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After Jan. 6 when supporters of ex-President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, we saw a spate of articles about Christian nationalism. Prominently displayed by rioters were religious slogans and paraphernalia,
(Since it has implications for the research I’m doing on Swedish immigrant pastors in the 1850s, I’ve blogged about Christian nationalism HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE. A story in the last linked item includes a wonderful quote by Philip Gorski, who has studied the phenomenon: “Nor were such mixtures of Christian, nationalist, and white supremacist symbols unusual. […] What looked like apples and oranges turned out to be a fruit cocktail: White Christian Nationalism.”)
Trevor Hughes, a Denver-based national correspondent who does feature stories for USA Today, suggests at least some “who display Christian symbols or invoke the Bible to justify their actions are doing it in a largely cynical way”:
“For them, it’s just shorthand for identity,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a former prosecutor in Georgia. “There absolutely is a connection between far-right political extremism and far-right religious extremism, but I doubt these people are showing up at church every Sunday and reading their Bibles.”
True enough, probably. But they’re also exploiting a cluster of myths and symbols sometimes lumped together as America’s “civil religion” or “public religion.” Not always apple pie and motherhood, but myths — in the sense of founational stories that convey meaning — as disparate as the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, Valley Forge, the Gettysburg Address, raising the flag at Iwo Jima and President Reagan’s (or speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s) “shining city on a hill.” Not all of them are specifically religious.
A lot to unpack here. But first, a couple of definitions from Wikipedia, that fount of all human knowledge.
- Civil religion, also referred to as a civic religion, is the implicit religious values of a nation, as expressed through public rituals, symbols (such as the national flag), and ceremonies on sacred days and at sacred places (such as monuments, battlefields, or national cemeteries). It is distinct from churches, although church officials and ceremonies are sometimes incorporated into the practice of civil religion. (“Civil Religion” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_religion).
- American civil religion is a sociological theory that a nonsectarian quasi-religious faith exists within the United States with sacred symbols drawn from national history. Since the 19th century, scholars have portrayed it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration. Its current form was developed by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967 in the article, “Civil Religion in America”. According to Bellah, Americans embrace a common civil religion with certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals in parallel to, or independent of, their chosen religion. […] Bellah’s article soon became the major focus at religious sociology conferences and numerous articles and books were written on the subject.” (“American Civil Religion” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_civil_religion).
Interviewed in 2015 for a “Faculty Viewpoints” feature on Yale’s website, Gorski offered this definition, which I believe is both succinct and accurate:
The American civil religion is a way of thinking about the American project and what its highest ideals are. I think about it as an evolving tradition that goes back to the foundings, to the founding of Puritan New England and to the American Revolution, also to the re-founding of the American republic following the Civil War. I think its four core values are freedom, equality, solidarity, and inclusion.
But maybe the most telling definition of all comes from a participant in a Scouts BSA merit badge class observed by Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio. The religion and belief correspondent for NPR, Gjelten reported:
“Are we a country that’s united by a nationality?” asks Cheryl Repetti, leading a recent merit badge class for Scouts at an outdoor classroom in Alexandria, Va. “Do we have hundreds of years of living together as a people, as a shared culture?”
Joe, a young man in the second row, raises his hand.
“I would say that the thing that really holds America together, it’s our values,” he says. “Kinda like freedom and, like, respect to everybody.”
This is part of the civic education almost all young people in America learn, whether through a Scouting program or in their schools. Students from across the country visit Washington, D.C., in a typical year, as if on a pilgrimage, to see such hallowed buildings as the U.S. Capitol and get a firsthand look at the actual founding documents on display at the National Archives.
And this: After Gjelten discussed some of the challenges, especially since Jan. 6, he came back to the Scouts working on their merit badges:
The Scouts who gathered at a park in Virginia to work for their “Citizenship in the Nation” merit badge agreed among themselves that the work to put the American idea into practice is an ongoing process.
“We’re kind of getting closer to that American dream,” said Joe, in the second row. “We will never reach that dream perfectly. But I think it’s a history of getting closer and closer, from the American Revolution to the Civil War to the Cold War and then to now where we’re having discussions about race, LGBTQ [rights], stuff like that. It’s how can we get closer to that American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
There’s a reason for the confusion. The concept has evolved over time, and it’s notoriously hard to pin down. It means different things to different people.
Martin Marty likes to call it public religion, echoing Benjamin Franklin, who in a 1749 pamphlet Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Philadelphia, spoke of “the Necessity of a Publick Religion” [the italics are Franklin’s]. To Franklin and the other founders, it was rooted in the Protestant Christianity of the day as well as deism.He cites later luminaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson and the mid-19th century Transcendentalists, who added to it. And no less a light than Charles Dickens, who said he “was given to understand that whatever was unintelligible would be certainly transcendental.” It has continued to evolve over time.
In his interview with Gjelten of NPR, Gorski suggested the white Christian nationalists who took part in the Jan. 6 riot upset that applecart:
The advocacy of a civil religion took a complicated turn in recent months as the American political idea became linked to Christian nationalism. Among those who invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, claiming it as “our house,” were many who said they were led by their Christian beliefs, even as members of the Capitol Police warned they were violating a “sacred” space.
One of the insurrection leaders, standing defiantly on the dais of the Senate chamber, actually called on his fellow protesters to join him in prayer.
“Jesus Christ, we invoke your name!” he shouted, as recorded in a video by a writer for The New Yorker magazine.
Among those upset by that scene was Myles Werntz, a theology professor at Abilene Christian University.
“When you have someone like you saw on Jan. 6 — someone who gets up into the Senate, declaring that the violence that is being done that day is being done in the name of God — that’s when I think you find that religious language has gone amok.”
The widespread display of Christian symbols on Jan. 6, in fact, has triggered a general backlash against religious nationalism in the country. Werntz fears that the notion of a civil religion for the country may suffer as a result. Some of the most eloquent apostles of the American idea, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke from a Christian tradition, Werntz notes.
“In his speeches, he frequently uses reference to Scripture, and he’s not speaking specifically to Christians,” Werntz says. “He’s using these things as more basic moral instruction. My concern is that in trying to get rid of the Christian nationalist versions, the other things which might have some social benefit might get swept out as well.”
Gjelten cited other scholars regarding what he terms this ‘uniquely American creed’:
Acceptance of this uniquely American creed is seen as the key to one’s identity as an American and distinguishes the United States from other countries.
“It is difficult to become German. It is difficult to become Swedish, because those identities are not ideas,” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who writes often on religion and politics. “Becoming American means you believe in the American idea, and at least in theory, that’s open to any immigrant who’s able to come here.”
In practice, some Americans have not been allowed full participation in society and political life.
“Because of the xenophobia Asian Americans are facing, because of the backlash against African American civil rights, we’re seeing that this kind of citizenship, this intrinsic right to be in the U.S., to enjoy its freedoms, is not really for everyone,” says Lynn Itagaki, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Missouri.
Gjelten cites several, including Gorski and Lynn Itagaki, who teaches women’s and gender studies at the University of Missouri and says the the U.S. is a “white settler colonialist state.” They wish the civil religion could be more inclusive:
For Lynn Itagaki, who writes about what she calls “civil racism,” the problem is less with the text of the founding documents than with their application. “The United States is sufficiently inclusive as a philosophy,” she says. “In practice, it’s obviously been exclusive and has pushed people out as not being deserving — or, in religious terms, not being faithful enough.”
Itagaki notes that the American idea would be meaningful to more people if more recognition were given to some of its less familiar sources.
“The Iroquois nation’s Great Law of Peace was influential in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence,” she notes. “So we’ve got other thinkers, other texts, and I think we need to consider them in creating this civil religion that we talk about.”
Similarly, Yale’s Philip Gorski argues that the notion of an American scripture needs periodic updating to incorporate the voices of others alongside the nation’s founders, such as Frederick Douglass, the social reformer Jane Addams, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I think about the American civil religion as an evolving tradition,” Gorski says. “I sometimes liken it to a river whose banks grow wider over time and which is changed by the landscape that it flows through, instead of thinking about it as some kind of pristine spring that we have to return to again and again.”
Other notes and quotes (mostly the latter)
From the 2015 interview on the Yale website:
Q: Is the civil religion something that exists in our intuitive understandings of what it means to be Americans?
I think that’s exactly right. It’s something that we know, that we recognize, that we often find moving. But we may not always be able to explain to others or to ourselves exactly where it comes from or why it’s meaningful to us. But it is something I think we pick up very early on. We pick it up by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. We pick it up by listening to Martin Luther King speeches.
We pick it up by reading the Gettysburg Address. We pick it up by reciting the preambles to the Declaration or the Constitution. Those are all, as it were, part of the sacred scriptures of the American civil religion. And we may not know this, but they’re all interrelated. So Martin Luther King is evoking Lincoln’s second inaugural is invoking the Declaration of Independence. As Lincoln eloquently put it once, they touch on the mystic chords of our collective memory.
Also on the Yale website:
Q: Do you think that part of what is driving this increased polarization is a reaction to a more pluralistic country?
Yes, I think that the kind of anger and vitriol that we see at the moment is partly due to increasing pluralism. But it’s also pluralism combined with increasing inequality. There are a lot of people who feel like their country has been taken away from them. They partly feel threatened by growing pluralism, and they partly feel threatened by downward mobility.
It is hard to deal with people who are different from you. It requires work. It’s not easy. It can be uncomfortable. But that’s what America is supposed to be about. We’re supposed to show that that can work. And so I think people should buckle down and work a little bit harder at it.
I think a lot of the younger generation already is showing that you can make a lot of progress, not without fits and starts. When I look at my own children, they’re a remarkably tolerant, open-minded, inclusive bunch. And so I have a certain amount of hope that, though it will be difficult, it’s not impossible.
Tom Gjelten, “Can America’s ‘Civil Religion’ Still Unite The Country?” WAMU Washington. D.C., Washington [NPR]. April 12, 2021 https://wamu.org/story/21/04/12/can-americas-civil-religion-still-unite-the-country/.
Philip Gorski, “Can the American Civil Religion Bridge the Partisan Divide?,” interview by Ben Mattison, Faculty Viewpoints, Yale Insight, Dec. 11, 2015 https://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/can-the-american-civil-religion-bridge-the-partisan-divide.
__________, “The Roots of White Christian Nationalism,” interview, Vital Interests Online Forum: U.S. Policy in a Changed Global Paradigm, Center on National Security at Fordham Law, New York, Feb. 25, 2021 https://www.centeronnationalsecurity.org/vital-interests-issue-65-philip-gorski .
Trevor Hughes, “White nationalists are once again using Christian symbols to spread hate,” USA Today, Feb. 28, 2021 https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/02/28/white-nationalists-use-christian-symbols-send-messages-racists/4457702001/
Martin E. Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land; 500 Years of Religion in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984), 155-56, 208-19.