Like many Americans during this long weekend, I enjoyed a fireworks show on the evening of July 4th– in my case, this was in the Adirondacks in the company of my girlfriend. Hundreds of people gathered at the lakeside as colourful firecrackers pierced across the night sky. This particular year’s celebration was augmented by some music. Celine Dion’s “God Bless America” and Lee Greenwood’s famous anthem, “God Bless the U.S.A.” were played, but these perennial tracks are to be expected. The playlist continued on, including Neil Diamond’s “America,” a patriotic Elvis medley that puzzlingly included a verse of “Dixie”, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” (nobody was paying close enough attention to the lyrics). Even Toby Keith’s troubling “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” received airtime. It was the final song in the program that grabbed my attention: “Amazing Grace.” At first glance, this may seem to be a strange choice for a patriotic celebration. Yet, its inclusion in a fireworks show is a poignant reminder of the endurance of civil religion in America.
Civil religion refers to the conflation of civic life– and in particular, American civic life– with religious practices. Often this takes place in ways that confer or assume divine blessing onto America. It manifests itself when the president solemnly intones “God bless America” at the end of each speech, when public prayer is invoked at a presidential inaugural, the Olympian qualities we assign to the Founding Fathers, or the display of the Union Jack in an Anglican church. It even takes place when we sing “America the Beautiful” during Sunday services near the 4th of July.
I am, of course, not the first to observe these tendencies. The renowned sociologist Robert A. Bellah brought an understanding of civil religion into the academic mainstream in a 1965 article in the Daedalus journal. In this article, Bellah noted how presidents have invoked religious practices and religious forms when addressing the public. This took place when presidents called for national days of prayer and fasting, or for celebrations of thanksgiving, or even in the priestly, reassuring qualities Lincoln invoked in his Gettysburg address. But the practice of civil religion reached new heights during the Cold War. The need to present Americans as a religious people was especially necessary to juxtapose against the atheism of the Soviet Bloc. During this time, as many recall, the phrase “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and for a time, many students recited a nondenominational prayer in schools approved by a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a Jewish rabbi. These prayers, and the “god” they invoked were vague and designed to promote consensus. (And, indeed, this god is so vague and amorphous that it doesn’t warrant a capital “G.”)
Two presidents, in particular, took this practice to new heights in the postwar world, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Eisenhower inaugurated the practice of the prayer breakfast, where sundry leaders could invoke god’s blessing upon the nation. A close friend of Billy Graham and a grandfatherly figure to the nation, Ike skillfully infused the presidency with distinctly sacerdotal qualities. Eisenhower captured the essence of this public religion in saying, “our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, I don’t care what it is.”
During Nixon’s administration, this was ratcheted up several notches, and in especially partisan ways. Nixon regularly held church ceremonies in the White House. These were not efforts on the part of Nixon to improve his moral life (and if such services were, they were roundly unsuccessful.) He limited the selection of ministers to those who held a favorable view of his presidency, and the sermons invariably did not challenge or push the president in new directions consonant with Judeo-Christian ideals of justice.
Other events during the Nixon administration bear this out. He appeared at a Billy Graham rally in Tennessee in 1970 immediately before Election Day with William Brock, the Republican candidate for a Senate seat. Brock narrowly won the seat from the incumbent, Albert Gore Sr. On other occasions, Nixon sent congratulatory messages to Bill Bright’s Christian youth festival Explo ’72 in Dallas, and held Honor America Day with Graham and the publisher of Reader’s Digest, a patriotic event that became almost a religious service for the United States– and a surrogate Nixon rally. Throughout his five and a half years as president, Nixon grew adept at harnessing religious forms and functions for his own political benefit.
Ultimately, this constituted a dangerous blurring of lines. The trouble with civil religion is less in how it compromises politics, but rather in how it compromises the practice of religion. Whatever practical uses civil religion may have in forging consensus, it is not Christianity proper. It is too poorly defined, too bound to American nationhood and destiny–and this is where it takes on a character most contrary to the gospels– it is conspicuously public. Even for those of us who do not profess a religious faith, these features of American civil life can seem rather close to blasphemy. (It is a pity that we have ceded this word to the fundamentalists.) Civil religion assumes a close tie between the American nation to God, a stance encouraged by several decades of misreading the Bible’s prophetic books. Ultimately, it makes it more difficult for the citizen to make a distinction between an appreciation for one’s country and the worship of one’s God.
Civil religion has not been without its critics. Skeptics were especially prevalent during the Vietnam War, when support for the conflict often took on religious overtones and reverence for the flag assumed religious qualities as the backlash against the counterculture developed. While protests against institutional racism and the Vietnam War drew more conspicuous dissent, many veterans of these struggles also spoke out against the practice of civil religion. The postwar class of New Evangelicals that came into their own in the early 1970s–John Howard Yoder, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, Clark Pinnock, and many others–forsook the implicit and often uncritical patriotism of Billy Graham and the neo-evangelicals of the 1950s. In the vein of Amos and Hosea, they starkly reminded American leaders and their fellow evangelicals about the nation’s unfulfilled obligations to the poor, and railed against its aggressive foreign policy. Senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, for years the paragon of the Christian in politics, concurred with their stance on civil religion. “Civil religion,” he warned, “distorts the relationship between the state and our faith. It tends to enshrine…national righteousness while failing to speak of repentance, salvation, and God’s standard of justice.” Put differently, civil religion is priestly– in that it comforts the afflicted, but it is not prophetic– in that it does not afflict the comfortable.
Just as Rhode Island is neither a road nor an island, civil religion, then, is neither religious nor civil. Perhaps on the next July 4th, we should heed the words of another opponent of civil religion, former Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin: “There are three kinds of patriots: two bad, one good. The bad are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.”