By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Thomas Jefferson and Dr. Martin Luther King are unlikely bedfellows in the evolution of the American civil religion. Jefferson was a slaveholder and deist who wrote the Declaration of Independence, while MLK was an activist black pastor who promoted civil rights. How can we reconcile them as bedfellows in the evolution of Christianity as the American civil religion?
Both Jefferson and MLK believed that the moral principles taught by Jesus should be the standards of political legitimacy in America’s democracy. Civil religion consists of widely held beliefs that resemble those of a religion. Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered the purpose of civil religion “to foster sentiments of sociability and a love of public duties among citizens, extending those bonds throughout a citizenry and its membership.”
Rousseau asserted that a civil religion “should condemn intolerance as a creedal matter, and that there should never again be an exclusive national religion. A civil profession of faith ought to tolerate all religions that tolerate others, and not uphold beliefs that run contrary to citizens’ duties.” Both Trump’s America First nationalism and Putin’s Russian World nationalism are forms of Christian nationalism that ignore Rousseau’s requirement of tolerance.
Under the U.S. Constitution and law, religious freedom ensures that religious standards are voluntary and cannot be enforced as law. Likewise, all moral standards of legitimacy in a civil religion are voluntary. The moral standards of a civil religion represent national values and norms of behavior, and there is no place for moral police, like those in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
A civil religion challenges the authority of traditional scripture and religious leaders to define the moral standards of legitimacy. Instead, the national values of a civil religion would be determined by public polls and elections. Today so-called “Christian” values vary considerably, from fundamentalist biblical standards to the “family values” of Republicans.
In the 1960s sociologist Robert Bellah asserted that civil religion exists in the U.S. and is “suffused with various rituals that unite its citizens with symbols drawn from specific religions, but which operate independently of those origins.” Bellah reckoned that the U.S. has its own saints and martyrs like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.”
The 17th Century Enlightenment reinvented politics and religion in the West based on reason and advances in knowledge. It’s time for another Enlightenment to give birth to a civil religion that provides a moral paradigm to define political legitimacy for libertarian democracy in changing times. America must rediscover what it means to provide for the common good.
The church has failed to be a moral steward of American democracy and lost its credibility as a proponent of political legitimacy. Christianity has promoted conflicting standards of morality in politics. To restore its legitimacy the church should abandon its exclusivist doctrines and promote the universal moral standards taught by Jesus as America’s civil religion.
Civil religion is a public profession of faith that aims to inculcate political values and that prescribes dogma, rites, and rituals for citizens of a particular country. “This definition of civil religion remains consistent with its first sustained theoretical treatment, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762). Rousseau dedicated a penultimate and relatively lengthy chapter of that work to a discussion of civil religion, laying out its central conceptual elements and emphasizing its normative importance for a healthy body politic. The object of civil religion for Rousseau is to foster sentiments of sociability and a love of public duties among citizens, extending those bonds throughout a citizenry and its membership. Civil religion identifies gods and tutelary benefactors to assist with that great aim, and its successful inculcation is supposed to help maintain stability, order, and prosperity for the country.
Rousseau proposed that the dogmas of civil religion ought to be simple: they should affirm the afterlife, a God with divine perfection, the notion that the just will be happy and the wicked punished, and the sanctity of the social contract and the polity’s laws. Civil religion should also condemn intolerance as a creedal matter, Rousseau contended, given that there can never again be an exclusive national religion. A civil profession of faith ought to tolerate all and only those religions that tolerate others, he suggested, at least insofar as the respective religious groups do not uphold beliefs that run contrary to citizens’ duties.
Civil religion is not identical to religious establishment. Established religions can prioritize otherworldly ends over life on earth, too, or identify a church leadership independent of political authorities. Rousseau saw the latter problem as both common and pernicious: “Wherever the clergy constitutes a body,” he wrote, “it is master and legislator in its domain.” Rousseau contrasted contemporary, institutionalized Christianity with the “religion of man,” distinguishing the latter as the religion of the gospel. Rousseau maintained that civil religion has decided benefits. It unites divine love with the laws of one’s country, and vivifies the body politic. In the 1960s sociologist Robert Neelly Bellah proposed that civil religion exists in the United States suffused with various rituals that unite its citizens, employing symbols that are drawn from specific religions but which operate independently of those origins. He reckoned that the United States has its own series of saints and martyrs (such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln) and that an examination of founding documents and important inaugural addresses shows how it operates on the idea that it is a nation chosen by God.” See civil religion: a philosophical concept, at https://www.britannica.com/print/article/1365961.
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 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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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 http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/jeffersons-jesus-and-moral-standards-in.html.
In Qatar, a nation deeply rooted in Islam, worshippers from other faiths find community in a government sanctioned island of Christianity. It represents a step from Christian sectarian exclusivism and competition in a pluralistic religious culture to a more diverse and tolerant Christian community. At the center of the eight churches in Qatar’s Church City is the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Father Rally, as congregants call him, is a 52-year-old from the Philippines. He leads a team of 11 priests. This church has an estimated congregation of 200,000 — or it did, Father Rally said, before the coronavirus pandemic, and maybe before Qatar finished or suspended the construction projects related to the World Cup that had employed so many migrant workers. Now, maybe it is 100,000. He is not sure. He just knows that they come in droves.’Most people are social beings, so they want community.’ Father Rally said. ‘They want belongingness.’Qatar is a nation deeply rooted in Islam. Calls to prayer can be heard five times a day throughout Doha. World Cup stadiums have prayer rooms for fans, and some staff at the games will stop what they’re doing to kneel in prayer. But there are only about 300,000 Qatari citizens in Qatar, a country with a population of nearly 3 million. It is a segregated and stratified society, where nearly 90 percent of the people are from somewhere else: the global south, mostly — places like India, Nepal, the Philippines, but also many parts of Africa: Egypt and Kenya, Uganda and Sudan.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/04/sports/soccer/at-qatars-church-city-sunday-comes-on-friday.html.
Why are some churches leaving — and others staying with — the United Methodist Church? Because the church has failed to promote the moral teachings of Jesus in contentious political issues. See https://www.dallasnews.com/news/faith/2022/11/27/why-are-some-churches-leaving-and-others-staying-with-the-united-methodist-church/.
On The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.
On the Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World, see
On Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? See http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.
On the Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism, see
For Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century, see
For Musings on Morality and Politics and the Need for a Civil Religion in America, see
For Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Relevance of Jesus Today, see
For Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Jesus, the Church and Christian Nationalism, see
For Musings on the Need for a Civil Religion in America’s Dysfunctional Democracy, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/11/musings-on-need-for-civil-religion-in.html.
On American Civil Religion is Dead, Long Live American Civil Religion, see ProgressiveChristianity.org, AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION IS DEAD, LONG LIVE AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION.