In the recent posts on civil religion, I see two related issues. First, scholars ask, what is it? Second, they ask, how do we judge its value? Three alternatives emerge: in one, civil religion is alive but needs revivification; in a second, it is alive but essentially destructive; and in a third, it is dying and we should mourn its demise, rather than succumb to the melancholy that seeks its resurrection.
Philip Gorski argues for revivification by using categorization: he saves the idea of civil religion by distinguishing it from “religious nationalism” and from “radical secularism,” as if civil religion were the “mean” between them. While “religious nationalism” links nation to “blood” and produces “excessive” unity, and while “radical secularism” is invested only in individual autonomy and produces “excessive fragmentation,” the “balance” between “solidarity and pluralism” can be sustained by “civil religion,” defined as a “mode of civic engagement” centered on the idea of covenant. In a parallel formulation he says: “liberal secularists believe that religious and political spheres should be radically separated; religious nationalists believe that they should be tightly integrated; and civil religionists believe that they should be overlapping but interdependent.” Similar moves characterize arguments claiming to distinguish “civic” from “ethnic” forms of nationalism, or claiming to distinguish properly “liberal” from “ascriptive” languages in the American political tradition, as if these were really separate strands in reality, and not artifacts of definition.
While there may be some truth in such categorizations, we need to see them for what they are: efforts to salvage a concept or practice from contamination by intellectual surgery, which separates out the violence or domination historically associated with it. As Bellah himself readily acknowledged about Vietnam, and as Pamela Klassen argues in her essay on native peoples, the American language of civil religion is inseparable from expansionism, racialized domination, and state violence; though some have indeed invoked elements of civil religion to oppose those practices, such critics were and remain marginal(ized). Speaking from the point of view of indigenous peoples, Klassen thus shows that the language of covenant and law—civil religion rightly understood, in Gorski’s view—has been and remains linked to state violence. His effort to save the concept by academic redefinition, then, repeats the ongoing disavowal that violence underwrites civil religion—or covenant and law—for others.
In earlier posts, I argued that Obama does speak the language of civil religion, in the senses that Bellah imagined and that Gorski endorses. But the example of Obama thus proves how this language cannot be saved from its history or sanitized by categorical fiat; for we should recognize that he speaks this language as the chief executive officer of the national security state. He does not literally claim that the United States is god’s chosen people, mandated to impose freedom on other parts of the world, but he insists that our power rests ultimately on our character and ideals, that we have never sought to dominate others, and that we have made mere “mistakes” of judgment (neither faults of intention nor criminal acts) in our exercise of state violence. He seems like a “realist,” rather than a “Wilsonian,” in foreign policy, unlike his predecessor, but under conditions when the United States is at once a nation and an imperial power, these categories cannot readily be separated in political and rhetorical practice, just as we cannot sever civil religion from its association with both nationalism and violence.
I do not see civil religion as a dying discourse, therefore, but as a hegemonic language, replenished precisely as the reality of American power erodes under the impact of globalization. The United States is an empire in decline, as well as a nation under enormous economic duress, and civil religion remains the language by which people here struggle to engage and make sense of those circumstances. The very decline of American power will intensify attachment to the language and symbols typically associated with civil religion, and politicians will feel incredible pressure to invoke it, because they strategically seek electoral legitimacy, and because they themselves are deeply invested in, gripped by, an “American” political identification. The only alternative is that Americans mourn their investment in empire—i.e., in being god’s chosen nation and the “world’s greatest superpower”—to confront and accept the loss of a beloved identity and worldly power. Then, perhaps, a melancholy and compensatory attachment to the language of civil religion can recede. The political challenge, therefore, is to find ways to avow (rather than deny) a complex history of economic predominance and state violence, but also our relative economic decline, and the impossibility of exercising unilateral and worldwide military power. We need to re-present, or re-conceive, these losses as an opportunity to make them into conditions of democratic possibility. That would mean admitting, at long last, that we are the United States, not “America,” one profane nation among others, called neither to an exemplary nor to a coercive supremacy.
As David Kim argued, the closest an elected American leader came to this perspective is Lincoln, who called the United States god’s “almost chosen,” and who insisted that neither North nor South—and so not the re-unified nation either—could claim god’s sanction. This is the spirit of humility that Bellah sought to foreground in his version of civil religion, and it is this spirit that some see in Obama today, particularly because he has seen the national frame from the outside and from below. But the greatest native version of this perspective remains the prophetic, which de-centers the valuation of any nation as a form of idolatry, and which advances a critical perspective on its injustice by avowing identification with those it casts out or renders invisible.
Therefore, rather than imagine a civic nationalism or covenantal civil religion that we can save from a long history of violence in its name, let us instead ask what the investment in nation means if we see it as the idolatry it is. If we take seriously Bellah’s association of civil religion with covenant, and if the meaning of covenant is to live by promises rather than coercion, then surely democracy is the value “behind” or “in” the national(ist) form of civil religion. No doubt, “democracy” is a discourse authorizing American nationalism and state power, so creedal assertion does not assure any particular (e.g., egalitarian or non-violent) political outcome; and indeed, as Talal Asad argues, “democracy” as a discourse has historically justified state violence. But as Asad also argues, we need to see religion less as creedal assertion and more as embedded, embodied practice. In just these terms, in turn, David Morgan’s post redefines “civil religion,” not as a set of beliefs, but as a body of practices that convene people and conjure their aspirations toward a future. While Morgan holds onto the national frame, and repeats the futile effort to distinguish a “civic patriotism” from its dark double, his turn toward practices is incredibly important as a way to think what “religion” means if we put the focus on democracy, rather than nationality.
Morgan focuses on the speech-acts by which political collectivity is imagined, summoned, gathered, called to commitment and action. He does not replace the nation, but he does imagine a non-theist civic religion, in which speech-acts replace (the idea of) god with (the idea of) the future, and so with the gap between present experience and ideals, between aspirations and their realization. Morgan thus imagines what he calls a “horizontal” transcendence in temporal terms of a not-yet, and I would add to that an imagined relationship with the dis-remembered, in the present and not only the past—another site of a horizontal “transcendence” that breaks through what is exclusionary in the consensus of “the people” as it now constitutes itself. If we imagine democracy, not as creedal doctrine, but as liturgical practices embedded in ordinary life, then perhaps we can salvage something of value from the nationalist (and religious) traditions braided by the discourse of civil religion. To truly listen to those the enfranchised have cast out as others, to hear their experience of the conduct of the enfranchised and their sense of their own needs, and to debate what that testimony means about how security and identity are conceived, is to begin to rebuild a democratic life in which “the people,” or political community, is reconstituted. That life has creedal elements, to be sure, but politics is a relation to people, not principles, and is thus a relation that requires listening as well as claim-making and conflict. My thought, then, is to shift from seeking to define a benign civil religion focused on state sovereignty in national form, as if democracy is thereby housed or engendered, to exploring “democracy” directly in popular and local, but also electoral practices. We should ask what practices constitute this form of life, and should identify the dispositions, capacities, and commitments we must try to engender if we are to sustain it. Such questions by no means require a localist answer, and indeed will generate arguments in favor of state power, as well as deep conflict over competing claims to represent both “the people” and a democratic faith.