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Archive for November, 2017

American Civil Religion

American Civil Religion
Fr. Larry

Members of any particular group, whether the faithful of a church, adherents of a political party, or the citizens of a nation need an agreed upon set of values and principles, even if that agreement is assumed rather than stated formally, which have the power to hold them together, and to keep them from ripping their church, their party, or their nation apart. In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the term “Civil Religion” to describe what he saw as the moral and spiritual foundations essential for emerging modern governments and societies. Rousseau thought of civil religion as a kind of social glue that, by providing a national state with sacred authority, helped unify that nation. In the 1960s the work of the sociologist, Robert Bellah, brought new attention to the reality and significance of this concept for the American people.

Civil Religion

The following characteristics of Civil Religion may make it easier to see more concretely how it functions in America society.

• The invocation of God in political speeches and public monuments. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution comprise the two “sacred” documents of American Civil Religion. The Declaration of Independence uses the phrase “Nature’s God,” and “Creator.” In his inaugural address of 1789 George Washington did not mention “God” or “Christ,” but rather spoke of the “Almighty Being who rules over the universe,” “propitious smiles of Heaven,” and “divine blessings.” As much as fundamentalist Christians of today might like to think these are all references to the God of the Bible, the fact is that for the most part the founding fathers were either gentlemen political philosophers, Deists or through-going humanists who used such expressions as culturally acceptable allusions and metaphors. As for public monuments, the Washington and Lincoln Memorials are themselves sacred American shrines.

• The quotation of or allusion to religious texts in public speeches by political leaders. Think, for example, of Ronald Reagan’s constant use of the Biblical image of “a shining light on a hill.” When Reagan repeatedly used that phrase he wasn’t thinking of Christians or the Church as the Community of Faith, but of the United States of America as a political, geographical, military, sociological and cultural entity; that is, he appropriated a well known spiritual image to clothe American Civil Religion in a sacred robe.

• The veneration of past political leaders. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Harry S. Truman, or even Ronald Reagan are regarded as the sages and “holy men” of the past whose words, apocryphal or not, are quoted as wisdom for our day. During the last presidential primaries, Republicans who were opposed to the Trump candidacy frequently referred to how Trump failed to embody the mythical qualities of Ronald Reagan; and, measured policy and political statements of candidates by how well they harmonized with those of Ronald Reagan. In pushing back against charges of bigotry and racism they often claimed to be the party of Abraham Lincoln – which is, of course, only technically true.

• The use of the lives of these leaders to teach moral ideals, or what is desirable. So. bourbon drinking, poker playing, small town politician Harry S. Truman becomes, in American Civil Religion, the epitome of the strong leader – “Give ‘em hell!” “The buck stops here.” Catholic Radio recently featured the author of a book on Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States who first gained fame in winning the battle of New Orleans. Jackson, this author gushed, was a man who had been given so much by America that he was driven to give much back. The reality is that Jackson was a crude and arrogant man who had little understanding or appreciation of the balance of powers in our democratic form of government. His victory at New Orleans may be attributed as much to British ineptitude as to his own leadership. As President he was responsible for one of the darkest and ugliest marks on American History, the Trail of Tears, an egregious act of Genocide.

• The veneration of the military, and of the veterans and causalities of national wars. Everyone in military service is now referred to as a hero who is to be honored for preserving the freedom and rights enjoyed by the American people. There is in Princes Park, Edinburgh, Scotland, a war memorial, a simple wall, with an inscription which says, as best as I can now remember some thirteen years later, that it is in honor of all the Scottish soldiers who died in foreign lands, far, far from home. The inscription says in poetic prose, that they did not die for glory or money but so that others might be free. As I read that inscription I thought of the slow conquest of India and its colonization by the British Empire – lasting 500 years. And I wondered how that inscription was chiseled with a straight face. I think we have a moral obligation to take much better care of veterans than we do. I don’t think anyone wounded in body or mind should ever have to worry about food, shelter, or medical care once they return home. I do not believe this because I think them heroes, but because they are victims of dishonest politicians who, motivated by money and power, used them for their own ends.

• Founding national myths: School children of my generation grew up hearing both parents and teachers declaring that the United States never goes to war unless it is attacked. It has been said, even in recent times, that the United States does not engage in wars of aggression. And that the United States does not use torture – although that is now changing to the equally untruthful, the United States uses torture only when necessary to save American lives.

Perhaps this is the point at which to be clear. Leaders of the American Revolution, unlike many of the first colonists, had no intention of founding a Christian, or even Judeo/Christian, nation. In all of their religious talk their central concern was with political rights and social well being. They were allowing their vaguely religious language, which was culturally relevant, to spread easily and bind the emerging nation together. As Derek Vreeland notes, “They felt free to borrow some of the more nondescript references to ‘God’ and ‘Providence’ never assuming civil religion would overtake the reach and purposes of the Christian faith.”

• The practice of what can only be categorized as religious rituals. And so, children are taught to stand and place their hand over their heart, a posture of prayer, to say the pledge of allegiance. American flags are prominently displayed on patriotic holidays – which may be observed in many Christian churches as if they were holy days. As I write, I am thinking of an Episcopal Church which observes Veterans Day with a Marine Honor Guard bringing in the flag, the same flag that is always prominently on display on the dais near the pulpit as if a sacred symbol. On that Sunday, that congregation is likely to sing a rousing rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – a song so pagan that it ought to be an embarrassment to any Christian. This last Veteran’s day Vice President Pence assumed a priestly role in cleaning a portion of the Vietnam Memorial and laying a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Please note, that I am not saying it was necessarily wrong for him to do so – only that it represented a “religious” ritual.

• The use of slogans, principles, and values which take on a religious character; and, are not therefore to be questioned: One only need think of such expressions as, “The American dream,” “America is the greatest nation on earth,” “America is good.” Each used, as justification for greed and power. With George Bush American style democracy came to be seen as a value true for all people in all places; and, therefore, justification for wars of aggression – “holy wars.” Positively stated “the American dream” expresses the dogma that in America those who work hard and intelligently can be materially successful. Negatively, it expresses the “religious” belief of the conservative movement that poverty is due to the failure of the poor to work hard and live responsibly.

The Decline of American Civil Religion

 Bella believed, even as he wrote, that American Civil Religion had been in decline for a very long while, and that what now remains is no more than an empty shell. It is now generally recognized that the ethical core of American Civil Religion has been eroded and replaced by the values of political, economic, and military power. General Cumming’s prediction, or prophecy, in Norman Mailer’s novel, The Naked and the Dead, has come true. “In the future the only morality will be the morality of power.”

After the Civil War the South, devastated by the scorched earth terrorism of the Union Army under General Sherman, Carpet Baggers, a vengeful U.S. Congress, and the war itself, was an unequal partner in the growing wealth of the rest of American society. In its unrelenting attitude of defiance, it failed to reasonably integrate modern society and classical Christian faith. Consequently, even in the twenty-first century Southern Baptists have failed to recognize that “evolution is more than a theory,” and continue to resist the fact of human caused global warming with impregnable ignorance. In the 70s and 80s the Republican Party developed its “Southern Strategy,” with the result that the Neo-Confederate South, now, embraced and aided by a rigid national conservatism, a wealthy and powerful oligarchy, and Roman Catholic fundamentalists dominates the Republican Party. The traditional liberal values of the founding fathers – equality, justice, “the blessings of liberty,” “a more perfect union,” and “the general welfare,” or common good, no longer hold the imagination or devotion of the American people as a whole. They are no longer guiding principles, but merely words used in an increasingly Orwellian culture for purposes of corruption and control.

There is, of course, no necessary or fundamental problem with Civil Religion itself. Civil Religion is good and needful. Nations need shared principles, values, and understandings that knit people together and provide a fulcrum with which to handle weighty problems and difficult issues. Civil Religion becomes problematic when it is mistaken for the highest to which we may aspire. In the Lincoln-Douglas debate, Stephen Douglas spoke of how the United States had it within its power to become the most feared nation on earth. Lincoln responded that he had rather America become the most respected nation on earth. Sparta and Athens were driven by two entirely different sets of values – two different civil religions.

The famous theologian, Paul Tillich, described faith as our human concern with what is ultimate, and God as our Ultimate Concern. If we make money, or power, or status, or sex, or drugs and alcohol our Ultimate Concern, which is ever so easy to do, then said Tillich, our faith becomes idolatrous. To this we obviously could specifically add one’s nation, or its symbols like a flag, as Ultimate Concern. Misplaced Ultimate Concern becomes all the more tragic as it becomes impossible for those who have devoted themselves to the idol of nationalism to discern good from evil. For example, before George W. Bush unleashed shock and awe on Iraq, a reporter was interviewing a group of Roman Catholic men gathered in a Boston diner. Their consensus was that even though the Pope had issued a formal statement saying an American attack on Iraq would not meet the criteria of a just war, they were, nevertheless, determined to support the President’s decision. Or, as I write this both the leaders of the Republican Party of Alabama and the Southern Baptist Church are expressing their unequivocal support for Ray Moore. In those immortal words of one sports announcer, “Who would have thunk it?” Who would have ever thought, that American Civil Religion, or Southern Baptists, would deteriorate to the point that the White House would argue electing the likes of Roy Moore, in order to pass Trump’s tax plan, to be more important than any consideration of character; or, that political party should be more determinative for how we cast our vote than any ethical, or moral imperative, or even basic human decency.

The Inadequacy of American Civil Religion

The more the Civil Religion of any nation unravels, the more that nation becomes stuck; the more it will become mired in anxiety, anger, blame, and in a general inability to find constructive remedies to problems – or even to choose capable leaders. People who are stuck react to situations rather than respond. To react is for our words and actions to be determined by our own inner turmoil, anger, anguish, passions, compulsions, fears and concerns. A reaction seems to almost just jump out of us on its own accord. A response is more reflective, more thoughtful, and asks questions like: “What would be most helpful here?” Or, “What most needs saying or doing in this moment?” Obviously, some values,principles and religions contribute to a more reflective and responsive practice than others.

Unreasoning conservatism lacks the flexibility to respond to new and unforeseen challenges intelligently and creatively. To be “conservative” means, by definition, to “conserve.” The Republican party, and the South in particular, is determined to conserve a culture dominated by rich old white men, but like it or not, approve or disapprove, the racial demographics, not only of the United States, but of the whole world are changing. Barack Obama was not the last American President of color — he was just the first. Clinging to a Medieval understanding of science will not prevent or prepare for the problems of climate change. It will not assist Christians, or those of any faith tradition, in conversing with postmodern men and women in a way that possesses both comprehensibility and spiritual depth. And, it will not, as Roman Catholic radio suggests, make the problems of the eventual overpopulation of the planet untrue. The “American Dream” as a tenent of American Civil Religion cannot be sustained (conserved) indefinitely. The American Dream is a fiction of capitalism. It relies on an ever expanding population in order to have an ever expanding market and economy. It may all work out well for the very few at the top but for the rest of us – not so much. One must ask, what sort of religion is it that is okay with nearly the whole of humanity living in the most deplorable conditions imaginable, while a ridiculously few live long healthy lives in unimaginable luxury and safety. It seems to me, based on what I know of my own “supernatural” faith, that a truer and more practical principle and goal would be one of sustainability for all rather than the “dream,” or even possibility, of unlimited wealth and power for fewer individuals than you can fit into the Mar -a- Lago.

Say Who You Are and Where You Are Going

I have loved Walker Gibson’s funny little poem Advice to Travelers ever since discovering it in high school:

A burro once, sent by express,
His shipping ticket on his bridle,
Ate up his name and his address
And in some warehouse, standing
He waited till he like to died.
The moral hardly needs the showing:
Don’t keep things locked up deep inside —
Say who you are and where you’re going.

Gibson’s amusing little poem offers good psychological advice and help in building leadership skills. Those leaders who make the most positive and constructive contributions to their family, church, nation, or work are those who know who they are and where they are going. In terms of systems psychology, they are the most self-differentiated among us. They know what they think and feel without believing it incumbent upon them to force anyone else to feel or think as they do.

This doesn’t mean they say or do nothing, but that what they say and what they do is an honest expression of their inner life – as natural as a blade of green grass or a drop of falling rain. Men and women who understand the Christian faith, perhaps who understand any faith or wisdom tradition, adequately, know that being always precedes doing. They are more concerned with the meaning than with the how or efficiency of things. The how or efficiency of things is concerned with doing and with results. Love is concerned with meaning.

What frequently happens is that if someone is able to focus on just simply being, they discover, sooner or later, that their very “being” is in “Love.” Others who are adequately self-differentiated will generally want to travel with them – the neurotic and less self-differentiated will, at least initially, reject this healthy, non-anxious, non-angry way, but later may decide to come along even if it is with kicking and screaming. There is no guarantee of the least bit of success in following this path; and, those who do not believe personal spiritual transformation to be its own rich reward, or the Christian notion that “it is better to fail at love than to succeed at hate,” are not likely to follow it in winter.

As with Gibson’s donkey “the moral hardly needs the showing.” If we want to work for a saner, happier, more peaceful, life-sustaining nation and world for everyone without exception, we will need to begin by working on ourselves – to transform a church, a nation, or a planet we need to be, as Saint Paul put it, “transformed by the renewing of our mind.” There is much to do – there is much to be.

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