The Myth or Reality of American Civil Religion

The term “civil religion” was first used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an eighteenth century philosopher and writer, and refers to “the religious dimension of the polity“, or the intertwining of religious presuppositions with the political and social aspects of life. It is easy to understand why Rousseau would be critical of religion, since in 1717 he was born and subsequently raised in Geneva, at that time a still flourishing theocracy – in other words, a civil society under the rulership of God and scripture. His cynicism gave Rousseau a keen perception of the role of the power of suggestion in social life, which is illustrated in this famous quote, “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said, “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.” 

American civil religion has been summed up any number of ways, but most of them are quite similar on the most salient points. Essentially it is an institutionalized collection of sacred American beliefs providing sources of cohesion and prophetic guidance through times of national crises. When viewed in terms of this decidedly religious language, many people are likely to get a little nervous. Perhaps they should. Among those sacred beliefs, a cult of liberty has been important from very early on. The sociologist Robert N. Bellah quotes a 1770 observer’s opinion that “the minds of the people are wrought up into as high a degree of enthusiasm by the word liberty, as could have been expected had religion been the cause.” Liberty, nationalism, and faith are inseparably fused into the American civil religion. As Norman Mailer once put it, “In America, the country was the religion. And all the religions of the land were fed from that first religion. . . .”

Richard Pierard and Robert Linder, the authors of Civil Religion & the Presidency (1988), discussed the sacred writings of American civil religion when they said, “The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and later, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address became the sacred scriptures of the new public faith. Just as the colonists saw their own church covenants as vehicles of God’s participation in history, so these public documents became the covenants which bound the people of the nation together in a political and religious union. . . . A leadership imagery developed that paralleled the biblical account of Israel and led to the Founding Fathers mythology. . . . Before long Washington had become the Moses-liberator figure, Jefferson the prophet.” I would like to add, thankfully, that Martin Luther King’s “I Had a Dream…” speech is quickly finding its way into the civil sacred scriptures.

Rowland Sherrill, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, states, “American civil religion is a form of devotion, outlook and commitment that deeply and widely binds the citizens of the nation together with ideas they possess and express about the sacred nature, the sacred ideals, the sacred character, and sacred meanings of their country — its blessedness by God, and its special place and role in the world and in human history.” Enough quotes! I think it’s easy to see a pattern in the tone and content. Political and social documents and ideas have been given sacramental value – declared sacred – by the culture within which we live.

Civil religion is the mysterious way that religion, politics, ideas of nationhood, patriotism, etc. – energized by dominant faith outlooks – represents a national force. It gets very little careful thought. Civil religion resides in the unconscious of the vast majority of the population, hiding in the dark alleyways that make up our perception of political and national life. We do, however, live in it, and we appeal to it all of the time. The problem, as I see it, however, is that if we do not consciously examine the beliefs that make up significant portions of our core myths – our sacred presuppositions so to speak – we end up unwittingly functioning within a system that is based on someone else’s religious beliefs. What’s wrong with that? I believe it makes our society a little schizophrenic. We claim to want peace, and we’re willing to go to war because we think someone might disrupt it. As a society we talk about inclusion, acceptance and diversity, but we are very willing to label other nations or religions “evil incarnate”. It is my belief that American civil religion represents not the common or collective religious beliefs of the people, but the beliefs of the dominant political, social and economic cultures. 

While I would like to end up talking about American civil religion again, I am going to veer to a completely different place. I want to address how beliefs of one culture become accepted as normative into another. I will begin by interweaving some thoughts with those of Daniel Quinn, a consummate educator, publisher, lecturer and author of several books that challenge the myths that cultures develop. I thought a good place to start would be in the beginning – well, figuratively anyway. Let’s begin with Genesis – in particular, the stories of Adam’s fall and Cain’s murder of Abel. Personally, I am not a literalist, nor am I purely someone who perceives the Bible as nothing more than a series of stories. I find the Bible no less informative and endearing when it is read as metaphors or normative narrative. I believe its purpose was to teach, just as the oral traditions from which it proceeded were meant to teach. 

Many biblical scholars and critics alike agree on one particular point. Whether it is meant to be literal history or historical metaphor the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is not a common type of document. The old adage goes, “victors write history.” More correctly, it should read, “dominant cultures write histories that generally reflect well on themselves.” Rarely have subservient cultures found the opportunity to record their history. Non-dominant history is almost always passed on by oral tradition that is, many times, intentionally metaphoric in order to hide the details from their dominators. The Hebrew Bible is a document produced by a society that was rarely, if ever, the dominant culture. It also many, many times does not reflect well on the Hebrews. Quinn, and many cultural anthropologists, have speculated that this is a hallmark of oral traditions whose main characters may be other populations. It is possible that the early part of Genesis is a story told by the descendants of victims and witnesses.

The Hebrew written language developed over centuries. Until the Masoretes (meaning transmitters) developed a system of adding vowel pointing for pronunciation, the Hebrew written language contained only consonants. Oral tradition dictated how the vowel-less writing would be enunciated. The Masoretes, from the 9th to 11th centuries A.D., added markings to copies of text to bring the oral and written languages together. For these stories, three particular words are significant – Adam, Cain and Abel.   

Adam – with vowel different markings also means both ground and human. (Gen 1:27)

Cain – also means to make by forging, to fabricate or spear.

Abel – also means breath or vapor 

Agriculture, the generally accepted beginning of civilization, began in the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia). The first agriculture was cultivating, which replaced gathering, followed by herding, as opposed to hunting. There was, in fact, a separation of centuries between the development of each method of farming, as well as a geographic and ethnic separation. Caucasian inhabitants developed cultivating in the north. Early Semitic tribes in the south began herding at a later time. Cultivation begins with the planting of the first seed, but herding takes generations to develop. Radically different lifestyles are also associated with each agricultural type. Cultivators would tend to accumulate in villages, while herders are essentially nomadic as they move with the seasons and availability of flora. As has generally been the case when cultivators enlarge their territory, the herders (Semites) were driven out repeatedly in order to lay claim to their lands.

Quinn suggests that we need to unpack the Cain-Abel story before we can see its correlation to Adam. He suggests that the brothers are “emblematic” figures – those that represent different times and cultures. Cain, the “forger” or “spear”, was the first-born and the cultivator. Abel, the “breath”, was the herder and the second-born, possibly by centuries. Abel’s offering to God was acceptable while Cain’s was offensive. Cain, jealous of God’s favor, kills Abel. As the Semites saw it (and it is of course their version of the story that we have), the tiller of the soil Cain was irrigating his fields with the blood of Abel the herder. Unpacked, Abel the herder functioned within the “creation” without substantially changing it to suit his needs, while Cain the cultivator saw fit to recreate “creation” by clearing areas for planting and laboring over the soil to control the output.

The Semites had not been in the Fertile Crescent to witness the dawn of cultivation, but some centuries later were witnessing the problematic behavior of their neighbors from the North. Something had happened that caused this people to labor intensively in their fields as well as to murderously invade neighboring territories. In recreating a story, developing a myth, about what had happened the Semites may have put together what they knew and filled in the blanks with what made sense. There must have been some occurrence that caused such behavior that went against tribal customs held by the Semites to be normative. Enter Adam.

Adam, humankind, must have done something wrong – but what? These people appeared to know better than God what creation should look like, since they cut down forests and rearranged what God had made. Could they know what God knows? That must be it – they somehow acquired knowledge that should only be limited to God. How would they come by such knowledge, unless they did something that God told them not to do? From here, we can speculate further about how a story of a personification of mankind as a whole ate from the fruit of Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thereby sinning against an edict of God.

Whether or not you buy into Quinn’s analysis of Genesis, or even place any stock in Genesis at all, there are some items that are generally accepted as historically accurate. According to historian Frank E. Smitha, the Semites did not inhabit Mesopotamia – they literally lived to the south. The inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent were, in fact, Ubaidians, a Caucasian race. It was around 4000 BCE that a people called Sumerians moved into Mesopotamia, perhaps from around the Caspian Sea, but certainly from the North.   By 3800 BCE the Sumerians supplanted the Ubaidians, who moved further north, and had built better canals for irrigating and transporting crops by boat to village centers.  And the Sumerians grew in number, the increase in population the key element in creating what we call civilization. The Sumerians continued to push to the south, eventually displacing the Semites.

Genesis describes the location of Eden as:

Gen 2:10  A river flows out of Eden to water the garden [placed in the east of Eden], and from there it divides and becomes four branches.
11  The name of the first is Pishon; …
13  …The name of the second river is Gihon; …
14  …The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

This would place the Garden of Eden in the Fertile Crescent, north of the Semites and in the area that contained the Ubaidians and the later Sumerians.

Okay, so what? First, Judaism assimilated into their own history and religion an account that is likely to have been about another people. While this point is still debatable among many scholars, the next is not. Christianity developed initially within the Judaic faith, or those of Semitic origin. From there it spread into many areas – Asia Minor, Greece, Europe, Russia, etc. The vast majority of these converts to Christianity, the Gentiles, were not of Semitic origin. These other populations accepted as normative in their own religious beliefs the early Semitic religious history, including the Genesis accounts, because Christianity is inextricably intertwined with the context of Judaism. Fundamental to Christian theology, therefore, are accounts, histories and beliefs of a people to which most Christians do not have a direct physical lineage, but certainly an integral theological link. These accounts represent core myths, or underlying religious presuppositions that are not based on these populations’ historical experience.

In a similar way, the American civil religion has at its base religious notions or beliefs that are not based on most American’s experience. Why? Many of the early immigrants to America were people avoiding religious persecution. The list of sects persecuted in Europe and finding their way to America includes, but is not limited to, Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, Anabaptists, English Catholics and Jews. Add to this mix those seeking escape from economic distress or oppression, and those seeking to capitalize on this newfound resource and the picture of a motley crew begins to form.

Although they were victims of religious persecution in Europe, the Puritans supported the Old World theory that sanctioned it, the need for uniformity of religion in the state. Once in control in New England, they sought to break “the very neck of Schism and vile opinions.” The “business” of the first settlers, a Puritan minister recalled in 1681, “was not Toleration, but [they] were professed enemies of it.” Quakers were executed by the Puritans for their heretical beliefs, despite the fact that the Church of England considered the Puritans heretics themselves. Quakers were also oppressed in Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson surmised that “if no capital execution took place here, as it did in New England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or the spirit of the legislature.” Virginia was an Anglican stronghold.

Rather than becoming a bastion of religious freedom, as our cultural myth depicts, the American purpose was to make a new beginning in a world that was essentially corrupt, and only the righteous or God-favored could accomplish this. This tendency occurs because of the proliferation of Calvinist religions that were represented in the early arrivals. Calvinist denominations included the aforementioned Puritans and Quakers, but also Huguenots, Presbyterians, Church of Christ, most non-Lutheran Reformed Churches, to a large degree Anglicans, and even Universalists. An essential tenet of Calvinism is the theology of the elect, or selective salvation. In its original meaning, this meant that God predestined some to go to Heaven and others to go to Hell. No one knew who was who – no human had that knowledge about himself or herself, nor anyone else.

John Calvin (the latinized form of Jean Cauvin), the namesake of Calvinism and the originator of the Reformed Church and the political theocracy in Geneva, Switzerland in 1540, was neither a preacher nor a theologian – he was a lawyer and a businessman with deep-seated ideals and a rigorous, almost self-abusive personal spiritual discipline. Calvin is also credited with the origination of capitalism as an organized civil model. His passion for capitalism laid, however, not in its profitability, but in its ability to correct economic inequalities – capitalism as social justice. By the next century, Calvinism had split into decidedly different forms ranging from Universalism to Puritanism. Most of the sects of Calvinism that were represented in the Americas were of the most rigorous, conservative brand. These veered sharply from Calvin’s beliefs in some key ways:

  • 1. The belief that while the elect were technically unknown, God favored them and God’s favor was obvious in their economic and social circumstances. The wealthy were more favored by God than the poor.
  • 2. The belief that God ordained civil leaders. Those that rose to power were obviously favored by God. To actively dispute this was not only unpatriotic, but blasphemy. This, however, did not reflect poorly on the religious refugees because of the next belief.
  • 3. The belief that all humanity is essentially unworthy of salvation, and that the select few who God blessed with material goods or power, and used it in a Godly way, were to lead, direct and govern the actions and morals of society.
  • 4. The belief that, since God favored them with material goods, it was acceptable to keep the vast majority of it to secure your family’s future, rather than reinvest it to create more jobs and wealth.
  • 5. The belief that while it was not a sin to accumulate wealth, it was sinful to flaunt it. This particularly Puritan fashion statement is the origin of the American business uniform of the plain gray or black suit.

I would have a difficult time believing that these tenets would be acceptable to the majority of Americans, but, except for the last which has been set aside, these are still some essential provisions of American civil religion.

Since much of its population was fleeing oppression of one sort or another at least two more things come into play:

  • 1. The tendency of the oppressed to become oppressors once in positions of power or finding themselves in the dominant culture. E.g. The puritans and other extreme Calvinists that burned “witches”.
  • 2. The tendency for previously marginalized groups to carry the memory of such oppression into future generations, setting up a potential cultural attitude of arrogance and righteousness in reaction to the shared experience. E.g. Americans as the new chosen people or New Israel.

Both these characteristics helped to establish an environment in which the secret knowledge, the all-important gnosis, is possessed by the select few. God has elected political and civic leaders to direct the efforts of this country, because God favors this particular country above all others.

Now, I could be wrong. If I were right, however, about these roots of the American civil religion certain behavior patterns would be evident. The conspicuous accumulation of wealth would be the American dream; the American form of government would be considered the best in the world; only the wealthy and powerful would attain and hold the highest public offices; if we disagreed with our leaders at critical times we could be called ignorant and un-American; our appetite for material goods would be more important than anyone else’s need; the highest office holders in the land would be elevated to incredible heights of honor and prestige; we could, in order to defend ourselves – God’s favored – and what we possess, strike preemptively at another country because it is in our best interests; we would know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is best for the rest of the world; we would, because of the inordinate value God places in us, be able to clearly label that which is evil and that which is holy in all the world.

Hmmm! Never mind – it couldn’t happen.

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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