally, from his inaugural address to his Cairo speech.  But his legacy will be judged by what he does in Afghanistan and Iraq: talk is not always cheap; it can also come at a price. And, ultimately, it is bombs and bullets that take the lives of people.

Read the second part of this essay here.—ed.