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