|In Praise of “Civil Religion”
“Civil Religion” has a bad name. Even Robert Bellah, who popularized the term in 1967, no longer uses it because it has come to connote right-wing desires to fuse church and state as in the case of one proposed Constitutional amendment, meant to recognize the “sovereignty of Christ.”
But religion is often understood, at least in part, as the search for transcendent meanings. Surely we citizens have the right, indeed the obligation, to place the workings of our governments and the life of our nation — indeed, all nations — in the context of the transcendent. What does our life as a nation, as a society, as the human race, mean?
The Declaration of Independence is full of theological intimations. Even that entirely secular document, the US Constitution, is based on religious assumptions arising from the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Our best leaders articulate a wholesome vision of who we are as a people, and how to place the events of the day into a larger pattern of history that makes transcendent sense. In so doing, they — and we — give voice to Civil Religion.
Thus, in his “Second Inaugural Address,” Abraham Lincoln describes the unexpected magnitude of the horrors of the Civil War and reverently places them in the context of a Power that moves in history toward justice. He speaks without self-righteousness. He urges reconciliation.
Martin Luther King Jr and many other American leaders have written and spoken in this tradition, growing out of, and beyond, a sense of chosenness, covenant, and millennial expectations.
Holidays like Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving should function as bearers of transcendent meaning for us as a diverse people, just as Yom Kippur, Christmas, Ramadan, Holi, and the solstices recall the sacred as disclosed within specific traditions.
Ceding to extremists the right to ponder questions about, and to celebrate, the meaning of our national life is like vacating citizenship. We become isolated individuals without a sense of participating with each other in honoring the meaning of America. Abandoning civil religion because it is misused is like a Christian despising his own faith because some in its name are sexist, racist, or homophobic.
We need to recover a sense of respectful public life beyond partisan
divisions and special interests. Instead of disdaining Civil Religion,
we should seek to articulate it as a religion of mutual responsibility
and joyous pluralism.
To embrace the Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, we reprint a naturalization ceremony address from November 18, 1988. Scholars have called the use of religious categories to interpret public life “civil religion” and “the religion of the Republic.”
New citizens of the United States, Judge Saffels, members of the bar, and guests:
Last week I sat in another court, with my eight-year old son, Benjamin. It was very impressive: the Supreme Court of the United States of America, in session. I pointed out to my son the first black justice and first woman justice in US history, so someday he can tell his children he saw this historic court.
As I sat watching, I thought of being here today, in this court, with you and this day which is so historic in your personal life history. This is also very impressive: you have chosen to become citizens of the United States of America. So I want to say three things about citizenship for your consideration. I thought a great deal about these things as I showed my son the monuments and museums of our nation’s capital, in his first visit to Washington, DC. My thoughts are about loyalty, freedom, and greatness.
The first thought is about loyalty. It is obvious as you swear fealty to the United States that your national loyalty is first and foremost to this country, to its laws, its people, and its future. But citizenship is not just obeying laws. It is also a sense of ownership. You now have the right to call this country yours.
As I took my son through the many buildings of the Smithsonian Museum, and I thought at the same time of standing here before you, I sensed pride at our achievements, so well displayed at the Air and Space Museum, Benjamin's favorite. As citizens, we own our nation’s accomplishments. But the National Gallery, the new Oriental and African art museums, and even the museum of American history made something else clear: being a US citizen means also being a world citizen. You still own important memories and traditions of your native land which no one wants you to discard, because they can enrich the meaning of America as you contribute them to the community. America’s greatness lies in part in the innovation from immigrants who brought their backgrounds, talents, and skills to these shores. After all, except for the Native Americans, we are all immigrants or children of immigrants.
This became very clear earlier this month, when for the first time in American history, representatives of twelve religions gathered in mutual recognition, of all places, here in Kansas. American Indians, Bahá’ís, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Shintoists, Sikhs, Unitarian Universalists, Zoroastrians and others met and celebrated their diversity as part of the fabric of this continent. The last such gathering was in 1893, as part of the Chicago world’s fair; but then the distinguished representatives had to be imported for the occasion. Now they are here all the time: they are American, and our nation is richer for them.
American loyalty means, to emphasize, not just obedience to US laws, but a sense of ownership of this nation's heritage while maintaining reverence for the traditions of one's native land that you choose to continue to honor.
These days, loyalty also means planetary citizenship. The stock market crash last year demonstrated the global interconnectedness of the financial centers of the world. Here in the American heartland, we send grain around the world, and purchase imported products of all sorts. But planetary citizenship is not merely economic interdependence. It is the recognition that our fate as a nation depends on the well-being of all other nations. The horrible side of this reality is that we cannot be protected from nuclear war anywhere in the world, that the depletion of the atmospheric ozone affects all nations — our ecological unity. The blessed side of this reality is that, with vastly increased communications, the possibility exists for us to come to understand each other, and enjoy each other, as we work together for a healed planet.
The loyalty you pledge to the United States of America is also an ownership of your own special past, a door open to full planetary participation.
The second idea I want to discuss is freedom.
Of all the structures in Washington, I love none more than the Jefferson
Memorial. Perhaps it is because I work in the field of religion, I
especially prize Thomas Jefferson’s careful appreciation for the distinct
roles of religion and government. On one hand, the view that “the God who
gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” means that our freedoms
are not granted by the government, but by the very order of nature; that
governments are instituted merely to secure these freedoms. On the other
hand, Jefferson, in promoting the separation of church and state, remarked
that it does him no harm whether his neighbor believes in no god or twenty:
It neither robs my pocket nor breaks my leg, he said. Most odious to him
was the custom of the state, through taxation, supporting churches that
individual citizens did not support.
This brings me to the third idea, American greatness.
Now Americans can be very petty. The last presidential campaign makes this
painfully clear. Nonetheless, at times a special capacity moves us
above the conflicts and divisions of the day into a remarkable
breath of acceptance and understanding — beyond self-righteousness into
mutual focus and compassion.
So this week, as I enjoy the company of this court,
and welcome you to citizenship today, I offer the ideas of loyalty, freedom,
and greatness, and pray that your participation in the ongoing life of
this nation may be blessed, as the nation may be blessed by your citizenship.
I took my son to Washington to see the monuments, to learn in a new way
what it means for him to be an American. Yet I also told him that the greatest
monuments of America are not the memorials in Washington, as inspiring
as they are: the truest memorials, calling us to service and generosity,
are America's loyal and free and great citizens such as you and I and all
of us may strive to be.