It is interesting to revisit civil religion discourse in the context of a new time and its discontents, and the consequent rethinking of the theme. Three of the four posts in this discussion (Gorski, Moosa, Morgan) address the civic-religious complex in terms of Robert Bellah’s well-known concept of civil religion. The fourth (Kim) does not, but invokes Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson in ways that echo some of the dialogue of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Bellah thesis was fresh and new. Given this general ambiance, I would like to situate these rich and evocative posts by reviewing what, in that time, was called the civil religion debate.
Robert Bellah catalyzed that debate in terms of his compelling act of naming—his talk of civil religion. But as the debate over the concept grew between 1967—the date of Bellah’s famous Daedalus essay “Civil Religion in America”—and the 1970s, a number of things became clear:
1) Bellah’s term of choice came trailing an ambiguous past and legacy, dating from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract, with its chapter “Of Civil Religion.”
2) Other American voices had noticed some things about collective American history and public identity that seemed to bear a family resemblance to what Bellah was talking about. Of these, the two most salient expressions became those of Sidney Mead, the historian-turned-public-theologian, with his concept of the “Religion of the Republic,” and of Will Herberg, the sociologist-turned-moralist, with his “American Way of Life.”
Given this background, a discourse developed that was clearly moral in nature, but which, as in David Kim’s notion of the exhaustion of a myth, finally exhausted itself—not in poetry and elegy but in the failure, after a time, to produce anything new. The civil religion proposal collapsed into more circumspect observations about a waxing and waning public religion (cf. John Wilson). And it collapsed because the moral stances that were part of the discourse, once stated and argued, did not achieve sufficient ballast to catapult the debate into new knowledge and a clear agenda for action.
Briefly, Mead’s “Religion of the Republic” argued for an ideal and transcendent form of the nation—incarnated perhaps only once, in Abraham Lincoln. (In this light, it is surely interesting that Kim’s essay turns again to Lincoln—something that Mark Noll, on the evangelical Right, also does.) Meanwhile, Herberg’s “American Way of Life” offered a counterproposal of sorts. The “American Way of Life” was a meta-folk religion encompassing not only government but also, and especially, collective mores that included strong sanitation practices and a fondness for Coca-Cola. It earned from Herberg emphatic condemnation for its idolatry, and it prompted a call for return to the worship of the true Judeo-Christian God. Finally, Bellah’s ringing proclamation of civil religion celebrated a glorious past of Puritan covenant and eighteenth-century Enlightenment, both of which had been critically challenged and stood in danger of being undone in America’s “third time of trial,” the Vietnam War.
So, civil religion was good and to be praised (Mead); evil and to be condemned (Herberg); or once good, now evil, and thus in need of redemption and reform (Bellah). In the background hovered the forefather of the conversation, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with his original formulation that contrasted the religion of the state with the religion of Christianity. It was Rousseau who exposed in the process the twin brutality and necessity of a religious nationalism that demanded the citizen’s sacrifice, even the death of the self, on the altar of a nation’s wars. Rousseau’s civil religion offered such sacrifice by feeding lives to the state.
In this context, what resemblance is there between past and present civil religion discourse? Given this past discourse and its winding down, how do we explain the new interest at present in the civil religion proposal? How does the present discourse avoid the pitfalls of the past and take us to some place genuinely new?
It is clear that the present discourse, as the earlier one, is moral (or ethical) in nature. Moreover, two of the posts (Kim, Morgan) invoke myth in ways that echo Bellah. Two eschew religious nationalism explicitly (Gorski, Morgan), and two others surely imply non-acceptance of it (Kim, Moosa). Two posts turn to a past and, their authors hope, continuing tradition of rational discourse as the way to resolve the dilemmas of the present (Gorski, Moosa, with his South African comparison). Two make a cultural turn to aesthetics, thus seeing the ethical—which is about values and valuing—as an entrée into a register that conflates goodness with, in the broad sense, harmony and beauty (Kim, Morgan).
Significantly, given the Judeo-Christian character of most of the discourse from the past, all four of these posts seek to position civil religion outside an explicitly Jewish-Christian framework. As a historian, I cannot help noting this in light of the changed and still changing social reality of the American populace. Ours is a nation in which strong pluralism is a fact and is also the increasingly fertile ground for a rising new mythos of the American nation. In the emerging mythos, arguably, the traditional Christianity of the Puritans and the Enlightenment ideology of the American Revolution are being folded into a new and different vision, perhaps signaled (as some of the posts note) by the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency. Here, I believe, lies the beginning of an explanation for the revisitation of the civil religion proposal by these authors in our time.
So what, then, can be said about the emerging renewed civil religion proposal and the clues that these posts give us about it?
1) The old outlines are still there—good and to be praised, if we distinguish between left and right or reason and unreason (Gorski); bad and to be condemned, if we make the same distinctions (Moosa); once good (well, maybe), but now manifestly in need of redemption through reason, elegiac processes, good Emersonianism, and a better imaginary and consequent practice (Kim, Morgan).
2) The present discussion is more chastened and circumspect, more complex and nuanced, more tentative than that of the past. Indeed, it is readier to release that past (pace Kim’s elegiac temperament) than the earlier debate ever was. That debate centered on return; this one turns on finding a way into a new imaginary that recoups some of the past—the most valued parts—in order to advance it to a new place and time.
3) The introduction of an aesthetic dimension, along with its invocations of an American imaginary, provides a new jumping-off point for discourse. There is a sense, perhaps, of Adamic newness here, even in hard times; of a felt confidence in the human ability to re-create and co-create into a future that we shape to our liking and that might bring us some joy.
Finally, let me close with an anecdote that I hold near and dear. A long time ago, in my last year in graduate school at the University of Chicago, we students held a conference on American religion, and Jonathan Z. Smith was a featured speaker. “How do you dream America?” he challenged us. The posts here presented are important beginning points for answering that question—a question that, at least in my imaginary, has echoed down through all these years.