Losing Our Civil Religion

By John D. Carlson | September 26, 2017

(Getty/Doug Mills) President Trump arrives on the platform for inauguration.

President Trump’s unbridled rhetorical rampage since taking office has stripped the presidency of its moral ambition and authority. He has exacerbated various divisions fraying the country while eroding the shared heritage and vision needed to restore unity and move the country forward—a pattern exhibited in his weekend condemnation of National Football League players and owners. While the president has attacked numerous institutions, one vital democratic tradition in particular has suffered gravely under his administration and stands in need of urgent repair and renewal. While not spelled out in the Constitution, this institution is as important as those that are. This tradition is what unites Americans in a common moral and political enterprise despite their many regional, political, racial, ethnic, and other differences. This year marks fiftieth anniversary of sociologist Robert Bellah’s seminal essay “Civil Religion in America.” The civil religion Bellah first extolled there and engaged throughout his career is needed now more than ever to unify a divided citizenry at home and to restore American leadership in the world.

What is American civil religion? Simply put, it is the moral backbone of our body politic. It is the collective effort to understand the American experience of self-government in light of higher truths and through reference to a shared heritage of beliefs, stories, ideas, symbols, and events. For a country of immigrants and diverse peoples—where national identity is based not upon ethnic or tribal belonging or cultural homogeneity—civil religion provides a shared basis for citizenship. E pluribus unum as the national motto goes. Like traditional religions, it binds people together. Yet this common faith—others have called it a “public moral philosophy”—is decidedly non-sectarian. Civil religion offers a moral vocabulary, not a theology. It blends Hebraic and Christian notions of calling, piety, and accountability with republican ideas of virtue, self-government, and natural rights. It is one part Jeremiah, one part Madison. Bellah’s canon includes Winthrop’s Arbella (“city upon a hill”) sermon, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Thoreau’s defense of civil disobedience, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Yet, the canon also remains open to new or undiscovered sources that strengthen the moral and spiritual ideals of the republic—as Philip Gorski’s new history of civil religion, American Covenant, reveals through figures such as Jane Addams, Reinhold Niebuhr, and John Courtney Murray.

Freedom, democracy, equality, individual rights, and human dignity—these are the moral pillars of civil religion, the shared truths on which America rests. How such ideals are implemented in history—or ignored or violated—are all part of the uneven story of American progress that civil religion tells. In preserving a prophetic standard for critique, civil religion offers a reason why America remains exceptional and worthy of its peoples’ love—in spite of its failings. A nation’s failure to live up to its founding moral ideals is one thing. But a president who denies those ideals altogether signals a failure of a radically different order.

Most presidents seize the mantle of civil religion just moments after taking the oath of office in their inaugural addresses. For Bellah, the inauguration represents “the religious legitimation of the highest political authority.” Trump was elected without even a nod to civil religion, and his inaugural was a stark aberration from a long, distinguished tradition set by his predecessors. Not surprisingly, Trump has proven incapable of leading with the unity, moral conviction, humility, and sense of purpose that have inspired and ably served past presidents. Bellah’s essay considered what the presidential inaugural reveals about American civil religion. It remains relevant for understanding Trump’s inaugural as more than just “some weird shit,” as George W. Bush claimed, but as the initial demolition work of our shared civic faith.

Presidential inaugurals embody and preserve civil religion in several ways. First, most seek to unite a divided citizenry—“to bind up the nation’s wounds” after a bitter campaign or deeper forms of civil strife, as Lincoln’s second inaugural beseeched. Nixon, to whom Trump is sometimes compared, paid homage to our civil religion in 1969, at the close of a turbulent decade torn apart by racial divisions and the Vietnam War. He summoned Americans to build together “a great cathedral of the spirit.” He continued, “To go forward at all is to go forward together. This means black and white together, as one nation, not two.” Trump’s call for national unity, however, has been inaudible. Echoing the fiery tone of his campaign speeches (which have continued throughout his presidency), he ended his inaugural not by extending an open hand but by raising a clenched fist: a defiant declaration of victory, like a boxer dancing over a felled opponent. He ignored the insight of Woodrow Wilson’s first inaugural, which declared, “This is not a day of triumph; it is a day of dedication. Here muster, not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity.”

Since then, Trump has further sharpened the country’s divisions. Reagan sought unity through majestic appeals to the “shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand”: the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and Arlington National Cemetery. (Today, there are memorials to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and veterans of World War II and Vietnam.) These national sites and figures limn a still evolving narrative within which Americans of many stripes and persuasions find a place. President Trump’s retrograde rhetoric, however, defends the “fine people” marching in support of white supremacy in Charlottesville and the “beautiful” Confederate statues commemorating rebellion, secession, and the effort to split the country over slavery.

Civil religion affords a model for forging consensus based upon founding principles that transcend differences in ethnicity, race, gender, religion, and political party. The promise of unity this vision holds out—based on convictions that we are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, and share common dreams and pursuits—is greater than any individual. Rather than reaching out to all Americans, though, Trump’s presidency has been about him and his base. His rhetoric, rallies, and precipitous reelection campaign—along with his executive orders and policies against Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, refugees, and transgendered people—have fractured and strained the model of American consensus, not expanded or solidified it. Trump has ignored the lessons of innumerable presidents who have employed a capacious civil religion to integrate the marginalized and forgotten into the fold of our common social fabric and political destiny.

Second, American civil religion gives voice to moral convictions and values beyond crude economic and political interests. George H.W. Bush put the matter simply: “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle.” Bill Clinton commented similarly that “our greatest strength is the power of our ideas.” Moral principles such as freedom, democracy, justice, human dignity, and individual rights have been staples of presidential rhetoric. When Reagan declared that “freedom is on the march,” he drew a contrast with “those in the world who scorn our vision of human dignity and freedom.” George W. Bush reminded Americans that our “democratic faith” is also the “inborn hope of our humanity, an ideal we carry but do not own, a trust we bear and pass along.” Or recall President Obama who implored, “What makes us exceptional—what makes us American—is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration more than two centuries ago” before going on to recite those famous “self-evident truths.”

Trump, however, evinces concern only for Americans’ “glorious freedoms.” Instead of inspiring citizens by extolling ideals that inspire the world and instill love of country, he shrilly demands “a total allegiance to the United States of America”—a call he repeated in his demands for “respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem” at sports events. American civil religion actually provides an argument for patriotism—reasons why we should love our country. Such reasons are also the standards by which the nation and its citizens will be judged, by their fellow citizens, by other nations in the world, by history, even by God. As Bellah maintained, “The will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong.” Civil religion establishes a “higher criterion” by which citizens and their presidents can be guided, evaluated, and held to account—a criterion that shows “it is possible that the people may be wrong.” But Trump’s populist pledge—restoring power to the people in exchange for “total allegiance”—presumes no higher political, moral, or spiritual criteria. What does it look like when we undermine the standards by which moral judgments can be made? Recall Trump’s endorsement of torture, praise of Vladimir Putin and diminution of Russian aggression and internal repression, and conflation of Russia and America: “We have a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?” Members of our all-volunteer military do not pledge “their lives and sacred honor” to be morally equivalent to Russia. Rather, the United States appeals to moral laws and principles that transcend our country and should guide the actions of other nations.

A third major feature of civil religion is its propensity to instill humility. Its prophetic strands presume a nation can be called to account for its wrongs—even punished, as Lincoln interpreted the “woe” of war inflicted on North and South alike for the offense of slavery. Put differently, a nation that seeks Providence’s blessings and protections should anticipate the consequences when it contravenes its mandates. This weighty burden should instill a sense of humility, which is why most presidents ask or “fervently pray” for God’s blessing, closing with “may God bless America.” Following Washington and Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush’s first act as president was to call the country to prayer:

Heavenly Father … Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: ‘Use power to help people.’ For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Help us to remember it, Lord. Amen.

President Kennedy offered similar supplications, reminding the nation to make the work of God “truly our own”—not the other way around.

Trump’s certitude and demands for God’s favor are out of synch with presidential precedent. He impiously suggests that God serves our will: “we will always be protected … by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we will be protected by God [emphasis added].” Such hubris has no place in the repertoire alongside Lincoln’s admonition that “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Bellah reminds us that the president’s obligation “extends not only to the people but to God.” Trump’s tone, by contrast, is emblematic of a president who has used his office to enrich himself and his businesses (eschewing Washington’s warning about emoluments); has deployed his staff to reinforce his false claims (e.g., about the inauguration); and has inquired whom (including himself and his family) he has the authority to pardon. A president who uses his power to advance his own purposes, rather than to serve or help people, violates a cardinal sin of American civil religion: pride.

Finally, American civil religion propounds universal principles that entail a sense of purpose and engagement in the world. The Declaration of Independence—our national scripture—claims that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” It does not say men and women in the United States. All means all. If such principles are indeed universal, it is not because they are American; rather, Americans have made these their founding principles because they hold them to be self-evident, universal, and true for all people. This is not an ideological claim but a moral and metaphysical one. American civil religion, as Bellah affirmed, “is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in light of ultimate and universal reality.” That moral reality transcends our nation’s borders and implicates others’ struggles for freedom, dignity, and equality.

This outlook inevitably invites questions about America’s role in international affairs, a complicated matter to be sure. Reagan’s summons to pass the “dream of freedom” to a “waiting and hopeful world” was fulfilled in Eastern Europe when communism collapsed. Following other presidents, Clinton kept this dream alive when he exhorted “the world’s greatest democracy will lead a whole world of democracies.” Yet, there is no consensus on how the values of freedom and democracy should be promoted or passed on to others. Critics of civil religion rightly observe that high-minded commitments have provided moral gilding and justification for dubious national projects. A nation with a “new Israel” complex of divine chosenness and moral exceptionalism, they claim, should be deeply cautious about reaping the wages of its arrogance. The war to liberate Iraq from tyranny has proven to be a costly venture for Iraqis and Americans desiring freedom. Defending democracy against communism in Vietnam (among other places) entailed Americans fighting, killing, and dying on behalf of non-democratic regimes. Civil religion provides a framework for conceiving American commitments—not a precision guide for implementing them. Yet without it, we lack a moral light by which to render judgments about the past or present.

The isolationist polemics of President Trump show not the slightest moral impulse, responsibility, or care for the rest of the world. From his inaugural to his bombastic UN speech threatening to destroy another country, Trump has denigrated the “open world” that Nixon eloquently promoted when he spoke movingly of the plights of people beyond U.S. shorelines. Instead, Trump espouses a world where, recalling Nixon’s warning, citizens “live in angry isolation.” American civil religion has supported international alliances, institutions, and agreements that, however imperfectly, have preserved peace and enabled “the attainment of some kind of viable and coherent world order,” in Bellah’s words. Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership spearheading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafting commission helped establish international norms to defend human dignity, which complement American civil religion. The discourse of human rights, Bellah intimated in 1967, might even form the basis of “a world civil religion [that] could be accepted as a fulfillment and not as a denial of American civil religion.”

The current “America first” agenda, however, has abandoned this vision. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s effort to “translate ‘America First’ into foreign policy” conceives freedom, dignity, and humane treatment as “our values”—not as universal or human values—which further must be distinguished from “our national interests.” U.S. commitments to human rights, international aid, good governance, and religious engagement around the world are all shriveling under Trump and Tillerson’s watch. We have been thrust back into a false view of the world as a zero-sum game in which America wins by making others lose.

Many on the left, secularist critics especially, have been hostile to civil religion since Bellah’s article first appeared. They cite American atrocities—slavery, manifest destiny, ethnic cleansing, discrimination, and white supremacy movements—in which religion and nationalism, God and country, cross and flag have fused. Civil religion emboldens hyper-patriotism, dulls our critical senses, and sacralizes killing and dying in war, they say. Religious believers, too, should be wary of any unholy alliance that mixes love of country with love of God, prioritizing the former while obscuring the latter. But like any tradition, civil religion must engage in ongoing processes of reform and renewal. Gorski urges us to preserve civil religion by distinguishing it from crude forms of jingoism and “religious nationalism.” Lincoln, King, Obama, and many others have eloquently shown how slavery, segregation, racism, white nationalism, and other national disgraces fail to conform with America’s founding principles. To adapt Presidents Clinton and Obama’s insight, There is nothing wrong with American civil religion that cannot be cured by what is right with it.

The stirring echoes of civil religion in Obama’s soaring prose have been eclipsed more recently by the pageantry of perpetual protest. Despite the extensive catalogue of legitimate grievances against Trump—which he has recklessly created—many anti-Trump forces have proposed a truncated moral horizon and vocabulary that overlooks civil religion’s resources for identifying common ground. Nevertheless, as the face of the Republican Party, President Trump now represents the greatest threat to American civil religion. Unlike the left, the new right is cynical, calling forth the darker angels of our nature. Trump knows civil religion cannot “make America great again.” What he and his nationalist supporters do not understand is how civil religion makes America worthy of greatness. Without it, Trump cannot “win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world,” to recall Washington’s memorable words expressing the “preeminence of free government.” Nor, without it, can democratic peoples and institutions work together to realize collective greatness.

That significant elements across the political spectrum have turned their backs on a distinguished heritage that once unified the country suggests we are losing our civil religion, and losing sight of what it even means to be a “we.” Perhaps civil religion has languished under a dysfunctional two-party system that marginalizes independent voters, privileges a parochial primary election process, and preserves gerrymandered voting districts. Perhaps a latent centrist movement made up of disaffected Republicans and Independents joining with some Democrats could clear the ground for civil religion’s return.

Happily, civil religion may be poised for a comeback, and Philip Gorski, a sage student of Bellah, has provided a compelling new argument for its recovery. Civil religion, he writes, offers the “best starting point we have for thinking about the future.” It’s an indispensable resource for reclaiming the vital center, for it preserves continuity of the country’s ideals while also adapting to its changing needs and conditions. In that sense, it is simultaneously conservative and progressive. Viewed appropriately, civil religion also presumes a preferential option for the marginalized: a path for people of all colors, creeds, and backgrounds to join and expand the American consensus. The urgent challenge today is whether civil religion can absorb the populist forces left behind by globalization.

Franklin Roosevelt, who delivered more inaugurals than any president, closed his final inaugural, saying, “the Almighty God … has given our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world.” The Almighty may have imparted this civic faith, but the real question is this: Do “we, the people” possess the imagination, generosity, and courage to preserve it?


John D. Carlson is associate professor of religious studies at Arizona State University where he also serves as interim director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

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