Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Born-Again Americans: The American Civil Religion

Odd title, eh? It's a combination of the original title [Born-Again Americans and That Old-Time (Civil) Religion] and the author's main point: that America needs a new civil religion. Of course, the term, civil religion, ought to raise a few eyebrows as it did my own.

Author Sara Robinson says, "We find this [the interest in religion and politics] 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. 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."

As I was reading this my thoughts drifted back to the 1770's when the foundations for our nation were being laid and I could not recall that the Church of England or any other church had any influence on the creation of the United States, no matter how hard the right-wing hopes its fantasy is true.

Robinson then details the meaning of 'civil religion.' "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."

She goes on: "From the start, we [Americans] 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.)

Some of the characters and characteristics of this search for defining us, she says, " 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."

Robinson admits that conservatives have reflected many of these values, but so have those on the left side of the political spectrum. In that, she says, "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."

By 'our side' she means the progressive/liberal side. She notes that sociologist Robert Bellah concluded that we have gone through revisions of this civil religion. The first at our very inception as we denounced the crown. The next was defined in the Constitution. After that, the Civil War, the New Deal and WWII were revisions. The author says: "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."

She continues: "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 [1960 -1990], 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?

"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 there 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.

Here is her main thesis: "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."

Yet, the author says that we cannot go backwards: "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."

She warns: "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."

The conclusion: "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. "

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