Kentucky Gov. Beshear Inspires Revival of Civil Religion

By Alex Brown | May 12, 2020

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader/AP)

Every day at five in the afternoon, my governor, recently elected Democrat Andy Beshear, delivers an update on the Covid-19 pandemic in our state of Kentucky. Watching these televised press conferences has quickly become a quarantine ritual in my household. My family gathers in one room, in front of one television, to hear what Governor Beshear has to say. The information he shares is fairly standard: He provides updates on diagnoses and deaths, talks about “flattening the curve,” and explains any new measures being taken to slow the spread of the virus. But he usually doesn’t lead with these details. Instead, he starts these pressers like a sermon. He passionately speaks about the unity and sacrifice that is required from Kentuckians to fight the pandemic, imploring his flock to be “good neighbors.” He preaches the gospel of social distancing by explaining that it is the duty of each person to stay home when possible. He rebukes the sin of non-compliance, reiterating that following his guidelines can lead us to the end of these uncertain times.

Each day, Beshear asks Kentuckians to recite, out loud, his mantra that has come to be like a prayer: “We will get through this, and we will get through this together.” In the face of a global crisis, Beshear’s unwavering faith in our state is a display of civil religion, of which he is asking Kentuckians to become faithful followers.

Sociologist Robert Bellah developed the theory of American civil religion in 1967 to explain the nonsectarian, quasi-religious values and principles that are ingrained in American culture. Though the concept of civil religion dates back to at least the nineteenth century, Bellah’s formulation of American civil religion was characterized by belief in a God who has granted Americans our rights and freedoms, though this deity is not to be confused with that of any specific organized religion. This God is about upholding law, order, and justice in our nation, and we see its presence in many places of American civic life—printed on our money, spoken in our oaths, and written in our most foundational documents like the Declaration of Independence.

Beshear’s press conferences invoke a brand of Kentucky civil religion that seeks to inspire citizens to see themselves as potential heroes, to act for the common good rather than simply for themselves. Beshear’s pride in the sacrifices Kentuckians are making helps invoke that same sense of pride in the commonwealth’s citizens. On March 28, he said that “every single one of us has to live up to our duty, as a member of the commonwealth and a patriotic American, to protect those around us” by practicing aggressive social distancing. His strategy of unifying Kentuckians by inciting a common sense of purpose and patriotism, in the name of protecting our state and its institutions, is ultimately asking his constituents to dig deep to find their civil religious faith to reduce the harms of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Every day, the governor asks Kentuckians to recommit themselves to fighting the coronavirus, much like how a preacher might ask their congregation to recommit themselves to their faith. He emphasizes how it is the duty of each Kentuckian to protect the welfare of ourselves and our neighbors by following his ten commandments, or ten rules, which include avoiding crowds by staying “healthy at home” and washing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Early in the pandemic, Beshear’s administration started promoting the use of hashtags like #TeamKY and #Patriot for Kentuckians to share the goodwill that our people are displaying during these trying times. Every day the governor or his staff share a handful of these posts to praise people for putting their civil religious faith to practice—these include teachers going above and beyond for their students, volunteers delivering meals to the elderly, and health care workers showing their resilience. Beshear also shares images of his family and others putting their Christian faith to work, by attending virtual worship services online. “Thank you to our faith leaders who are protecting their congregations,” he wrote on Twitter on May 4, along with a screenshot of a church service on his television.

Finding a confident stride in this state-level civil religion is, in some ways, new for Kentuckians when it comes to recent politics and civic life. We have been let down by our elected officials often—before and during this pandemic. Our former governor, Republican Matt Bevin who lost his re-election bid to Beshear just a few months ago, tried to slash the state’s public pension program, later calling public educators who protested this controversial decision “selfish” and “ignorant.” After Senator Rand Paul tested positive for Covid-19 on March 22, it was reported that he used a number of Senate facilities while waiting for his test results.

By contrast, Beshear’s impassioned press conferences have garnered a largely positive response from his congregation, the people of Kentucky. A recent U.S. News and World Report survey found that 86 percent of Kentuckians rated the state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic as “good” or “excellent,” which is the highest rating of all 50 states. One local business owner hung an enormous banner plastered with the governor’s face outside of his bar, captioned with “United we stand, six feet apart.” Social media has been flooded with positive messages about the governor and his efforts to protect the state; a recently created Facebook meme page dedicated to praising the governor for his leadership has more than 220,000 members. Even Republicans are giving the governor high marks for his work. As Beshear continues to evangelize the commonwealth with promises of an afterlife—a return to normal life—Kentuckians’ faith in our state has grown exponentially.

The seemingly successful reinvigoration of this brand of civil religion might just be working to slow the spread of the virus. In his April 20 press conference, Beshear said that Kentucky has begun flattening the curve “because we followed the rules.” He added, “Y’all rose to the occasion,” and he assured listeners that their sacrifices are paying off. Beshear recently announced “phase two” of the plan to gradually reopen the state’s economy. He also has updated his ten “Healthy at Home” rules to outline his guidelines for gradual business re-openings, which include teleworking when possible, social distancing, and onsite temperature checks. He is reminding Kentuckians that reopening is contingent on the adherence to these restrictions. In other words, Kentucky needs to remain faithful to our duty and to the broader common good—that is, each other. And in a world that feels relentlessly demoralizing given the circumstances of the pandemic, this revived sense of purpose is a true gift.

Alex Brown is a freelance writer and student at Washington University in St. Louis.

© 2011 Religion & Politics