By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Robert N. Bellah described the American civil (or civic) religion as “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals,” drawn from American history that shape national values and standards of political legitimacy. It is grounded in the shifting standards of Christian morality, the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and duty and loyalty to the Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and a prophet of the American civil religion. Jefferson had little use for the institutional church, but he considered the moral teachings of Jesus as “the sublimest morality that has ever been taught.” The biblical scholars of the Jesus Seminar consider Jefferson a pioneer in “separating the real teachings of Jesus from the encrustaceans of Christian doctrine.”
The teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves. It’s a universal moral imperative taken from the Hebrew Bible, taught by Jesus and accepted as a common word of faith by Muslims; and in politics it mandates providing for the common good.
America’s partisan politics are dangerously divided with no national values to promote the common good. Most White Christians support Republicans and most Black Christians support Democrats; and most American churches remain racially segregated. That makes Sunday morning the most segregated time of the week in America.
A politics of reconciliation is needed for a divided America, and that requires national values that promote the common good. The failure of America’s churches to unify a divided American democracy in the 19th century led to the Civil War; and in 2016 America’s churches lost their moral compass again when most White Christians elected Donald Trump president.
Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign was racially divisive with its promise of a continuation of White supremacy. It may have seemed utopian for older White Americans, but not for Blacks. When most White Christians voted to support Trump’s politics of racial division, they left the task of promoting a politics of racial reconciliation to a secular civil religion.
America’s divided and morally decadent politics are the result of the failure of Christians to follow the altruistic moral standards taught by Jesus. Christianity has devolved into a miasma of belief systems lacking moral cohesion. The remedy is not for more religion, but for widely held altruistic secular values in a civil religion that promote a politics of reconciliation.
Most Americans claim to be Christians, but they fail to follow the altruistic moral values taught by Jesus that are needed to hold the fabric of American democracy together. It will take the secular values of a civil religion to fill the moral vacuum. It’s ironic that the secular values of America’s civil religion must be based on the greatest commandment, a universal moral imperative of Christianity taught by Jesus that’s ignored by most Christians in their politics.
In 1967 Robert N. Bellah defined [American] 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.” On how Trump reshaped the American civil religion, see https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-usa/2017/07/11/trump-reshaping-american-civil-religion/.
Shad Hamid has observed that in America “religious faith has declined and ideological intensity has risen” and questioned “whether the quest for secular redemption through politics will doom the American idea?” In America Without God Hamid points out that “The United States has long been a holdout among Western democracies, uniquely and perhaps even suspiciously devout. From 1937 to 1998, church membership remained relatively constant, hovering at about 70 percent. Then something happened. Over the past two decades, that number has dropped to less than 50 percent, the sharpest recorded decline in American history. Meanwhile, the “nones”—atheists, agnostics, and those claiming no religion—have grown rapidly and today represent a quarter of the population. But if secularists hoped that declining religiosity would make for more rational politics, drained of faith’s inflaming passions, they are likely disappointed. As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like [since] America itself is [a creed that’s] “almost a religion.”
No longer explicitly rooted in white, Protestant dominance, ...the American creed [or civil religion] has become richer and more diverse—but also more fractious. As the creed fragments, each side seeks to exert exclusivist claims over the other. Conservatives believe that they are faithful to the American idea and that liberals are betraying it—but liberals believe, with equal certitude, that they are faithful to the American idea and that conservatives are betraying it. Without the common ground produced by a shared external enemy, as America had during the Cold War and briefly after the September 11 attacks, mutual antipathy grows, and each side becomes less intelligible to the other. Too often, the most bitter divides are those within families. No wonder the newly ascendant American ideologies, having to fill the vacuum where religion once was, are so divisive. They are meant to be divisive. On the left, the “woke” take religious notions such as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose them for secular ends. Adherents of wokeism see themselves as challenging the long-dominant narrative that emphasized the exceptionalism of the nation’s founding. Whereas religion sees the promised land as being above, in God’s kingdom, the utopian left sees it as being ahead, in the realization of a just society here on Earth. On the right, adherents of a Trump-centric ethno-nationalism still drape themselves in some of the trappings of organized religion, but ...Trump himself played both savior and martyr, and it is easy to marvel at the hold that a man so imperfect can have on his soldiers. Many on the right find solace in conspiracy cults, such as QAnon, that tell a religious story of corruption redeemed by a godlike force.
Though the United States wasn’t founded as a Christian nation, Christianity was always intertwined with America’s self-definition. Without it, Americans—conservatives and liberals alike—would no longer have a common culture upon which to fall back.
The United States will remain unique, torn between this world and the alternative worlds that secular and religious Americans alike seem to long for. If America is a creed, then as long as enough citizens say they believe, the civic faith can survive. Like all other faiths, America’s will continue to fragment and divide. Still, the American creed remains worth believing in, and that may be enough. If it isn’t, then the only hope might be to get down on our knees and pray.” See
America’s political divide is evident in the rioter next door: How the Dallas suburbs spawned extremists: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/dallas-suburbs-capitol-riot/2021/03/21/468646f2-8299-11eb-ac37-4383f7709abe_story.html?utm.
On how dysfunctional politics and conspiracy theories have corrupted a Christian religion that lacks a moral compass, see how pastors are leaving their congregation after losing their churchgoers to QAnon at https://www.businessinsider.com/pastors-quit-after-qanon-radicalize-congregation-2021-3.
Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf consider Jefferson a prophet of American civil religion:
As a young man, Jefferson embraced the tenets of “natural religion,” or deism, rejecting conventional Christianity and any use of religious dogma as a tool to control people. As he aged, however, Jefferson undertook a spiritual quest that focused his attention intensively on the New Testament.
Through Bible study this self-professed “primitive Christian” sought to hear Jesus’ original, uncorrupted voice, imagining himself in his teacher’s presence. Jesus preached to the “family of man,” anticipating the humane and cosmopolitan precepts of the enlightened age that Jefferson was convinced would inevitably arrive. He adhered to the “philosophy” of Jesus while rejecting “mystifications” that offended his steadfast belief in science and were, in his view, the chief cause of religious strife. Jefferson…insisted that his religious faith was nobody’s business but his own. But he believed that religion, stripped of the supernatural, should always be an integral part of American society and created a guidebook, of sorts.
In 1804, Jefferson took a razor to English, French, Latin and Greek versions of the New Testament to construct a clear account of Jesus’ original, uncorrupted teachings. Pressed by public business, he didn’t complete his painstakingly executed “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” until retirement. Even then, Jefferson did not want to publicize his project — or even share it with his family. But he was confident that enlightened republicans and conscientious Christians could, and must, agree on the fundamental ethical precepts he gleaned from the Bible. Far from being an atheist, Jefferson was a precocious advocate of what was later called “civil religion,” the moral foundation of a truly free and united people.
Thomas Jefferson wrote Henry Fry on June 17, 1804: "I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man." Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378; see also Jefferson’s letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813, at pp 825, 826; Jefferson's commentaries are at pp 325-379. See also, Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, at page 10, note 2, posted in Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/p/resources.html.
On Why Progressive Politics 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 http://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/.