By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Civil religion is where religion and politics merge to shape American standards of legitimacy. They define American values, or habits of the heart. Robert Bellah coined the term, the American civil religion, in a 1969 essay, and in 1985 he explored its meaning in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.
Race, religion, immigration and sex have been dominant themes in shaping American habits of the heart. Racial attitudes have always been a major factor in U.S. religion and politics, and they have changed dramatically since the Civil War and the Jim Crow era that followed. Until the 1960s, white supremacy was a norm of the American civil religion. That was evident when 30,000 KKK members were given a warm reception in a 1925 march in Washington, DC.
White supremacy was confirmed in the 1896 “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, and it was not overturned until the 1954 decision of Brown v. the Board of Education. The civil rights era of the 1960s rejected white supremacy but initiated an era of racial turmoil and polarized politics. In 2016 white Christians who longed to return to the halcyon days of the 1950s elected Donald Trump president. That’s what Making America Great Again was all about.
America’s dominant religion, Christianity, has shifted from the center of the political spectrum to the radical right, a shift that enabled the Republican Party to gain dominance in Congress and elect Donald Trump. Trump’s election was made possible by white evangelicals whose prosperity gospel was once marginal in Christianity, but has now become mainstream.
Most Christians consider Muslims and immigrants as a threat to American values, despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims and Mexicans embrace libertarian American values with even more conviction than native Christians. The xenophobic fears of white Christians are likely exacerbated by projections that in another 20 years they will not be a majority in America.
Then there is the revolution in American sexual norms, with religion caught in the vortex. Homosexuals are now protected from discrimination by law, but Protestant denominations have been reluctant to accept homosexuals in positions of authority in their churches, or to conduct same sex marriages. Episcopalians and Lutherans have already split over these issues, while Catholics and Baptist still prohibit the ordination of women.
The American civil religion is not what it used to be, and perhaps that’s why Christianity is declining in America. Young Americans are not joining the church as they once did, and many church members are leaving as “nones.” If current trends are any indication of the future, the American dream may soon become a nightmare for traditional Christians.
Changes in American habits of the heart will not be resolved by scriptural authority that condones slavery and discrimination based on race, religion and sex. Progressive religions, however, have supported enlightened standards of legitimacy that are based on the secular norms of human rights and democracy. It seems likely that fundamentalist religions that continue to rely on scriptural authority to oppose progressive change are destined to decline and disappear.
American values and habits of the heart will continue to evolve, creating volatility in politics and reshaping religions. Based on current trends, there will be fewer people in the future who identify with specific religions, but most Americans will retain an individualized faith that determines their values and habits of the heart, and they in turn will shape their politics.
The greatest commandment to love God and your neighbors as you love yourself—including neighbors of other faiths—is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. That love command is at the heart of the American civil religion. It is universalist rather than exclusivist, and promotes a politics of reconciliation rather than a politics of polarization.
This may seem more wishful thinking than an objective prediction for the evolution of the American civil religion, but it will happen if people listen to both their hearts and their minds.
In 1967 Robert N. Bellah defined civil religion as “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals,” drawn from American history and “institutionalized in a collectivity” that function “not as a form of national self-worship but as the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged.” See how Trump is reshaping American civil religion, see https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-usa/2017/07/11/trump-reshaping-american-civil-religion/.
Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Robert N. Bellah, et al. (Perennial Library, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1986) cited Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville (who coined the term habits of the heart) as pioneer observers of American social mores, or norms of legitimacy. Bellah and his associates sought answers to the questions: How ought we live? How do we think about how to live? Who are we, as Americans? What is our character? Their study was based on interviews with over 200 persons from 1979-1984 (narrowed down to four), on topics relating to success, freedom and justice.
On How America Really Lost Its Mind: Hint, it wasn’t entirely the fault of Hippie New Agers and Postmodern Academics. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/how-america-really-lost-its-mind-hint-it-wasnt-entirely-the-fault-of-hippie-new-agers-and-postmodern-academics/.
On the transformation of the American dream, see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/upshot/the-transformation-of-the-american-dream.html.
On the day 30,000 white supremacists in KKK robes marched in the nation’s capital, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/08/17/the-day-30000-white-supremacists-in-kkk-robes-marched-in-the-nations-capital/.
On the support of Christian evangelicals for Trump’s redesigned culture war, see
On the cheap prosperity gospel of Trump and Osteen, see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/opinion/trump-osteen-harvey-church.html.
On why most evangelicals don’t condemn Trump, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-most-evangelicals-dont-condemn-trump/2017/09/01/64baab1c-8e79-11e7-91d5-ab4e4bb76a3a_story.html?undefined=&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
Progressive Christianity provides an example of religious belief compatible with the American civil religion and progressive politics. See The Eight Points of Progressive Christianity at https://progressivechristianity.org/the-8-points/.
On Why Progressivism and Religion Don’t Go Together, see http://www.nationalreview.com/article/449285/democrats-religion-problem-progressivism-faith-inherently-contradictory.
On American Civil Religion is Dead, Long Live American Civil Religion, see https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/american-civil-religion-is-dead-long-live-american-civil-religion/.
On why Trump can’t reverse the decline of white Christian America, see https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/07/robert-jones-white-christian-america/532587/.
On why Trump Can’t Save American Christianity, see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/opinion/trump-scaramucci-evangelical-christian.html?module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Opinion&action=keypress®ion=FixedLeft&pgtype=article.
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