Saturday, November 12, 2022

Musings on the Need for a Civil Religion in America's Dysfunctional Democracy

           Rudy Barnes, Jr., November 12, 2022

Contrary to President Biden’s predictions, democracy wasn’t on the ballot last week; but a record turnout of voters affirmed America’s dysfunctional democracy.  Americans don’t lack a democracy; what we need is a moral reawakening and a civil religion that can overcome partisan polarization with standards of political legitimacy that provide for the common good.

Civil religion is not a church religion.  It’s where morality and politics merge to shape the values of political legitimacy.  Most churches subordinate moral standards to mystical beliefs and avoid mixing religion and politics.  Robert Bellah coined the term in a 1969 essay, and he elaborated on it in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.

American moral standards have traditionally been the domain of the church, but in 2016 the church lost its moral compass when most white Christians elected Donald Trump.  He is a nativist narcissist whose egregious immorality is the antithesis of that taught by Jesus; and Trump has corrupted the Republican Party and polarized American politics.

The Democratic Party elected Biden over Trump in 2020, but it has failed to attract the independent moderates needed to break up the polarized partisan gridlock.  There was no red wave in the election, only a pink ripple; and both Trump and Biden are considering a rematch in 2024 that would only worsen the partisan polarization in America’s 2-party duopoly.     

There is a need for a moral reawakening to clean up the moral morass in America, and churches have proven inadequate for that task.  A second Enlightenment is needed.  It will require inspired secular leadership like that of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, who gave birth to American democracy and transformed civil religion in the 18th century.

Civil religion is based on altruistic morality rather than theology.  Libertarian democracy cannot survive without the moral imperative to provide for the common good.  It was taught by Jesus in the  greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves, but it has dissipated in America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture.

It  will take a moral reawakening with a new enlightenment to save American democracy from self destruction.  In American democracy voters are the masters of their political destiny, for good or bad.  A new enlightenment may just be wishful thinking, but it’s an existential issue needed to save American libertarian democracy from its self-destructive tribal partisan politics.         

The  existential problem is not that Americans favor one party over the other.  It’s that partisan loyalty has metastasized American politics into a dysfunctional democracy that requires a moral awakening to avoid civil conflict.  Our churches have failed as moral stewards of our democracy.  America must find another way to restore the common good as a political priority.



Wikipedia describes the American civil religion as “a sociological theory that a nonsectarian quasi-religious faith exists within the United States with sacred symbols drawn from national history. Scholars have portrayed it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration. The ritualistic elements of ceremonial deism found in American ceremonies and presidential invocations of God can be seen as expressions of the American civil religion. The very heavy emphasis on pan-Christian religious themes is quite distinctively American and the theory is designed to explain this. The concept goes back to the 19th century but its current form was developed by sociologist Robert Bellah in his 1967 article, Civil Religion in America.  According to Bellah, Americans embrace a common civil religion with certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals parallel to, or independent of, their chosen religion.”  See Wikipedia at  

On The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart see

On American Civil Religion is Dead, Long Live American Civil Religion, see : AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION IS DEAD, LONG LIVE AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION.

Thomas Jefferson was a deist who held the teachings of Jesus in high regard while he detested church doctrines.  In 1804 he wrote: “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 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.” Many biblical scholars consider Jefferson prescient in separating the actual teachings of Jesus from what the gospel writers had likely put on his lips; and Robin Meyers has echoed Jefferson’s criticism of the church in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus.  See Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics at


On how Trump’s Republicans have corrupted and polarized America’s dysfunctional democracy, see

Along with dysfunctional democracy “the specter of competitive authoritarianism looms wrapped in myths of exceptionalism and preeminence. For years, analysts who examine the health of democracies in a global context have been sounding the warning.  Kleinfeld has noted that the “rapid decline is asymmetric” and “is primarily being driven by a very different Republican Party” than the one that existed under former president Ronald Reagan, and Democrats have played their own part in this polarization. Levitsky and Way have speculated in Foreign Affairs that “rather than autocracy, the U.S. appears headed toward endemic regime instability marked by frequent constitutional crises, including contested or stolen elections, and severe conflict between presidents and Congress.  It would likely shift back and forth between periods of dysfunctional democracy and periods of competitive authoritarian rule during which incumbents abuse state power, tolerate or encourage violent extremism, and tilt the electoral playing field against their rivals.”  See


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