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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