2020– A year that’s basically been one endless exhausting news cycle. War. Impeachment. Famine. Drought. Wildfires. More war. Asylum seekers. Racial injustice. To top it all off, a global pandemic.
This state of affairs has prompted a host of commentators to question if we may be living in the end times. Such turns to religion to explain the unexplainable and provide some sense of order in chaotic times are not unusual. As for me, in my corner of the academic study of religion, I find myself wondering what all of this means for a different phenomenon, known as American Civil Religion.
The idea of civil religion is present throughout American history via Rousseau’s 1762 work The Social Contract, while evidence of the concept in practice can be found across the centuries as far back as Philo, Isocrates, and beyond. The first person to lay out a detailed explanation of a specific American Civil Religion was Robert Bellah in 1967. What Bellah described was a nonsectarian religious system that existed alongside, not in place of, other religions practiced by Americans. The American Civil Religion is a system of beliefs, symbols, and rituals meant to serve as, in Bellah’s words, a “genuine vehicle of national religious self-understanding.” All of this revolves around a core purpose of American Civil Religion as a source of national memory and identity.
In a unit as large as the United States, it’s naturally difficult to instill a sense of common national identity, and an easy way to do that is to promote a shared memory of who we are, a narrative of our history which can be accessed through engagement with those beliefs, symbols, and rituals. What this actually looks like in practice is a collection of things we may take for granted but actually serve a larger purpose constituting the American sacred, including texts such as the Constitution, symbols such as the flag, sites such as Arlington National Cemetery, and national holidays such as Memorial Day.
What always stands out to me when reading Bellah’s essay is his description of three times of trial. These times of trial are make-or-break moments in American history. The Revolutionary War was the first time of trial, a tenuous moment that determined whether the nation would exist at all. This trial was almost a creation narrative for the American experiment. The second time of trial was the Civil War, which posed an existential threat to the civil religion and its chief aim of preserving national unity. More importantly, the Civil War was a referendum on slavery and how serious we were as a nation about our ideal of a government by and for the people. The third time of trial was a broader crisis epitomized by the Vietnam War and the “evolving world order.” Bellah lamented that the United States had “stumbled” into an unwinnable war in Vietnam because “our honor was at stake” and he yearned for a global civil religion and “responsible action in a revolutionary world” (16). The first two times of trial are believed to have been confronted and overcome (more on that in a moment). The third was an in-progress trial in Bellah’s mind, and one could reasonably argue this trial remains a present-day reality for us as well.
That second time of trial has frequently been on my mind of late for many reasons. Even in 1967, as Bellah wrote his essay, he noted that the nation was “far from solving” the central problem of that time of trial: “the full institutionalization of democracy in our country” (16). The second time of trial was more than just the Civil War and a threat to literal geographical unity of the nation; it was about the expansion of the “we” in “we the people” and determining who is included in the American democratic experiment inaugurated by the first time of trial. What that second time of trial has always been about is the never-answered question of who actually gets to be a member of the demos in American democracy.
I set out to write this essay with the intention of musing about the possibility of this moment representing the fourth time of trial (or fifth, or sixth, etc., depending on who’s counting). There is an undeniable feeling of tension and uncertainty around the American experiment at this moment. The nation’s institutions are being tested, and frequently failing the test. We’re currently in the grips of a pandemic while the leaders and institutions envisioned to meet such challenges appear unable or unwilling to do so. Most importantly, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police have produced calls for justice and systemic reform across the nation. The more I reflect on where we stand, I actually believe we’re witnessing the consequences of never truly confronting that second time of trial. A host of issues exists on the periphery, while the pressing need is an acceptance of the fact that American Civil Religion is rotten at its core.
The historical narrative on which American Civil Religion rests fails to unite because it fails to truly be a history of the American people writ large. That’s because this narrative is built on what Kelly Brown-Douglas labeled the “Anglo-Saxon Myth,” a particular reading of history that penetrates every aspect of American society, legitimating and uplifting notions of white supremacy and American exceptionalism while turning a blind eye to uncomfortable historical realities. The history of America privileged by the civil religion is a trumpeting of American triumph coupled with a simultaneous silence on the realities of perpetual injustice and violent oppression. The civil religion has persistently valued a fragile, manufactured unity over true justice and reconciliation. The result is a system that has consistently failed to rise to the occasion of actually overcoming its times of trial rather than applying Band-Aids, and those Band-Aids don’t seem to be working now.
The fact that Juneteenth is still not a national holiday, and that people are complaining that it is actually a made-up holiday they’d never heard anyone talk about until this year, is a sign of one of those failings. The fact that this nation is woefully unfamiliar with the violent realities of reconstruction and segregation is another. The fact that the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks have to be chanted in the streets to be held in the public consciousness for even a brief moment, while racist secessionists such as Braxton Bragg are deemed worthy to be enshrined forever on the names of military bases, is yet one more. There are countless others. The system is broken from top to bottom.
Time of trial or not, we are faced with a moment of national and civil religious reckoning. We need a reimagining of who we are as a nation and how we understand ourselves. We need actual reconciliation, real bodily intentionality in confronting and tearing out the heart of systems of oppression. Echoing the call of Audra Savage, we need a civil religious reformation to approach this nation anew and construct a new sense of national self-understanding, to make Langston Hughes’ oath a reality, to ensure that “America will be!”
Adam McDuffie is a doctoral student in American Religious Cultures at Emory University. His research explores the intersections of religion, politics, and law, with a focus on the unique place of the military in American Civil Religion.