American Civil Religion

So we at American Catholic have been accused of worshipping at the table of the American Civil Religion. Upon my own demands for an explanation of this particular phenomenon, Michael Iafrate replied—like the good professor to the fledgling graduate student still learning to fly—seek thee for thyself. So I have.

The notion of an American Civil Religion stems from the parallels between the perception of the United States and the practice of religion. Some, such as Robert Bellah, have suggest that this phenomenon not only parallels religion, but is a religion in and of itself, complete with mythology, doctrine, a clerical hierarchy, and eschatological values.

This religion starts with a belief in Americans as God’s chosen people, supplanting Israel, but also being a type of Israel, from the flight across the sea from tyranny to the coming to the promised land, to the establishment of a new covenant. Americans have a holy text they revere as inerrant and containing the fullness of truth, namely the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Added onto that, as sort of a New Testament, is the Gettysburg Address and a few other presidential documents. There is also a religious hierarchy with the elected officials, and a high-priest in the president himself. American’s end has been captured in such ideas as “Manifest Destiny” and the exporting of “freedom” and “democracy” to the “unenlightened” world. There are even religious holidays, like Thanksgiving and Memorial Day.

This, of course, is an oversimplification of the whole notion, but it does bring to light particular complaints that the Left typically has levelled at the Right. For example, here’s a few points that I can think of that people on the Left find problematic.

  1. The War in Iraq. Under the American Civil Religion, any war or even any sabre-rattling is justified because of America’s divine status. Like the Israelites called to make war on peoples around them, especially those that were dwelling in Canaan prior to the Israelites settling there, Americans are called to make war on her enemies.

  2. Exporting freedom. Because most religions demand converts, it is imperative for Americans to go forth and spread the American Way—her freedom, liberty, McDonald’s and Wal Mart’s.

  3. Questioning patriotism. Because her doctrines are sacred, inerrant, and infallible, anyone who disagrees with whatever the United States does is a heretic, and labeled so. Dissent is not tolerated.

  4. Individualism. Because individualism and capitalism are part of the American doctrine, the poor have no recourse but to starve. The economy is the more important factor, and anyone who dares threaten the economy is likewise branded as a heretic. Socialism isn’t actually bad, but as it runs counter to the American doctrine, it has to be scorned and reviled.

  5. Nativism. Because Americans are God’s chosen people, it is important that Americans remain pure. Thus Americans hate immigrants and work tirelessly to make the immigrants allowed into the United States identical to other Americans. American culture is sacrosanct and cannot be polluted by outside ways.

  6. Salvation through the military. Just think of all those e-mails floating around that say things like, “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you, Jesus Christ and the American G.I.” Obviously Americans have the same redeeming power as Christ.

  7. Infallibility. I sum up everything else in this point. Because the United States is the United States, God’s chosen nation, she can do no wrong. Anyone who questions the treatment of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, segregation, involvement in Vietnam, and so on, questions the integrity of a perfect nation. Once again, heresy is labeled. America has spoken; the case is closed.

Now, I’ve probably left out key components that are obvious to others, but this is a good list to start with. Moreover, it is immediately apparent what is wrong with society, and the Right in particular, if we view everything in terms of this American Civil Religion.

I won’t deny that there have been religious overtones in America since its inception. I won’t deny that many viewed America as the new, best hope and a gift from God. I’ll even admit that there have been people who truly believe in a divine mandate for the United States. But does this mean that this mentality is rampant? Does someone who feels the Iraq War was justified worship at the altar of the American Civil Religion? Is someone who feels his neighbor’s diatribe is unpatriotic a believer in the divine statues of our nation?

Maybe the mentality is rampant. I have no data to work with, nothing but feelings. Perhaps President Bush does believe firmly that the United States is God’s chosen nation. Perhaps many Republicans do. On the other hand, they may not. They may, instead, recognize a couple points that can be easily taken out of context.

First, our nation is special in a certain regard, formed primarily from creed. Moreover, that creed was written with special attention to Christian values. It isn’t that hard to believe that a nation founded on beliefs and principles pleasing to God would itself be pleasing to God. That doesn’t mean she’ll always please God, or even ever please God. But it isn’t hard to believe that the United States might, in some fashion, be pleasing to God.

This doesn’t mean that she is God’s chosen nation by any means, and certainly I would agree that anyone who seeks to make that claim needs to seriously consider just what it means to be a chosen nation, a chosen people. Certainly for a Catholics, to be of the chosen people is to be Catholic, not of any nation.

Second, there is the acknowledgement that legitimate civil authority itself is derived from the authority of God. The Catechism states:

2238 Those subject to authority should regard those in authority as representatives of God, who has made them stewards of his gifts: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution. . . . Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God.” Their loyal collaboration includes the right, and at times the duty, to voice their just criticisms of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community.

2239 It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community.

2240 Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country…

Thus in some sense, one could claim that the government of the United States has divine authority. The important point to notice, of course, is that this holds for every other government of good faith in the world.

So what of the complaints I listed above? I will try to handle them in reverse order.

  1. Infallibility. The United States is not infallible by any means. Recognition of a stained past in which she has made many mistakes, and has allowed her people to commit grave crimes, is important in understanding our nation. Recognizing those errors, coupled with a willingness to rectify them, is one of those aspects that make our nation great. But while the United States is not infallible, neither is she incapable of doing right. In fact, she is a great source of good in the world (not the greatest, since I reserve that for the Catholic Church). The problem, though, is that she also has the capability of being a source of great evil in the world, too. That is why we have (or try to have) open discussion in our nation, and that is why our current trend of slogans and ad hominem’s is hurting us so badly.

  2. Salvation through military. There is concern that some Americans value our soldiers more than our religious leaders, even attributing redeeming qualities to them. Now, I certainly feel that our soldiers do not deserve divine status themselves, but they are to be commended. They are willing to expend their lives in defense of this nation—right or wrong—and the lofty values this nation stands for. I feel there is no blasphemy then to honor their sacrifice—either of life or psychological or physiological wellbeing—or to pray for them. The question, of course, is what happens if our soldiers are risking their lives for an unjust cause. Do they deserve prayers and support when their very actions seem to be in collusion with evil? Saying yes because they’re our troops and need our support starts to smack of having a divine legion that can do no wrong. But the trick here is to realize that supporting our troops truly depends on the situation. The Iraq War, for example, is a difficult call, because at the time the war was being debated, most people felt that Saddam Hussein presented a clear and present danger to our nation. It is much easier to tell when we’re repulsing invading armies from our shores or liberating our allies from cruel tyrants. And I feel we would be justified at not supporting our troops when the war is blatantly unjust—like if we invaded Canada for expansionist reasons.

  3. Nativism. About this, the Catechism states:

    2241 The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

    Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.

    Because people who wish tighter security on our borders often cite the shifting of American culture as a reason to build fences and deport illegal aliens, it is easy to see the argument as a desire to keep pure the American culture. Never mind that history has shown that a nation divided along culture lines has great difficulty keeping unified (think of the problems in Iraq with the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds). And it seems that the Catechism would encourage the United States to accept more immigrants. But what we must never forget is that arguments about how much immigration our nation can support without hurting her citizens are valid concerns, and the data should be scrutinized. In addition, the Catechism supports the polite request that immigrants “respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them.” To argue that illegal are or aren’t doing this, wrong or right, is not to insist that America has any special divine status, but that America has a right to protect herself, has a right to even exist.

  4. Individualism. As I’ve pointed out before, a well-regulated free market, with safety nets provided in concord with subsidiarity, is perhaps the economic system best suited for man. This comes from study of Rerum Novrum, and the follow-ups Quadragesimo Anno and Centesimus Annus. I would argue that we Americans are too individualistic, and that has led us into many problems. I think it we need be more community-oriented, especially in the care for the poor and the sick. But to delve into the details on that is whole post on its own. To put it succinctly, though, because the individual is important in his own right, and because the economic system I just mentioned is a good one, one does not have to be worshipping the American Civil Religion to support these ideas.

  5. Questioning patriotism. If person A accuses person B of being unpatriotic, there are two possible reasons. In the first, person A is just trying to shut down conversation and win points by trying to label person B with something person B cannot argue against. Here there is a huge amount of concern about person A’s motives, whether person B is patriotic or not. In the second, person B is slandering the United States unjustly, and person A is trying to correct him. The concern, though, isn’t whether someone is patriotic or not, but just flinging around the term patriotism. This comes to the question of whether or not one can love his country, and whether love for one’s country smacks of worship. The truth is, it is possible to love one’s country without making a religion of it; it is possible to love country and still love God with all one’s heart, mind, body, and soul; but it is possible to love one’s nation more than God, too. The lesson? Examine what arguments are being put forth. If someone simply uses the word “unpatriotic” to mean “doesn’t agree with me”, that’s no different than labeling someone as “worshipping the American Civil Religion” when one really means “that person doesn’t agree with me”.

  6. Exporting freedom. Our nation exists to protect her citizens. Due to alliances, she may be called upon to protect her allies. It isn’t incumbent upon her to force her ways on other nations. It might, in the course of rebuilding a nation she has warred with, be prudent to install a democracy as we understand it, but not necessarily so. To be honest, I would be concerned whenever someone starts talking about our duty to bring freedom to nations that are no threat to us, especially if it is by military means.

  7. The War in Iraq. This war has been one of the key dividing points between people in our nation. Depending on who you ask, the war was either the best thing we’ve every done, or the greatest injustice we have committed in our time. While there are good reasons we never should have gone into Iraq, there are also good reasons that compelled us to do so. The key is to understand those reasons, to examine the evidence we have, and keep in mind there may be plenty of evidence we know nothing about. It is a travesty to intelligent thought to write off someone who supports the war as a worshiper of the American Civil Religion without knowing the reasons that person supports the war.

The conclusion? There are two, really. The first is the importance of not simply writing someone off as “being that way”, and instead actually trying to argue things out with specifics. Even rebutting someone’s terribly fallacious argument can prove beneficial by helping us understand our own positions better. The second is paradigm. I, for one, felt I better understood where Mr. Iafrate’s comments came from, especially if he works under the paradigm that those who support the War in Iraq, capitalism, strict border control, and so on live in either a conscious or unconscious worship of this American Civil Religion. Knowing this paradigm, I think we can better address his concerns, and possibly even lay a few of them to rest.

10 Responses to American Civil Religion

  1. John Henry says:

    Thanks for the summary Ryan. I had glanced at the Wikipedia page to get a general idea of the accusation. It’s an interesting concept, but it seems to me that moralistic therapeutic deism is far more widespread, particularly over the last twenty to thirty years as the textbooks have discussed U.S. history in less glowing terms.

  2. Conspirama says:

    American Civil Religion « The American Catholic: Politics and ……

    So we at American Catholic have been accused of worshipping at the table of the American Civil Religion. Upon my own demands for an explanation of this particular phenomenon, Michael Iafrate replied—like the good professor to the ……

  3. Michael Enright says:

    I think you should also look at the more “conservative” or even traditional arguments against American Civic Religion. What I am refering to is the condemnation of the heresy of Americanism by Pope Leo XIII. This is especially relevant in light of issues such as individualism, “exporting democracy”, and American particularism.

    You have to understand that “exporting freedom” has been a part of America for a long, long time. This has been the unofficial idea probably since the begining, when the US was seen as the model for a liberal revolution, which caught hold accross Europe. It became the official millitary philosophy of the country since at least the Spanish American War where “American Democracy” conquered Old (and in part Catholic) Europe, and was continued in World War One and up to the Iraq war.

    Furthermore, the Individualism angle cuts in a few different directions. It is not just an economic issue. The Church has always said that the common good is more important than individualist rights, which effects social issues as well.

    The similarity of their criticism against the heresy of Americanism and the modern critique of American civic religion is amazing given their very different views and political committments.

  4. The first is the importance of not simply writing someone off as “being that way”, and instead actually trying to argue things out with specifics.

    Not sure why everyone on this blog seems to think that blog comments are the place for extended arguments and complex explanations of phenomena like american civil religion. Surely you don’t expect me to be able to give a lecture on such things every time I make reference to them? I’ve written on american civil religion before. Sometimes I simply refer to things without feeling the need to make a long argument, seeing how we are bloggers, and you are not my dissertation committee.

    …especially if he works under the paradigm that those who support the War in Iraq, capitalism, strict border control, and so on live in either a conscious or unconscious worship of this American Civil Religion

    Not quite.

  5. John Henry says:

    Michael – don’t be ridiculous. You made an accusation. Then you refused to provide any evidence for that accusation or offer any explanation of what led you to make the accusation. We were not waiting breathlessly for you to provide a lecture on anything – just to show the common decency of trying to justify your charge. Even Kingsley did that much.

  6. S.B. says:

    Sometimes I simply refer to things without feeling the need to make a long argument

    Translation: “My habitual pattern on almost every occasion is to throw out insults that I can’t be bothered to explain or defend.”

  7. We’re not your dissertation committee — which is probably why you haven’t been kicked out of grad school 😉 — but there’s a point at which if you want to throw around accusations and characterizations you should be prepared to explain what you mean by them.

    I don’t think you’d be impressed by a blog where people were constantly told, “You’re just one of those Liberal Catholics” and the accusor then refused to even explain what he meant by the term. Similarly, if you want to accuse people of worshipping at the altars of the state, or worshipping the military, or participating in American Civil Religion, or what have you, then you need to be prepared to explain what you mean by those terms and why you think they apply. Or at least, you need to be prepared to do that if you want to have any chance of helping people understand what you mean and perhaps even respect your opinion — if your main purpose is to blow off steam online I guess it really doesn’t matter.

    You clearly have a fairly unique political perspective, yet you seem oddly hesitant to ever lay it out very clearly. Trying to see if I was being unfair on this, I just ran down your list of VN posts back to the mid summer, and although I see a lot of quicky “Look at this horrible thing” posts and “This writer says this about Obama” posts, going back to July of this year I don’t see any where you lay out a policy proposal or write more generally about your political philosophy.

    Which made it a bit ironic when I ran across >this post where you express the laudible opinion:I am thankful to be part of a group blog that focuses on original writing and commentary on contemporary issues and current events rather than constantly pointing the finger at other bloggers.

    I’m not saying that I’d agree with you any more if you tended to write more substantively in your posts and comments, but I would at least have the benefit of knowing what it is that you think — other than that you generally react to my economic views with horror.

  8. Ryan Harkins says:


    Not sure why everyone on this blog seems to think that blog comments are the place for extended arguments and complex explanations of phenomena like american civil religion.

    This from our comment policy:

    We would like American Catholic be a place where Catholics from various perspectives (and anyone of good will) may constructively discuss the issues that unite and divide us.

    Our intent here is not just to post articles, but have discussions. While we greatly appreciate your taking time to read what we’ve written, we’re also hoping for genuine dialogue. In a sense, we do want our comboxes here at AC to deal with complex arguments made for or against difficult issues. Now, of course, no one says you have to make long, involved comments. You have your blog to manage and probably many other things to do. At the same time, if you have the opportunity, we’d like to hear some well-argued points you have to make.

    I’ve written on american civil religion before. Sometimes I simply refer to things without feeling the need to make a long argument, seeing how we are bloggers, and you are not my dissertation committee.

    Part of the problem with saying this is that just because you’ve written about American Civil Religion before does not mean that we understand how you’re validated in accusing us of worshiping it. Now, I certainly took your advice and looked up the topic myself. I read Bellah’s original argument, and have worked through a good portion of his “The Broken Covenant” to try to get a good understanding. From there I speculated on what your accusations were precisely, and why I felt there weren’t justified.

    The difficulty, of course, is that I’m not a mind reader. I don’t know that these are your arguments, or even if they are, if you’re not seeing important minutiae that I didn’t pick up on. That’s why we ask for clarification.

    The point is that we’re not blogging to be in a void. We’re not spending hours of our time to produce something that has no impact on people. And if you feel that we’re presenting very bad arguments, we’d not only like to know that we are doing so, but how. We’ll take criticism–though we will probably argue quite a while–but we’d prefer “You’re wrong, and here’s why” over just a “You’re wrong.”

    Now, you challenged me to look into something, and I have, and I feel I’ve gleaned a good amount of insight from it. I feel sheepish that you had to rebuke me to look up “American Civil Religion” on my own, but then, that doesn’t solve the problems you see here. It reminds of the joke about a man overhearing a couple of coworkers gossiping about someone who simply doesn’t have a clue, and walks away thinking “I’m glad I’m not like that guy”, when in truth they were talking about him. Having looked into American Civil Religion, I feel comfortable in saying, “no, I don’t worship at its altar”, but maybe you’re seeing something I’m not. That’s why specifics are necessary.

  9. Also, a little note on prose composition: If you want to emphasize that you’re using a proper noun (perhaps one that others should make themselves familiar with before responding), it can help to capitalize it — even if it contains the hated word “American”. Thus “American Civil Religion” or if you want to be specific “American Civil Religion as described by [Name]” might be more helpful than “american civil religion”.

    Otherwise people may not realize that you’re referring to a socialogical term rather than just tossing off an ad hoc accusation.

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