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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Civil Religion Today

The last 18 hours has made me want to comment on the horrible shooting spree in Tuscon, Arizona in which 19 people, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, were shot and six were killed, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.  I don't have much to say from a biblical perspective that you probably don't already know I would say: murder is sin, we live in a fallen world, etc.  However, stepping aside from biblical comment for a moment, I continue to believe having watched the memorial service at the University of Arizona last night that President Obama is one of the most talented speakers I've ever heard whether or not I agree with what he says.  Aside from his rhetorical skill, I was gratified when he delivered this line:
And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy—it didn't—but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.
How refreshing.  As most of the media and members of Congress have simplistically rushed to the judgment that this massacre is the result of out-of-control, extreme political rhetoric instead of one man's severe, violent, untreated mental illness, and as Sarah Palin inimitably managed to denounce the blame game in a way that added fuel to its fire and her face to news programs, the President stuck to the facts of the case and yet used that as a springboard to encourage the kind of public dialogue that we should be talking about now even if the shooting had never happened.

But enough about that.  The main thing I want to write about is how last night's memorial service exhibited the present state of American civil religion.

"Civil religion" is the sort of generic, lowest-common-denominator piety that we hear and participate in in the governmental realm—for example, prayers at official events like inaugurations and openings of Congressional sessions, "In God We Trust" on the money, the annual Thanksgiving Day proclamation, and the "God bless America" at the end of every presidential address.  Civil religion seems to be the way that we as a nation formally express commonly held religious beliefs in a way that doesn't quite result in "an establishment of religion" that violates the First Amendment (though many would argue that it does).  Perhaps more to the point, civil religion is the way that we Americans derive our national identity, destiny, and self-confidence from a transcendent, supernatural source without the official endorsement of a church or recourse to the divine right of kings.  In other words, we employ civil religion because we know—or hope—that there's more to this America thing than just a group of human beings looking out for themselves who share the same physical space.  We also employ it because Americans are genuinely religious people, and we just can't help ourselves but express it when we gather publicly.

The difficulty is knowing just what to express.  When George Washington pioneered civil religion as our first president, he knew what he was working with.  At the one extreme were Evangelical Protestants steeped in the Reformed doctrine of the Puritans.  At the other were forerunners of Unitarians who believed in a God who providentially ordered human affairs but who denied miracles, the deity of Christ, and a personal relationship with God.  The religious statements and actions of Washington's public life were genuine but were also calculated to resonate with both extremes and those in the middle while stepping into controversial territory as little as possible.  This limited (though by no means small) religious range allowed for a theological basis for the Republic as a divinely instituted land of liberty and justice.  Though it could easily be employed for crassly self-justifying aims, the national theology also furnished the categories by which Lincoln could frame the profound meditations in his Second Inaugural Address.

But in the decades before Lincoln's address, America's religious range was stretched not only by increased fracturing of Protestantism (groups as variant as Mormons and Transcendentalists emerged during this era) but by the arrival of throngs of Roman Catholics.  The early 20th century saw Jews becoming a more prominent part of the national fabric, and the late 20th century featured the rise of Islam and non-Western religions through immigration, conversion, and experimentation, not to mention the increase of those who are "spiritual" yet irreligious and of atheists and agnostics.  The problem is that our religious range is now stretched so broadly that it is hard to imagine what a lowest-common-denominator civil religion could possibly look like.  What fundamental tenets could it maintain?  And yet Americans in general seem to have more of an appetite for it than ever.  Since Jimmy Carter, every president has had to pass a piety test in the eyes of the public in order to get elected (which, for example, John Kerry epically failed).  We expect our presidents to preside as high priests over the civil religion more than ever before.

The memorial service last night may have illustrated the state of civil religion today.  It opened with an invocation by a half-Native American professor, a long-winded request for blessing from the Creator by means of the four points of the compass, Father Sky, and Mother Earth.  Later, Secretary of Homeland Security and former Governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano read portions of Isaiah 40, remarkably concluding, "The word of the Lord."  Then President Obama quoted Psalm 46:4-5 toward the beginning of his speech, rhetorically and logically isolated from the rest of it.  More to the point of his message, he later said, "Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy understanding.  In the words of Job, 'When I looked for light, then came darkness' [Job 30:26]."  Toward the end of his message, the President said, "If there are rain puddles in heaven, [9-year-old victim] Christina is jumping in them today," before concluding, "May God bless and keep those we've lost in restful and eternal peace.  May He love and watch over the survivors.  And may He bless the United States of America."

This event may not be entirely typical, but there are a few themes that I think I have seen develop in the civil religion in recent years.  For one, whereas God as Judge was a major theme of the civil religion from Washington through Lincoln, God as Comforter is far more common today, which you can see in the ubiquitous "thoughts and prayers" extended to the victims of any nationally known calamity.  Second, there is more openness to particular religious expression at these ceremonies, so long as it isn't too particular.  The Native American invocation and the Christian-liturgy styled reading of Isaiah 40 are good examples of particularity.  But the Native American professor didn't chant, and the reading was not from the New Testament in which Christ would probably be mentioned.  The pluralism at an event like this is probably an attempt to deal with the loss of nearly all religious consensus.  Third, Scriptural references appear prominently today, but because of the loss of biblical literacy they have to be identified as such.  They also have a sort of magical quality—they are included as a sort of powerful symbol, but there is usually little if any exposition of their meaning or connection to the topic at hand.  For example, how are we to understand "Jerusalem" in Isaiah 40:2 and "the city of God" in Psalm 46:4?  Is this the literal Jerusalem or the Church (as Christians have viewed it through New Covenant eyes) or America itself?

The question that I keep asking myself is what the civil religion ought to be given the religious state of America today.  On the one hand, I would love for the civil religion to be as much like true and godly religion as possible—in other words, if we're going to be pious, let's worship the Father of Jesus Christ in spirit and in truth.  On the other hand, to invoke a religion on the nation that the people don't personally share risks convincing people that they're Christians just because they're Americans and watering down the true faith (see also: Europe), not to mention provoking hostility in people and the awkward issue of the First Amendment.  If it were my job to plan the memorial service, what would I have included?  If I were praying or giving remarks, what would I have said?  I really don't know.

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