Civic Religion

Proponents of the propositional state often make the claim that America is held together by a civic religion. Usually, but not always, the argument in favor starts with the first line of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The emphasis is on the bit about all men being created equal, from which flows the ideals of political liberty, equality before the law, democracy, etc.

It’s wise to start with Lincoln, as there is no evidence that the Founders were fond of the idea or even aware of it. Rousseau coined the term in 1762 and many of the Founders would have read his work, but there is no evidence they embraced the idea. In fact, they largely rejected the idea of a unifying state, as a cultural force. Their words and actions contradict the modern interpretation of “all men are created equal” so it is impossible to argue they intended it as currently interpreted. Lincoln is a much better starting point.

That said, it is doubtful Lincoln or anyone alive at the time would have embraced the idea of civic religion. The first guy to talk about America having a uniquely religious quality was Alexis de Tocqueville, but he did not think Americanism was a civic religion or anything close to it. He thought America’s uniquely Christian nature is what allowed for a diverse people to form a single nation. For a 19th century American, especially in the aftermath of the Civil War, the idea of a unifying creed would have been laughable.

The earliest mention of America having a unique civic life, held together by something resembling a religion, is by Chesterton. He wrote that America was “the only nation founded on a creed” and was “a nation with a soul of a church.” This observation was probably not unique to Chesterton. Europeans have always viewed Americans as being moralistic and impractical, with regards to the affairs of state. This is something our rulers encourage. Just look at the war on terror. It’s entirely framed in moral terms.

The fact is, the idea of a civic religion and an American creed is a fairly new one. The guy credited with promoting it is sociologist Robert Bellah. He formalized the concept in a 1967 article titled “Civil Religion in America.” According to Bellah, “Americans embrace a common civil religion with certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals, that transcend their chosen religion.” It’s what allows a diverse people to fight under the same flag, cooperate economically and maintain a multi-ethnic society.

As is often the case, theories of history require the wholesale rewriting of history. That’s what has happened with the civic religion claims. The most generous interpretation is that this new civic religion was born after the Civil War, as a result of the North defeating the South. The “new nation” that came out of that was formed around this new creed. That’s not unreasonable, but it also disconnects us from the Founding and the Founding documents. What it means is that the Constitution is largely meaningless.

A less generous reading is that this was part of a marketing campaign by certain elements in 1960’s America to de-legitimize the dominant American culture. After all, this was the peak of the cultural revolution when the New Left had embarked on its long march through the institutions. It was also around this time that Congress began to fling open the borders and invite the world into the country. If America is not a nation of Americans, but a concept, why not invite in the world, so they can learn the concept too!

The ahistorical nature of the civic religion is not troubling to the believers because they simply want to believe, as long as the civic religion serves their purpose. For Buckley conservatives, libertarians and others, the language of the civic religion is useful as an argument against the Progressive ruling class. It lets them stand in opposition on moral grounds, but also accept defeat, without violating their principles, which they claim are rooted in their Americanism. It is the political get out of jail free card.

The bigger problem with this civic religion stuff is the problem with civic religions in general. If they mean anything, they end up in a blood bath. The reason is a religion has rules that are non-negotiable. For example, you cannot be a Catholic and support abortion on demand. In order to be a member in good standing, you have to be in line with the teachings of the religion. Otherwise, you are a sinner, and maybe even a heretic. No religion can tolerate heresy among its members and remain an active religion.

In theory, you can quit a religion and join another one. Or, you can simply not participate or maybe just do the barest minimum to keep everyone off your back. You can’t realistically quit your country and join a new one. You can’t become agnostic as a citizen. Similarly, the leaders of the civic religion cannot easily exile you for heresy. The result is usually concentration camps or worse. That’s why all other efforts at building a civic religion have ended up in wholesale murder. It is the only practical way to handle dissent.

There is another problem with the civic religion idea, that is particular to America. This has never been a country with a single culture or even a single people. The founding of the colonies was by distinct groups of English. New York City was not even founded by English. If you read the book American Nations, it does a pretty good job of describing the different cultural groupings of the country. Imposing the cult of Lincoln on the nation sounds good to the ruling class, but it has never sat well with the rest of the nations.

This cult of Lincoln promoted by our betters has another defect and that is they are compelled to impose it on the world. This seems to be another problem with all civic religions. The French exported radicalism around Europe. The Soviets exported Bolshevism around the world. The American empire is the story of imposing the American creed on every nation of the world, always against their will. Civic religions, like all religions, don’t seem to play nice with other religions, seeing them as competitors.

That’s why America has gone from a republic full of active Christians to a “meritocracy” at war with anything resembling Christianity. A century ago, Progressives were Christians, who were Progressive reformers. Then they were Progressives, who could also be Christians. Then they were just Progressives. There was a time when “liberal Catholic” was a real thing, but no one can chase two rabbits at once. Eventually, the American civic religion won out and is now being imposed on all of us, by force.

The best you can say about the supposed civic religion of America is that it is what the ruling class uses to keep the plates spinning. There is something to say for economic progress and domestic peace. It is not, however, natural or normal, and therefore it must eventually yield to reality. That’s what we are seeing today. Americanism is a luxury item for an America that was 80% white and free of economic and political inequality among the white population. That’s not today so the civic religion is losing its salience.

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Giovanni Dannato
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Lincoln was the guy who transformed the US from the founder’s republic to a Nation-State typical of its time. In the same time period Germany, Italy, Japan were all undergoing that same transition. All of these new states relied on a kind of civic religion, ultra-centralized bureaucracy in the capital city, and education systems to create unity. These systems depend on top-down distribution of information, though, and the internet makes this system obsolete. A key reason I think Nazism/Fascism isn’t relevant to modern movements is these systems took Nation-Statism at high tide to its extreme while modern dissidents are essentially… Read more »
Dutch
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I think people rightly saw Nazism/Fascism as a condition of nation-states eternally at war with each other. Nationalism on steroids has dangers. The fallacy is that international socialism is some sort of antidote to Nazism/Fascism. Socialism is no such thing. It is simply stripping the individual of any social or community ties to his heritage, family, or neighborhood, and leaving him naked and alone if he closes to defy the powers-that-be. What a triumph of marketing was accomplished by the socialists! The outcome of Lincoln’s tenure as president was perhaps foreordained, given the social pressures and the inevitable civil war… Read more »
Giovanni Dannato
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If anything Nazism/Fascism bolsters Zman’s point that the civic religion inevitably leads to violence because the violation of the state and its interests is also heresy. A nation might survive an oppressive domestic policy that crushes civic heretics, but it’s game over once these attitudes dictate diplomacy and foreign policy. These are not areas where any polity can act dogmatically and hope to survive. That Nation-Statism was world wide suggests to me that it was an inevitable product of of the industrial revolution whether or not Lincoln was around. Slavery would have ended on its own in another 20-30 years,… Read more »
Herodian
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Does anybody in the dissident movement believe that the civil war was really about slavery?

Member
France is an interesting case. The dechristianization campaign was a result of the prejudice of the elites in the early revolutionary government and the backlash after confiscating church lands and the civil constitution of the clergy and the oath requiring them to support the constitution. Robespierre’s cult of the Supreme being was a response to the atheist dechristianization campaign and this died with him, so his version of civic religion is not what was exported, but something more akin to what we have been exporting with the war on terror. Instead of going into the world baptizing men in the… Read more »
Severian
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Don’t forget that, in Rome as in America, “civic religions” are also a jobs program. Think-tank dorks that write puff pieces for National Review, NPR, etc. make a nice living as our modern pontifexes and augurs (and, as Cicero said, no two augurs could ever meet in the streets without smiling).

Member

I’ve never been able to find where Cicero actually said that. He defended augury and was a member of the college of augurs.

Severian
Guest

Probably apocryphal. But Caesar was an augur, too, and Cicero said more than a few things for rhetorical effect, so…

Member
It is true that the quote comes from Cicero, but he’s reporting an adage of Cato the Elder: “Quite well known is the famous expression of Cato, who used to say that he was amazed that one haruspex didn’t laugh after seeing another” (Vetus autem illud Catonis admodum scitum est, qui mirari se aiebat, quod non rideret haruspex, haruspicem cum vidisset.). The quotation comes from words attributed to Cicero himself in his dialogue “On Divination” (Book 2, sec. 51). Cicero was skeptical about traditional religion in general and about divination and omens in particular. The phrase from Cato refers not… Read more »
wal reed
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Medicine Men have always been with us. They are eternal. Boobus Americanus follows them blindly. Human sacrifice would seem to be making a come back. Best regards everyone.

Northgunner
Guest

“Human sacrifice would seem to be making a come back.”

What do you think the Las Vegas massacre was? Don’t even get me started on the 53+ million innocents murdered via ‘planned parenthood’ either!!

Yours in Daily Armed Liberty via anarchy!
Northgunner III

Severian
Guest

Thanks! See, that’s why I come here. I learn stuff.

Member

“Bottom line is that the most successful of civic religions are implicit, not official and enforced.”

They depend on the people who live there to more or less abide by the rules.

The Progs are happily trying to create an explicit, official, and enforced civic religion. They largely enforce it through the media, and via mobs who show up to destroy people personally.

North Korea has a civic religion where people are required to worship Kim Jong Un and his father/grandfather as gods on earth.

Member
“You can’t realistically quit your country and join a new one. ” Expats might beg to differ; being one, I more or less do. My immigrant-to-the-USA grandparents (one was a naval hero in the Spanish-American War!) were completely American when I knew them, including the Gaelic speaker. They’d assimilated and embraced the early 20th century American cultural model. I have not and will not embrace the cultural model of the South American country in which I’ve lived quite some time now. No, my plan is to do my best that my locally-born grandsons will be bilingual in English and maintain… Read more »
Member
It is not so much that it is religion, but it is illiberal. The high priests in the temple keep discovering things like absolute rights to contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and that fees are taxes and civil asset forfeiture is okay and the endangered species act, WOTUS, or BLM land grabs too, and all this is imposed by force. Violence and Concentration camps? Ask the Branch Davidians, Randy Weaver, or now the Bundys. The war is between Christian Tradition and sola curia scriptura. And it is war. The left has created this secular religion, but the cuckservatives consider it a… Read more »
Tekton
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In other words, “there is no dark side of the moon, really”. Scripture uses the sun and the moon as symbols for God’s people. And that at the end of the age, before the return of the King, the “sun shall be darkened and the moon not give her light”. The religion of America was Christianity from day one. All original charters of the colonies explicitly declared that the law and basis of their society would be Biblical. Read “The Light and the Glory” for irrefutable proof. We have certainly departed from that now and are reaping the just consequences.… Read more »
Ivan
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I am not Abrahamically religious but I recognize that Christianity reflects some aspects of the European spirit and that most people need religion to be functional. Given that montheism will always outcompete polytheism I am sympathetic to Christianity for the sake of functionality. That being said, I think the dissident right should play political judo with Islam by vowing that although we disagree with Islam in principle we will not oppose Shariah law because it is more “conservative” than the status quo. Liberals and Muslims only have an alliance because Islam currently has no chance of political power with so… Read more »
Matt
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“…that most people need religion to be functional.” I agree & disagree. I agree that ALL people need an ethical underpinning to their lives. The only place historically to get this was religion. Hence the civic religion Z is talking about is designed to do just that. However, as he and others repeatedly state it’s built on quicksand. You can’t embrace LGBTQx & Islam and expect that nothing will go wrong. We need to espouse an ethical system to counter the civic religion. That’s our biggest weakness right now IMO and we need to solve it to move this train… Read more »
Al from da Nort
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Matt;
There *is* such a native ethical system that exists right here and now. It’s called Christianity. Maybe if more of us embraced and practiced it, we’d get somewhere: Just sayin’.

Ivan
Guest
I don’t see how resurrecting Christianity for the Nth Time is going to reimposed ethics in society. What is not being explicitly acknowledged is that religion is mostly for women. Men are forced to be virtuous by way of natural law lest they fail to procreate or do so dysgenically. The problem with Christianity is that it relies on shame, but for shame to work you have to have cohesive communities who know each other’s business. That’s not possible with modern technology. The other problem with Christianity is the idea of humility. While humility reduces conflict amongst men, the women… Read more »
Al from da Nort
Guest
Ivan; Christianity doesn’t re-impose ethics. When properly applied, it creates a climate where ethics today might be re-assessed, measured and re-asserted pragmatically, both short term and long term, using eternal standards. For the last 2,000 years Christianity is distinctively patriarchal yet highly respectful of women as *spiritually* (the all-important upward dimension) equal to men. How this plays out in the horizontal physical/political/social dimension, where women are objectively *not* the equal of men (rather an honored compliment to them in a just society) is a matter for pragmatic discussion within the biblical Christian guidelines in every age. Will these or any… Read more »
Matt
Guest

If one looks across all of the various ethical systems including the many religions I bet we could quickly narrow down a base set of ethics that makes sense that we lever as a foundation without having to name any particular religion.

I’ve had enough of “religion” for my lifetime because so much baggage comes along. I have zero interest in the baggage but see tons of value in fundamental ethics.

Al from da Nort
Guest
Ivan; Your humorous ‘agree and amplify’ ‘let’s embrace Shariah’ proposal has the very great danger of being too cleaver by half. Muslim deceptiveness coupled with Prog stupidity (Muslims don’t really mean it any more than Wymn’s Studies Profs do) could easily go badly wrong. The Moslem Brotherhood has *already* set a number of ‘agents of influence’ in high place in the Cloud (Huma, I’m looking at you.). There are a number of historical examples such as Byzantine Egypt or Visigothic (sp_?) Spain where a local faction thought they could bring in Arab armies to see off a local rival, take… Read more »
Severian
Guest
Like most things academics get their hands on, the term “civic religion” got “reified” (as egghead lingo has it). To “reify” is “to make into a thing,” as in “capitalism reifies class differences” (in English: there wouldn’t be any class conflict if it weren’t for eeeeevil capitalists, because we’d all be happy happy slaves to the Party). “Civic religion” used to be shorthand for stuff like baseball — Gilded Age immigrants tried to out-American the Americans, and so it sometimes actually happened that the Micks and the Polacks put their differences temporarily aside to root for the Sox. But then… Read more »
anon
Guest

The term “civil religion” was coined by Rousseau, and he wasn’t talking baseball, so I think you might have its history backwards.

Severian
Guest

Context is your friend.

anon
Guest

I mean, the term objectively means whatever Rousseau had in mind given he’s the one that coined it. If anybody abused the term, it was those that redefined it to refer to things like baseball. Why does the fact that academics continued to use the term in its original context while other people didn’t upset you?

Of course you’re right about the Cult-Marx academics – they’re a cancer. Their desire to deracinate and disenfranchise me is the reason I don’t like them, not the mere fact that they publish papers on 18th century political philosophy.

Ryan
Guest

This is why we saw so much genuine emotional distress after the Trump election. In religious terms it was literally a contest between a priest and a heretic. I’m assuming we’re all agnostic around these parts, so we probably can’t literally empathize with someone who cried on election night or shoots up a magazine because they drew a picture of Muhammad. But we can understand that such is within the wheelhouse of totally normal human beings, act with proper fear of it, and hopefully also learn to exploit it.

Al from da Nort
Guest

Ryan;
I can tell you for myself and my associates that there was plenty of emotional distress when it looked like the Progs were going to carry all before them, no more than a year ago. But unlike those Progs, we had the consolation of knowing that God is in charge and that our salvation does not depend on any nihilistic, utopian civil religion.

Dutch
Guest
The ecumenical movement within Christianity tries to promote working together across Christian denominations. Or one can go whole hog and join the Baha’i thing, which even tries to roll up the cult that is Islam into one large global religion. The problem is that trying to promote a religious movement that includes heretical ideas, as far as the subject members look at things, is doomed to failure. You either have some sort of religious discipline, or you don’t, and the arena of religion becomes one big playground, with no rules other than “treat the other kids nicely”. Civic religions certainly… Read more »
D&D Dave in the Bubble
Guest
D&D Dave in the Bubble
“That’s why America has gone from a republic full of active Christians to a “meritocracy” at war with anything resembling Christianity.” Reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode – “Obsolete”, where the State was the Supreme “being” who had dominion over the dirt people. Where “dirt people” were put to death because they served no function deemed worthy by the State. Where having a Bible in your possession was a crime punishable by death. Thinking about this episode, this is the civic religious end game that today’s Progressive would approve of. Utopia can only be achieved by having the State… Read more »
Member
All societies and cultures have norms. If the USA didn’t have a civic religion, the Progs wouldn’t be spending their every breath and action trying to tear down the institutions of that civic religion. They’ve been doing the same with regular religion – Christianity – because American civic religion is entwined with our country’s religion. We most certainly do have a civic religion in America. We have feast days, for example. We have symbols and traditions. We have saints and sinners. We engage in hagiography about the sins of our saints. The civil war in this country is about the… Read more »
Al from da Nort
Guest
Hok; I think you’re wrong about actual tribalism leading to concentration camps for ‘enemies’. Instead tribal conflict leads to either rapid absorption (early Roman Republic) or genocide, (the recent Balkan wars and Ruanda). Camps cost money that tribes either don’t have or don’t care to pay on behalf of their enemies. Only organized states can set up and staff a concentration camp system. All morality aside, there are three main reasons to have a concentration camp: – Temporary suppression of people who differ significantly and might prove dangerous in time of war but who might prove useful later. Examples include… Read more »
Member
So? Just because somebody gave it a fancy name, it’s ultimately what we are discussing. The issue isn’t whether America has a civic religion. It’s that we have, through insane immigration policies, and insaner Progs, created a situation where a significant percentage of the country not only rejects the civic religion, but is at war with the institutions which uphold it. That’s how you wind up with a rodeo clown who just happens to be in the car with a gold star wife when the President calls. She’s there to destroy the institution. Cindy Sheehan is proof that there are… Read more »
guest
Guest

Civic Nationalism is just Progressivism in a tricorn hat. – The Z Man

Observer
Guest
“Just look at the war on terror. It’s entirely framed in moral terms.” Not just that. EVERYTHING is framed in moral terms. Race relations. Immigration. Taxation. Industrial policy. Foreign policy. Every issue is turned into a Good vs Evil question. That’s because White people are unique in that we will reliably do whatever we believe is the most moral thing. Therefore if you figure out a way to establish the White society’s morals, then you control that society. White people used to get their morals from the church, the family & our aristocrats. Then Church was debunked, the family was… Read more »
Herodian
Guest
I never understood this “good for the Jews” rhetoric. Is it? Jewish intermarriage rate is the highest of any faith.. except of course the Hasids and they aren’t so interested in progressivism and have limited public engagement. Assuming Jews did all this out of collective self-interest, there might have been some short-term (financial) gains, but I don’t how all this benefits them (or Israel) for the long term. Their birth rates are abysmal, example. I’m starting to think that American Jews (non-Orthodox) have been simply better at giving up their old religion and adopting the new one while still being… Read more »
Observer
Guest
So do you need to understand every nuance & wrinkle & mechanism of a phenomenon to see it in front of your face? Just take a look at any terrible idea making the West a worse place & chances are that there are Tribe members re-framing that terrible idea into a Western value & advocating the loudest for it. The U.S.A. rushes headlong into every Middle Eastern war that it can pick. Not because the Gentiles, wanted to go there, but because the Jews wanted it. The U.S.A. went from a 90% white nation to 65% white (and falling fast)… Read more »
Whiskey
Guest
What would a real Jewish conspiracy look like? A. Mass conversion of Christians and Atheist Whites to Judaism, but with an “inner party” of “real Jews.” B. Jews dominating the military command, the Presidency, the Senate, the National Security Agency, and the police forces both local and federal. C. Almost no non-White immigration of any kind, and the only immigration allowed being Jewish from places like Russia. D. Funneling of tax money to Jewish leaders, under the rubric of organizational grants, i.e. Jews controlling most of the urban political machines and getting block grants to do whatever they want without… Read more »
Observer
Guest
“they’d run IMPORTANT industries like aerospace”… Excuse my snicker. How 3rd Generation warfare of you. The moral plane is where it’s at, bro. If you can set the moral standards of a society, you don’t NEED to actually run the day-to-day operations. Because once you set the moral standards, even your enemies will only act in ways that benefit you i.e. Cuckservatives. Can the aerospace industry, or biotech, or even the oil industry control how a person feels, thinks, dreams, loves & hates? Can they set the program for how someone believes they should act to be considered smart &… Read more »
YIH
Guest

Shalom (((Whiskey)))! Remember this? http://voxday.blogspot.com/2014/11/some-thoughts-on-reading-israeli-history.html#c146069222076883883 Scroll down and check out comments #144 and VD (Vox Day) at #152

Alex
Guest

Lincoln was the Moses of the American Civic Religion. FDR its David.

Brigadon
Guest

Hey Zman… do you have any opinions on Wiccanism?

TomA
Guest
Once upon a time, we passed wisdom from generation to generation via the mechanism of religious practices and beliefs. Early on, there were many unknowns and consequently mysticism and faith were necessary to instill these habits despite a lack of direct real-world feedback. In our modern life, the unknowns are far fewer and wisdom transfer has become more generic (civic) rather than faith-based. There is a downside to this change. Religious wisdom tended to be longstanding (i.e. stood the test of time), whereas civic wisdom tends to be transient and fleeting. The latter will keep you entertained but not necessarily… Read more »
S E S
Guest
“Civic religions, like all religions, don’t seem to play nice with other religions, seeing them as competitors.” Incorrect. MONOTHEISTIC religions don’t seem to play nice with other religions, seeing them as competitors. THIS is correct. There is and never has been a polytheistic religion or even an essentially atheistic pagan religion (I’m specifically thinking of Buddhism here) that insists all people must practice their religion or be considered heretics. The Romans syncretized the religious imagery and the Gods and Goddesses into their own pantheon just as a for instance – they were not alone in this. At worst, polytheistic religions… Read more »
Luke Lea
Guest

Read Huntington Moore on the American Political Tradition.

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