Icon (Close Menu)

The demise of American civil religion

Something will be lost no matter who wins November’s American presidential election — something more central to American identity than the dissipating mirage of political unity: the dubious yet traditional form of American civil religion. This form, which has emphasized the role of the United States as a nation marked out by Providence, given a divine mission akin to biblical Israel, may well have died out.

Could we expect it from Donald Trump’s followers? He retains a significant majority of evangelical support, but much of it seems rooted in the fearful need for a “bodyguard” against “mounting (and real) threats” to freedom of speech and worship. This is a desperate “rear-guard defense of religious freedom” — a gamble, really — against the imagined restrictions of a Hillary Clinton presidency. This is not the stuff of crusades.

It’s also unlikely from Hillary’s supporters. The Democratic convention was awash with faith and patriotism, but any Democratic deployment of civil religion would have to avoid alienating religiously unaffiliated voters. Further, the invocations of faith at the Democratic convention may have been iconoclastic, meant to “crack open the carapace of Christian evangelicalism” into something more inclusive but presumably less specific than the political religion of the Bush years and the Iraq War.

If that dubious form of civic religion disappears because of resignation, despair, or pluralistic diffusion, is it a real loss? Do we avoid the danger of nationalistic idolatry? Does the task of separating civil religion from more theologically rigorous revealed religion become easier?

We simply don’t know. The problematic idea that America has a divine mission has nearly always been part of American civic religion, jostling uncomfortably with a narrative emphasizing God’s (not our) action and peace in place of war.

For a recent and telling example, it would be impossible to categorize the interfaith service held at the Washington National Cathedral immediately after 9/11 as either Christian liturgy or “civil religion,” as the historian Mary Sanders has shown in a fascinating recent article in Anglican & Episcopal History. Instead, it manifests the aforementioned tension.

The first part of the service seemed recognizably Christian — more, perhaps, than any comparable service today would. It followed the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Some christological references were muted and the dean of the cathedral questionably invoked the “God of Abraham and Muhammad and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ,” but an imam’s later prayer “echo[ed] the historical form and structure of the Collects in general.” A rabbi read a passage from Lamentations that would likely be familiar to a Christian audience.

Billy Graham’s sermon “drew heavily on the theology of the cross” and resembled the historical form of the jeremiad: The United States was being urgently called back, once more, to its traditional “foundation” of trust in God. All in all, the service invoked the aid of a gracious God in times of distress.

“Yes, there is hope,” said Graham.

But, then, in place of communion, President George W. Bush spoke. And this, Sanders writes, marked a “transition” toward the narrative of “civil religion,” expressing the need for national resolve in a dark time of war. Bush solemnly pronounced that “our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” Our responsibility.

Afterward, the congregation sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as representatives from each military branch removed flags placed near the altar.

At the end of the service, that first theme of imploring the aid of a gracious God returned with the closing prayer and the benediction. Then, the military representatives left with the colors. But a cross led the final procession out — not a military symbol — which was followed by both Catholic and Protestant leaders, as well as the rabbi and imam. Mary Sanders concludes by speaking of the two narratives, one narrative expressing peaceful hope in God and the other telling of “our responsibility” to exact retribution.

The “inherent tension” between them isn’t by any means merely a post-9/11 phenomenon. In American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion (InterVarsity Press, 2015), the Baptist scholar John D. Wilsey attempts — without complete success, I think — to distinguish between two forms of American “civil religion.”

What he calls “closed” exceptionalism is idolatrous. The stuff of Manifest Destiny and Manichaean anti-communism, “closed” exceptionalism too confidently declares America to be a new Israel, an elect nation. “Open” exceptionalism, on the other hand, imagines the United States being called to embody the ideals of personal freedom, political democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance — a task in which the nation inevitably falls short. “Open” exceptionalism “complements a revealed religion such as Christianity” (p. 28).

Despite Wilsey’s efforts, it isn’t clear that this categorization saves us from the “tension” between revealed and civil religion.

After all, the great hero of “open” exceptionalism for Wilsey is Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln believed in “a clear understanding of right and wrong … an objective, transcendent standard of justice,” stated clearly in the Declaration of Independence, to which the United States was called. Lincoln noted that the United States could be imperfect in realizing this goal, particularly given the sordid history of slavery. He famously recognized “the Almighty has his own purposes” while working through a fallible people. Lincoln distinguished divine action from human, but his work still exhibits that second narrative of theologically intensified (and epistemically certain) national agency.

Interestingly, Wilsey speaks often and movingly of cemeteries as sites of acceptable patriotism but never discusses in depth the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s concise masterpiece mimics the King James Bible for clearly political ends (Daniel Dreisbach, “Biblical Language and Themes in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” Perspectives on Political Science 44:1 [2015], pp. 34-39).

Dreisbach even suggests that Lincoln’s phrase “under God” may have been consecratory language, meant, in the wake of the war’s bloodiest battle, to correct a supposed theological defect in the so-called “godless Constitution.”

This tension between civil and revealed religion may seem very American, but it is not uniquely so. In one of the few Catholic theological explorations of nationality, the Jesuit Dorian Llywelyn focuses on what may at first seem an unlikely national symbol: Mary, the mother of God.

Mary has become for many a symbol of power for “us,” a weapon at our disposal. There have been seemingly unending attempts to secure or confirm Mary’s favor and divine presence and solidarity through human efforts, ranging from the official consecrations of entire nations to the variety of often very unofficial apparitions, visions, and locutions. In the seventh-century Sassanian Wars, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclitus placed the image of Mary on the masts of his navy; against the Calvinists at White Mountain, the soldiers of the Holy Roman Emperor shouted “St Mary!.” Mary was enthroned in the Falkland Islands.

Mary can become a quasi-divine force behind an idolatrous mystic nationalism.

However, she also serves for some as a bridge from revealed religion to a suitably chastened civil religion. For, if she is seen by devotees as expressing an intense cultural and religious solidarity, she cannot be seen as only theirs.

As John Paul II recognized, Marian spirituality “finds a rich source in the historical experience of individuals and of the various Christian communities present among the different peoples and nations of this world.” This is possible, the pope wrote, because “[E]ven when the same woman is the mother of many children, her personal relationship with each one of them is of the very essence of motherhood.”

In an irreducible plurality of places, Mary, our mother, is a sign of often unexpected divine presence and solidarity, often with those otherwise forgotten, calling us to affirm the importance of all.

It isn’t quite clear to me from all this history that there is or has been an obvious release from the “tension” between a narrative of seeking the comfort of an inscrutable divine providence and a narrative that closely entangles God with national agency or “responsibility.” Perhaps the best counsel is to always be sure to include language missing from the National Cathedral’s post-9/11 liturgy: a confession of sin.

But, now, in the wake of a presidential election marked by the desperate and resentful loss of civic faith by the working classes and the rejection of conventional religious alternatives — whether the Christian nationalism of Ted Cruz or the purist activism of Bernie Sanders — that tension may be strangely gone: it has become harder to believe in America, at least as it now is.

That 9/11 interfaith service, which happened only 15 years ago, seems like a decades-old relic.


  1. Excellent commentary on the presidential election from a perspective I never really thought of. Looking forward to reading more of your work, Mr. Dhingra.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

From the Archives: A Blind Man’s Pentecost

As this week after the Pentecost draws to its close, I present a final archival reflection on the...

From the Archives: A Third Article Reflection

In the wake of Holy Spirit's coming at Pentecost, I have turned to our archives to present various...

From the Archives: The Sound and the Spirit

In the wake of Pentecost, I'm dipping into our storied archive, presenting reflections upon the third person of...

From the Archives: Holy Spirit Remembrancer

In the wake of Pentecost, I thought it might be worthwhile to bring out some treasures old and...