American Civil Religion, Babies and Bathwater

In this post for the Religion in American History blog, Art Remillard asks whether “American Civil Religion” remains a useful construct. Responding thoughtfully to Ira Chernus’ concern that the endless debate on what is the “real” or “true” American civil religion has rendered the term useless, Remillard suggests that if we can purge civil religion of its normative assumptions, we can perhaps rescue it as a useful analytical construct.

I, like Remillard, am not prepared to eschew the term civil religion just yet. Chernus’ observations about the nature of the nature of the discourse are certainly valid. But throwing out the term is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I am not even interested in rehabilitating the debate about the nature of American civil religion. Instead, let me suggest that we look at the scholarly debate and develop a phenomenology of American civil religion that informs us what the differing constructs have in common. It is my contention that while the interlocutors disagree about the nature of American civil religion, there is somewhat of a consensus on the cultural artifacts that inform American civil religion. Those artifacts include documents and speeches such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; historic places significant to American history and culture such as the National Mall and the World Trade Center site (as of 2001); and the office of the President, uniformly seen as the High Priest of American Civil Religion. Even if the interpretations of these artifacts into systems of meaning differ, for the most part, the same artifacts are considered authoritative.

I liken this conception of ACR to Michael Walzer’s conception of thick and thin moral argumentation. Walzer suggests that thinner, or more abstract, moral arguments can garner the support of large coalitions, but once the argument becomes thicker, or more concrete, the coalition will begin to splinter. The Declaration of Independence is universally supported by most Americans, but when one begins to apply the abstract ideals (the pursuit of happiness) to concrete situations (government regulation of commerce for consumer protections vs. free-market economics) the coalition of supportes begins to shrink.

My argument, thus, is that ACR is useful for identifying the relevant artifacts that are held up in broader society as instructive of recognizably American identity, even while the interpretation of these artifacts or symbols lacks an agreed upon consensus. Furthermore, excluded minorities have historically challenged the “normative” interpretation (defined as that held up by the powerbrokers in society) of ACR with the very artifacts considered authoritative in ACR. This is best exemplified by the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

So I remain invested in the idea of American Civil Religion(s), despite the unwieldy debate, because I believe it still offers a way forward as a prescriptive tool for excluded minorities to argue for pluralistic inclusion. Every public discussion of broadening the rights of excluded minorities has appealed in some form or fashion to the artifacts of American civil religion. For that reason alone, I don’t believe we can discard it so easily.

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