Is “God Bless America” problematic ?

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom-symbolizing an end as well as a beginning-signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.” – John F Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

“ Now, here, as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion.  And, yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too — because religion strengthens America.  Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.” – Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast meeting, February 6, 2014

 

Photo courtesy: Reuters.com
Photo courtesy: Reuters.com

The two speeches quoted above were made with a gap of  more than fifty years. Despite this, one can see the reference to God, America being a religious nation and the rhetorical use of faith in both these speeches. This rhetoric of religion goes back to the founding of the nation itself, one could argue. Why does an American President have to invoke God to appeal to his own people and the rest of the world? Despite constitutional separation of religion and state, why does this occur so often? What role does this “Civil Religion” play in America. I will examine these questions in this short article and look at the intersection of religious and political rhetoric in the American public sphere and explore whether this is problematic and why.

Civil religion can be defined as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its own purposes[i].” Since Rousseau coined the term and used it in his The Social Contract, the concept has become useful in describing this phenomenon of politics coopting religion. Robert Bellah, in his essay Civic Religion argues that “every nation and every people come to some form or religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not,” by this he means not the self-worship of nation, but conscious subordination of the nation to ethical principles. He uses the example of John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech (quote above taken from this speech) to demonstrate that civic religion seems to be alive and well, in the American political space. He says that the mention of God three times in the beginning para of his speech itself is not just symbolic or empty, but points to a value system that most Americans share and to that extent, it is an acceptable form of speech.

Bellah asks: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word “God” at all?” The answer, he points out, is that the separation of church and state does not deny the political realm a religious dimension, meaning that there is no prohibition in using religious rhetoric, as long as it is not used to suppress others religious rights or freedoms. Further, Bellah clarifies: “Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share.” He further argues that civil religion in America is tied to the history of the founding of the country itself, and manifested very strongly in instances when the very meaning of the nation has been questioned. Subsequently, through the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, in Bellah’s view represents the very best of the civil religious tradition- as his motives were drawn from the Declaration of Independence and the desire to hold the country together, and not from a particular religious dogma. This tradition seems to have continued till today, with a few aberrations in between.

Bellah is also quick to remind us that it is not all rosy with civil religion. “It has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions. It is in need-as any living faith-of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards. But it is not evident that it is incapable of growth and new insight,” he adds.

As a country that has constitutionally separated religion and state, some critics point out,  civil religion blurs these boundaries. Former President George W Bush came under attack in the media and from scholars for the use of religious rhetoric and in particular, use of the word ‘Crusades,’ to describe the Iraq War. Commenting on the Bush years, this NY Times article further contends that “ Too often, though, American politicians and moralists have reduced faith in Providence to a religious sanction for raw power. In the 1840’s, with the emergence of the idea that the United States had a manifest destiny to expand to the Pacific, the hand of God was no longer mysterious (as in traditional Christian doctrine) but ”manifest” in American expansion. As for the natives who unproductively occupied the Great Plains, Horace Greeley, the journalist, said in 1859: ”’These people must die out — there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against his righteous decree.” Both these historical examples point to the ugly use of religion to justify actions that could not stand the test of high moral principles that they promised to uphold.

Moving to contemporary America, President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb 6 are indicative of the importance of civil religion in the U.S. Civil religion has arguably made a significant contribution towards the discourse of religious freedoms, as Obama’s speech demonstrates. Obama uses his rhetoric of civil religion to build on his argument for greater religious freedoms both in the U.S. and abroad. He mentions the recent uptick in violence in the Central African Republic, Persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Burma as egregious instances when the states are not doing enough to protect those who are vulnerable. As he says: “ I’ve felt the love that faith can instill in our lives during my visits to the Holy Land and Jerusalem — sacred to Jews and Christians and Muslims.  I’ve felt it in houses of worship — whether paying my respects at the tomb of Archbishop Romero in San Salvador, or visiting a synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or a Buddhist temple in Bangkok.” This device works, one can argue, to not only bring people together in a shared value system, but also to politically send out a message that all religious groups and faiths will be tolerated. So, in effect, civil religion in this instance can be seen as upholding the First Amendment provision of freedom of speech, which by implication means freedom of religious choice or to not believe. In a post 911 world, where religious intolerance in the U.S. is quite high, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, this rhetoric may be necessary.

Some of the benefits of civic religion are obvious: a) It gives us a value framework that is shared by all, irrespective of a particular faith tradition. b) It could also provide a safeguard for religious freedoms, and not letting the state trample on religious freedoms of people. President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast 2014 is a classic case. His entire speech can be seen as a call for religious freedoms both in the U.S. and around the world. While in a global context, this rhetoric may be seen as being hegemonic, it is not in contradiction with globally agreed norms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion. The only glitch, it seems is that this ‘values system’ leaves out the non-believers and those who are strongly opposed to any mention of religion in the public sphere. This is truly a sticky wicket.

Finally, it helps to remind ourselves what Bellah has said about civic religion and its place in American society. He advises that rather than being cynical and denouncing civic religion, which is in any case inevitable, given the highly religious nature of American society, it is better to seek within the civic religious space, those principles that may prevent national self-idolization. Bellah’s point that civil religion is becoming more activist, rather than theological is another interesting and perceptive insight. Looking back at recent history, we can see this in the case of civil rights movement, labor reforms debates, immigration reforms debate and several other initiatives, where religious leaders from various faith traditions have come together to create a discourse based on rights, often acting politically and similarly, politicians using religious rhetoric of ‘god given rights’ to argue for equality and ‘dignity for all.’ In this regard, civil religion can actually be helpful both as a social and political tool. There is no need to fear this public expression of a benign religious value system. What we need to fear is extremism- from both sides : the religious and the atheists.

 

Notes


[i] From Beiner, Ronald, Civil Religion, A dialogue in the history of political philosophy, Cambridge Uni Press, 2011

 

Is there a ‘God Problem’ in the West?

Is there a ‘God Problem’ in Western societies? Given the rise of the atheist movement, best exemplified by people such as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins and other famous celebrities who make a living dissing religion; the question is: Do they have a point when they say that religion makes no sense and people are fools to believe in it? While this is a reasonable claim, it is not true. People are indeed rational when they speak of religion and they do this by speaking to others (and themselves) in ways that conforms to norms of reasonableness. This is the key argument that Robert Wuthnow, Princeton Sociology professor makes in his book The God Problem, which carries out a discourse analysis of how people talk about religion. He argues that given a chance to speak, and with enough attention and patience, we will discover that most people will speak about religion in very reasonable terms. The crazy right-wing talk is just that – crazy- and is carried out by a tiny fraction of the minority, for political and other reasons, while the vast majority of believers are normal, reasonable people.

Photo credit: UC Press
Photo credit: UC Press

The ‘God problem’ is not only about belief, but about its manifestation in the real world. When radical extremists demand death for homosexuals or seek to legislate in favor of believers and discriminate against others, who don’t look or believe as they do; this problem becomes real. Also, the reaction of atheists to this is often very strong, leading to a war of words, and other times a literal war. This is the gist of what Wuthnow calls the God problem and one can appreciate how this is indeed a complex topic, not just in the U.S. but anywhere in the world, where people take their religion seriously. I have written about this in my earlier post about Religion in the Public Sphere here. Another problem that he has highlighted is the notion of religion and democracy and freedom of speech. Since much of dogmatic religion suppresses dialogue, critical thinking, this is seen as harmful to democracy.

Wuthnow argues that a highly educated society like the U.S. is a paradox of sorts, given that rationality is not supposed to go hand in hand with religion. He says: “The best educated tend to tilt away from the pattern of devout religious conviction, apparently experiencing some of the tensions between faith and intellect that the critics argue is there. But this is only a slight tilt. For the most part, well-educated Americans seen to have found a way to continue to believe in God and praying regularly to this deity.” This, he says is not because of bad education, wishful thinking or other factors; but rather the need for these believers to have their cake and eat it too. In this way, he argues that language mediates between belief in god and rationality.

Wuthnow suggests that people of faith adopt strategies (six of them) to help balance this tension between faith and reality. They are:

  1. Schema alignment – Schema alignment frequently takes the form of anthropomorphizing god- imagining God behaves like a human person. Studies by Barrett and Frank C. Keil asked students to complete stories about God and then compare these with students’ answers to abstract theological questions. Their answers frequently suggested that God acted like a person even though these were inconsistent with the students’ formal theological views.
  2. Ontological assertion – Affirming the existence of God without necessarily attributing specific actions to God. It is possible to make statements that emphasize being without explicitly suggesting action. Prayers are often of this kind. They assert the existence of God without associating any other action with God. God is more of a reality, presence, or being and less of an agent who engages in action.
  3. Contingency referents – These are devices that makes divine action contingent on human action or circumstances, and thus provides an explanation for apparent failures of the divine. They are a kind of warrant or explanation for why something happens or does not happen. Warrants for trust are a good example. They stop short of asserting that they can influence God’s actions and hence Pat Robertson’s assertion that he could change the direction of Hurricane Gloria came across as a cultural Faux pas. As Wuthnow adds, “A Muslim doctor says she believes firmly in the Prophet’s teaching that you should ask God for what you need, even if it is a shoelace or some salt. “God is going to provide it,” she says. She adds “ It’s not that he is going to give it to me in my hand. I have to struggle to get it. “ Other people explain that God will help them realize their dreams in life, but only if they work hard, or that God will help them avoid serious illness, but only if they eat right and have regular medical check-ups.
  4. Domain juxtaposition – Is another device that emphasizes transgressions of basic cultural categories, or at least strong contrasts between them, and is thus expressed by this rubric. Prayer implies that the human realm can somehow communicate with a divine realm. The two realms are necessarily juxtaposed. However, a juxtaposition of this kind must be defined, and doing so involves the construction of a symbolic boundary that both distinguishes the two and brings them together.
  5. Code switching – This involves using words that in context would imply supernatural action, but then changing the terminology to make the meaning of those words metaphorical or ambiguous. He quotes a Muslim woman, with a bachelors in Economics as saying “ As a scientific, educated mind, I don’t think it is true that I relate to God, on a very personal basis. But I believe it is the spirituality inside you that says, ‘This is the God that has created me. He’s going to take care of me. “ What is she saying? “ Wuthnow asks, before answering that there are two parts to her – two aspects to her persona that reflect different speech communities. Speaking as an educated mind, she cannot say that she personally relates to God But switching into her inner spiritual self, she can say that there is indeed a connection.
  6. Performative Competence – Is slightly different from the other devices in that it suggests that the appropriate way to assess a prayer is by talking about how it was performed. An example would be saying that a heartfelt prayer is good or especially meaningful because the speaker was sincere. Another example would be saying that a liturgical recitation of the Lord’s prayer is good because the exact words of Jesus are being spoken. A competent prayer is one that conforms to these expectations.

The only weakness that I found in this book is that he did not give a background about discourse analysis to those who do not know what it is. DA is a highly technical and rich field, which takes some background in sociological theory, linguistics, political science to grasp fully and perhaps a short chapter or even an appendix with some references would have helped. This is a thoroughly researched book, with over 200 in-depth qualitative interviews, with people of all faiths in the U.S. To this extent, it is empirically grounded and rich in data.

As Wuthnow points out in the conclusion, American religion has included parts of ‘spooky and weird’ behavior. From Evagelicals like Ted Haggard to other born-again Christians, there have been leaders who have preached things that would fall into that category. This ‘World rejection’ as Max Weber termed – has been a key feature of dominant religious philosophies in the U.S. He further points out that all these have been studied, but what has not been studied is the way reason manifests in this mix. That seems like a fair thing to say. We tend to hear only the crazy stories of healing or their ‘rational’ denouncements by atheists who can be equally extreme in their reactions. In between these two, we don’t hear the actual experiences of the people who believe, act out and affirm their faith, on a daily basis. This book does a good job of articulating and making sense of this belief. One of the ways that an act comes to be regarded as rational is through what Jurgen Habermas has called ‘Communicative Rationality,’ i.e., when something is deliberated in public, among all parties involved and a decision is reached.

This is a fascinating read, and if you have interests in religion, linguistics, and sociology or discourse analysis – The God Problem should definitely be on your reading list.