Born-Again Americans and That Old-Time (Civil) Religion

Sara Robinson

Can we progressives — who won’t be caught dead these days calling ourselves liberals — can we stop serving as a punching bag for the right?

And speak with depth and conviction about the things that really matter to us? Once and for all, can we break through the false and humiliating charade that they and they alone are the arbiters of family values, morality, patriotism, the flag, the life of the spirit, God-talk? And that they alone have the credibility to speak to these subjects and concerns?

The search for meaning that defines us as humans is the greatest conversation going, and I want IN.

– “Born-Again American” Norman Lear at the Take Back America conference last week

Ever since the overlong election season first kicked off last summer, I’ve been feeling deep gratitude for the happy fact that, for the first time since 1988, we’re finally having a presidential election that does not involve re-fighting the Vietnam War. To everyone’s profound relief, there’s nary a draft dodger, National Guardsman, Bronze Star recipient, or Swiftboater in sight. Nobody’s service records are under investigation. Not a single public conversation has devolved into an ugly he said/he said over who did what in some swamp somewhere in 1969. I think I speak for an entire grateful nation when I say: It’s been nice.

I must confess, however, that I’m just about ready to take it all back. Because this time, instead of military exploits two-thirds of the country is too young to remember, this election is being fought over religion — which is, apparently, the new battlefield on which candidates must try themselves and not be found wanting. Obama’s pastor of 20 years is being trotted out to whip up white voters’ latent terror of Angry Scary Black Men (and, as a twofer, also undercut the resonance of his strong moral voice). McCain is proudly advertising his bizarre affiliations with John Hagee, Richard Land, and Rod Parsley — religious ideologues so extremist and creepy that most straight-thinking Evangelicals won’t have anything to do with them. Jeff Sharlet has a new book coming out shortly that will detail Hillary’s long association with a shadowy elitist global prayer group that puts her in spiritual cahoots with the worst kind of paleo-cons and dictators. And I’m watching this theological three-ring circus — and actually find myself longing wistfully for the good old days when we were merely obsessed with re-hashing the details of a 40-year-old war.

How on earth did we get here? Why are Americans suddenly so engrossed with religion (and some pretty excessive religion at that)? Are there deeper reasons that the 2008 election is turning into a referendum on whose God will prevail?

The proximate reasons are many and varied, but they all seem to be rooted in one central fact: We find this so mesmerizing right now because we’re entering one of our occasional seasons of re-negotiating the American Civil Religion — something that the country does, fairly regularly, every 80 years or so. These moments are always contentious and messy. But it’s important that we understand this one clearly, because it may offer progressives a historic opportunity to seize the country’s foundational narratives about itself, and re-cast them in a way that will help open the doors to the future we seek.

The American Civil Religion: A Brief History
Civil religions are as old as Babylon, if not older. All cultures run off of stories — foundational narratives that tell members who they are, what sets them apart from other people, where they came from, what future they hope for, and where their culture finds its deepest sense of meaning. These narratives become embedded in language, are taught and reinforced by religion, and form the underlying set of assumptions that govern the way people within a culture build, dress, eat, govern themselves, marry, raise kids, and interact with each other. In any long-standing culture, these stories become an ingrained part of your cultural identity. They orient and guide you in every aspect of the present — and connect you to the past and the future as well.

America has the historic distinction of being the first large nation since ancient times made up of people who’d walked away from those old cultures, and were thus forced to create a new set of unifying stories from scratch. From the start, we were a motley collection of wanderers and outcasts from widely divergent cultures — English, French, Spanish, African, and Native American at first, plus others who came later — who were faced with the unprecedented task of trying to assemble something resembling one common culture out of a huge collection of mismatched bits and pieces. (This ongoing effort has been marked by by astonishingly beautiful successes and stupendously ugly failures; but it’s useful to take the long perspective on just how recklessly unprecedented the whole project was to begin with. We’ve had to make it up as we went along — and the pragmatism, ingenuity, and open-mindedness bred by the task eventually became some of our defining character traits.)

Over the centuries, the results of this effort congealed into what sociologist Robert Bellah called out in 1967 as “the American civil religion,” and de Tocqueville described much earlier as the “transcendant universal religion of the nation.” The core of this canon was a collected (and often contrived) set of stories about who we were, what our mission and place should be in the world, and what it meant to be American. Though they were deeply rooted in Protestant theology and often invoked a special relationship with God, these stories were neither overtly political nor specifically religious. Instead, they spoke to the spiritual and moral core of the shared American identity, and gave us a language we could use to express our common values and dreams.

As the centuries rolled on, this narrative grew rich and deep with myths and images. Winthrop’s shining city on the hill. Longfellow’s poetic account of Paul Revere’s ride. George Washington’s farewell address; Lewis and Clark’s daring crossing of the continent; Lincoln’s invocation of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. As children, we were taught to salute the flag and recite the Pledge — two core 20th century rituals of the civil religion.

Bellah argued that, more often than not, this common faith has been used to promote conservative values — faith, flag, God, and country — and suppress liberal ones; but my own reading of history doesn’t bear that out. Teddy Roosevelt invoked the civil religion to provide the moral justification for the original progressive movements a century ago. FDR drew deeply on this value set almost every time he spoke, eliciting our commitment to courage, community, and moral strength in the face of overwhelming odds. JFK celebrated it when he announced the arrival of a new generation, and challenged us to go to the moon. Martin Luther King successfully convicted the nation’s conscience by pointing out the wide breach between the civil religion’s high-flying rhetoric of freedom and equality, and the reality being lived by black and poor Americans.

You can find plenty of examples in which the deep aspirations and values embedded in that canon have been used effectively by both sides. At various times, they’ve been used to justify everything from slavery, war, corporate greed, and McCarthyism to civil rights, peace, economic equality, and the extremes of free expression. After 300 years, we’ve accrued a set of stories so rich and deep that there’s something there for absolutely everyone. And it’s time for our side of that long narrative to be heard once again.

Re-Negotiations
Lacking blood, land, or culture to bind us as a nation, we became far more dependent on these narratives than almost any other people on the planet — and that’s why the civil religion has become so disproportionately important to Americans. (Europeans tend to regard the whole thing as a peculiarly American form of mass insanity.) And, in his book The Broken Covenant, Bellah noted that the canon is far from static. The reason it’s so broad and deep now is that every now and again, the public becomes deeply cynical about the American creed. That cynicism soon leads to a complete re-working that introduces new ideas and stories, which in turn make new kinds of futures possible.

The first re-negotiation, according to Bellah, came about around the time of the Revolution, when Americans had to re-define themselves as something other than loyal subjects of His Majesty, and assert their confidence in their own sovereignty. Many of the emerging beliefs of this era got written into the Constitution, or were laid out in the Federalist Papers and the maxims of Poor Richard. Eighty years later, we did it again: this time, in response to the Civil War, and the dawning awareness of the deeper implications of fairness, freedom, and justice. Another 80 years on, the New Deal and World War II forced another re-reckoning of the country’s value system. (Bellah argued that the real re-negotiation was in the 1960s; but I have a different reading of the situation, which I’ll get into in a moment.)

These periodic shifts in our essential beliefs appear to be part of a necessary cycle of creative destruction and renewal. In each of these three cases, American re-negotiated its governing worldview in response to wider economic, technological, and political challenges that were calling us to abandon an old regime, and make way for a new one. During the Revolution, feudal monarchy gave way to Enlightenment democracy; and agrarian economies were shifting toward industrialization and international trade. During the Civil War, human labor was being replaced by machines; wind and steam were giving way to a coal-driven energy order; and widespread industrialization was urbanizing the country and changing the structure of families and communities. FDR’s era saw coal give way to oil, the beginnings of decolonialization, and the rise of America to the top of the world’s power structure.

In every case, we had to reconfigure our deepest cultural stories in ways that would allow us to cope with the looming changes, and re-imagine a new direction for the country. And that moment has come around again now, as we reach the earth’s limits, figure out how to live sustainably, and move off of oil to…what? We’re looking for a new set of narratives to guide this shift — and that’s why we are suddenly so fascinated with matters of the spirit, and having such raucous debates over the state of the national soul.

The Fire This Time
Bellah writes: “Once in each of the last three centuries America has faced a time of trial, a time of testing so severe that…the existence of our nation has been called in question…the spiritual glue that had bound the nation together in previous years had simply collapsed.”

For the current cycle, the glue started coming loose during the 1960s — and the resulting collapse was the defining event of the decade. The Boomers, who had been raised deep in the cradle of postwar patriotism and inculcated early with the themes of American greatness and exceptionalism, were brought up short by some brutal realities almost as soon as they reached adulthood. Between the lies that fed the Vietnam War and the intractable injustice evident in the civil rights battles being fought at home, they confronted the sickening realization that the institutions they’d been taught to trust were deeply corrupt, and that the civil religion was being used to justify actions that ran completely contrary to the high ideals they’d been told their country stood for.

They’d been had — by their parents, by their teachers, and by every single institution in society. Their response: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Don’t trust any institutions run by them — schools, churches, governments, professions, any of it. And especially: Don’t trust the civil religion, which is nothing more than a pack of establishment lies.

As the decade ground on, the optimism of the New Deal generation, whose fervent belief in their version of the American faith provided the spiritual grounding for a lifetime of astonishing achievement, gave way to the Boomers’ lifelong (and well-justified) cynicism where any expression of national ideals was concerned. Instead, the younger generation turned inward, and walked away from the whole imploding mess. As I noted two weeks ago, the upshot of this abandonment was that it left the country’s entire infrastructure of public and private institutions wide open for the rising conservative takeover. At the same time, it also ceded the all the most powerful language and imagery of the American civil religion to the right wing — a rich gift that they immediately co-opted for their own purposes. We’re now at the point where Americans now find it hard to discuss spiritual or moral matters on anything but conservative terms. Many of us on the left get queasy when we see the Statue of Liberty, the bald eagle, or a flag lapel pin, because the conservatives have so thoroughly re-invented these old symbols of the American common faith that they no longer seem to belong to us at all.

Yet, for the next 30 years, nobody noticed. Nobody really cared. And anybody on the left who dared to express the least bit of hope or idealism — who tried to describe the American enterprise in any kind of spiritual or moral terms at all — was regarded as either dangerously naive, in cahoots with the right wing, or selling something. Stick with facts and reason, programs and policies. Leave the morality and poetry and soaring rhetoric for those who can’t govern on the strength of their ideas. Anybody with any brains who hears that kind of language should know they’re being had.

But now, that long era of cynical detachment is finally coming to an end. The rousing conversations we’ve had the past few years about the appropriate role of religion in civic and political life are a cardinal sign of the coming change. Should a politician’s religion matter? How firm should that church/state wall be? Don’t religionists have a right to make their case in the public square? And especially: How can we be a moral society if we don’t give a privileged role to religion?

Ask your over-65 elders how they answer these questions. Odds are good that they’ll regard them as simply preposterous. Even the old Goldwater Republicans likely remember the way that old-time civil religion provided a universal framework that allowed the GI generation to discuss morality, spirituality, and meaning without resorting to the specific viewpoint of any one religion. They valued the common ground it provided — and the shared vision of a common future that rose from it — because it allowed them to come together and do what needed to be done in their time.

The fact that we entertain these questions at all now reveals a deep and damaging ignorance at work. We’re so far detached from the historical language of that creed that we can no longer talk about morals or values in anything but specifically religious terms — terms that often do far more to separate us than they do to bring us together. Worse: I’ve had heated discussions with well-meaning religious progressives who’ve thoroughly bought into the conservative assertion that you can only discuss morality in religious terms, because is no morality apart from God. (They simply don’t believe any other kind of moral discourse is even possible, because they’ve never seen it done.) If we continue to affirm that dangerous idea, we can kiss our future as a secular society good-bye.

We’ve entirely forgotten (because two entire generations have grown up having never heard it) that we once had a shared set of American narratives and cultural values that gave us the space to have deeply moral, value-laden conversations that weren’t rooted in our ideas about God or our individual identities as Protestants or Catholics or Jews or Muslims, but in our shared dreams as Americans. When we lost the language and narratives of that creed, we lost the glue that bound us together across religious and cultural lines, and allowed us to work together as one national community.

Make no mistake: the old version of the civil religion deserved to die. The Boomer critique that found it corrupt and criminal was scathingly accurate; and their generation’s cynicism toward the old nationalist faith was too well deserved. But that season is passing now. We are at a different historical moment — one that we probably won’t be able to navigate without access to the firm, broad common ground that kind of universal patriotic creed once gave us. Our renewed fascination with our candidates’ religious affiliations –and our emerging passion for leaders that are fluent in the evocative language of the common good — shows how ready we are to resurrect the idea of an American civil religion, rebuild new institutions to sustain it, and refocus it to give essential moral direction and spiritual meaning to the monumental change efforts that loom ahead.

The entire country is desperately hungry for a new, compelling story about what it means to be American, and what America means to the world. It does not have to be exclusive, nationalistic, or imperialist — in fact, we’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right now to offer the country another narrative entirely, one that will move us away from the madness of the past. Norman Lear and Bill Moyers moved us all when they preached the gospel of this 21st-century civil religion from the pulpit at Take Back America; Barack Obama also showed us how it’s done last week in Philadelphia. The new stories are already emerging; and the country is inspired by what it hears.

We have the same historic opportunity FDR did to redefine the American civil religion in a way that it will set the entire political and social agenda of the country for the next 40 to 80 years. All we need to do is reclaim the vast and ancient holy ground for our own, and not be the least bit shy about furnishing it with new and reclaimed stories, values, poetry, and symbols that give Americans something better to aspire to and stand for. We don’t need to resort to the moral language of any one religion to do this. We just have to look to our own American past to remember how it’s done.

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