The notion of the Greeks, in pretending to trace
their own gods among those of the Barbarian nations,
took its rise evidently from the ambition of being
thought the natural Sovereigns of those People.

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Political Religion”


Once he was elected President, the candidate of hope, Barack Hussein Obama, sought to dispel the messianic expectations placed on him by his followers at home and abroad—an attempt at hope management that had mixed results. Among scholars, however, his election has clearly carried with it the power to resurrect a scholarly category that some had declared well and truly dead, namely, civil religion. In the heady weeks after his election, which occurred just the day after the American Academy of Religion meetings closed in a Chicago that had been awash in pre-election social sentiments of anticipatory pleasure and dread, the North American Religions Group and the Religion and Politics Group of the AAR decided to hold a panel on “Revisiting Civil Religion” at the 2009 meetings in Montreal.

Montreal was a particularly appropriate site for such a return. A civic polity not part of the United States, shaped by both the political traditions of Rousseau and the Roman Catholic Church, its very foreignness forced the US-based panelists to catch themselves when using what David Kyuman Kim called the “register of the collective ‘we’.” At the same time, Quebec’s own conflicted history of “civil religion,” rooted in profound contests over sovereignty, was a reminder of how civic identity is premised, at least in part, on the violence of imperial conquest—in this case, the French subjugation of the Mohawk, Cree, and other First Nations, and in turn that of the French by the English. These legacies of conquest still haunt any possibility of civic covenant in North America, and probably always will.

Civil religion, in its 1967 revision by Robert Bellah, was a powerful discourse brewed from a mix of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s argument for rooting the authority of the state in the social contract and what Bellah argued were some of the most testing trials of US history: the war against the British monarch for independence; the violent struggle to abolish slavery’s legitimating conceit that one human being could own another; and the simmering, as well as boiling, conflicts over the global influence of capitalism vs. that of communism, as Americans were faced with, in Bellah’s words, the “problem of responsible action in a revolutionary world.” Bellah argued that US civil religion—as the symbols, rituals, and beliefs of the nation-state expressed outside of the parameters of organized religious institutions—was in sore decline. At the same time, he pleaded for a “world civil religion” that could establish a “genuine transnational sovereignty” in the United Nations or a similar, globally legitimated institution, and which would draw on religious traditions beyond “the sphere of biblical religion alone.” All of Bellah’s trials, rooted as they were in the spilling of blood in the service of three very particular forms of freedom, were also trials of sovereignty—of where the power to govern others was to be located, and on what grounds it could be claimed and preserved.

For Rousseau, such sovereignty was best rooted in three bases: “the sacred nature of the social contract, and of the laws,” the existence of a “powerful, intelligent, beneficent, prescient, and provident Divinity,” and the cultivation of “sentiments due to a society” that would make for both “good citizens” and “faithful subjects” engaged in the “passion of being-together.” Any kind of religious intolerance was anathema to civil religion for Rousseau, who largely—but not entirely—saw such intolerance coming from Christian sources: “But whosoever should presume to say: There is no salvation out of the pale of our church, ought to be banished [from] the State, unless indeed the State be an ecclesiastical one, and the prince a pontiff.” Drawing a genealogy of civil religion that traced the path of sovereignty through Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim examples, Rousseau clearly wanted to banish most Christian versions of “political religion” from his ideal, without entirely letting go of the power of the Christian-inflected deity.

Drawing more from Bellah and Max Weber than from Rousseau, Philip Gorski is engaged in a new project to revivify civil religion, in which he distinguishes among three types of American traditions for imagining the relations between religion and politics: civil religion, religious nationalism, and secular rationalism. Since he clarifies them himself in his own post, I won’t do so here. Gorski frankly states that his project is aspirational—in fact, normative. He sees civil religion as the best way forward, against the spectre of violence and intolerance in religious nationalism and the impractical myopia of the secular rationalists. Civil religion makes space for both overlap and independence of the religious and the political, argues Gorski, an overlap that then allows for an effective balance of pluralism and solidarity. Gorski, with Barack Obama as his most eloquent spokesperson, argues for American civil religion as a mode of civic engagement that can overcome—or perhaps avoid—conflicts over first principles, or the specificities of theological convictions, by way of a shared commitment to justice, liberty, and democracy.

David Kyuman Kim, by contrast, puts Obama’s speeches to a very different end in his call for the “mourning” of American exceptionalism and the cultivation of an “elegiac temperament.” For Kim, Obama’s eloquence risks reinscribing the ideology of American imperialism, albeit in a friendlier guise. He argues that the myth of American exceptionalism underwrites Obama’s pledge that America’s “beacon” still burns bright enough to defeat its enemies, but that this is an exhausted exceptionalism that must be mourned with what he hopes is the death of American imperialism. At the same time, Kim, with Abraham Lincoln as his inspiration, hopes for an America that will be, in the future, a more perfect union.

Approaching civil religion neither from Gorski’s normative framework nor from Kim’s elegiac hope, David Morgan, in his argument about the material culture and embodied sensations of civil religion, demonstrates why scholars need more methodological reflexivity in their use of political speeches as data for their arguments for or against civil religion. Exploring the “social sentiments” of civil religion and the aesthetics of its performance, Morgan argues, would show how the “social body” imagines the nation in idealizations of the past and the future. In a similarly decentering approach, Ebrahim Moosa argues for a comparative approach to gauge both the utility and problems of the concept of civil religion. Moosa is less optimistic than Kim that such a “future perfect” can be achieved without a more profound break from what Kim describes, following Bellah, as the “pieties” of civil religion. For Moosa, “American civil religion is part of the problem, and not part of the solution.” In a world where yet another war, or set of wars, is being waged with American civil religion as one of its fundaments, the “mourning” of civil religion is perhaps premature. Revisiting civil religion, then, requires examining when and for whom it works as an aspirational project.

How different, then, are Canadians and Americans invested in the notion of civil religion from the Greeks, who rediscovered their gods in the barbarians only to assert their natural sovereignty over them? Rousseau came to this insight, of course, at the same time that the French and the British were making their own fantasies of sovereignty into reality, in the Thirteen Colonies, New France, and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Whether Roman Catholicism, varieties of Protestantism, or capitalist expansion (or, in complicated ways, all three) undergirded their projects, the British and French clearly leaned on economies of transcendence to achieve the displacement and destruction of Native peoples.

A few minutes after chairing the lively AAR panel on revisiting civil religion, I moved to another room in the Montreal Convention Centre to chair a very different session, entitled “Our Home and Native Land: Colonial Encounters and the History of Religion, Spirituality, and the Secular.” This panel, convened together with my AAR colleagues Ebrahim Moosa and Lou Ruprecht, gave me a remarkably divergent perspective on the question—or even the possibility—of civil religion. Bringing together scholars of colonialism and Native American traditions in the Americas—Nelson Maldonado-Torres and Ines Talamantez—with the documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin and the poet and literary critic George Elliott Clarke, the panel clearly and painfully articulated the violent effects of fantasies of sovereignty. The panelists showed that whether at the level of language imposition, scholarly categorization, or the continued battles over fishing rights and “land claims” in Canadian and US courts of law, sovereignty is still actively contested in North America. George Elliott Clarke’s reading of his poem “The Gospel of X” was a virtuoso performance of the possibilities of transforming what counts as “civility” or even “religion” in a vivid play with language. Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Ines Talamantez, and Alanis Obomsawin all demonstrated, in different ways, how colonial languages have been one of the primary tools for the enactment of colonial sovereignty. Obomsawin, in her more than forty years as a filmmaker with the National Film Board of Canada, has used imagery and conversation to both depict and challenge the contested, and far from natural, construction of sovereignty in Canada, in both religious and political registers. In a conversation after the panel, I asked Obomsawin what she considered to be the path forward, if not to a future perfect, then at least to a future. Her reply: “to listen.”

As an aspirational project with such deeply colonial convictions of political power, can civil religion really function as a critical tool for the scholar of religion? So clearly indebted to a Christian political theology of covenant (informed in various ways by older and more recent traditions of Jewish thought) that has been premised on the violent destruction of other lifeways, most notably those of Native Americans, can civil religion be a category that describes anything more than sovereignty premised on a powerful Deity that is not always beneficent? In North America more broadly, the culture of the law—and its rule—is premised on a displacement of indigenous traditions of social and legal organization, a fact that is still being challenged by First Nations peoples in courts of law, as well as through both activism and the revitalization of indigenous models of justice. That the Christian-inflected culture of law has played a large role in constructing the category of religion itself, and forcing First Nations people to make themselves “religious,” suggests that the construct of civil religion is problematic for its claims of both civility and religion.

There is nothing natural about the sovereignty of US or Canadian law, which is not to say that these systems will disappear any time soon. There is much about these legal systems that is worth protecting, perhaps even through their transformation. The sovereignty of the United States and Canada is aspirational, and premised on initial acts of violence that must be remembered. To work towards the always out of reach goal of future perfection will necessitate a full re-encounter with the visions of sovereignty of the First Nations traditions that U.S. and Canadian political theologies attempted, unsuccessfully, to eradicate. Within our community of scholars, as a starting point, this will take the kind of listening that we are only slowly learning to do.