American Civil Religion (Fortress Press, 2013)

[1] All U.S. citizens are certainly aware of the fact that religion finds its way into politics. We are also aware that early religious influences, largely Christian and Protestant, have had a lingering impact on the cultural values of American society. Notwithstanding the separation of church and state and the general agreement that religion is a private affair, Laderman observes, these religious influences, despite their diversity, have contributed to America’s “civil religion.” According to Robert Bellah’s view of civil religion, this heritage has provided enough shared values to unite and orient the people in a sense of connection to a transcendent God. This sense of transcendent connection gives the country “… a shared sense of purpose and meaning in the midst of historical experience and cultural diversity.” (21)

[2] Laderman then expands our understanding of civil religion by introducing the idea of “religious cultures.” Religious cultures can take a variety of forms within religious traditions or outside religion, as in sports, popular media or politics. Laderman maintains that religious cultures have five common characteristics, which he elaborates. Briefly, these include the sacred, myths, rituals and shared practices, the possibility of a transcendent experience of the true nature and meaning of existence, and a moral order. American civil religion is in his view is a religious culture with features that align with those five characteristics. The chapters that follow this foundational discussion give an account of the historical events and cultural expressions that are critical for understanding the peculiar features of American civil religion and its power to shape our national experience.

[3] In Part I, “American Civil Region: Past and Present,” Laderman believes that we cannot understand American civil religion until we have appreciated the conceptual frameworks, political orientations, and religious sensibilities provided by European Protestants in the founding of the New World. Paramount are the English Protestants and the Puritans. The latter, despite the failure of their theocratic endeavor, provided a vision of a country in covenant with God that has had a persistent influence in the shaping of national identity.

[4] The Puritan and other Protestant religious contributions laid the groundwork for the emergence of a more clearly focused civil religion in the Revolutionary War era. The good and the evil were readily identified. Identifying with the Exodus of the chosen people was prominent in the minds of the patriots and was strengthened by victory. Heroes like Washington and military victories became sacred symbols of the emerging religious culture.

[5] One of the unifying and sacred symbols of American civil religion is the flag. The power of the flag is the first of three “case studies” illustrative of varied expressions of civil religion. In the wake of the 9/11tragedy, Laderman notes, one of the most prominent reactions was to display the flag. It was more than just an expression of patriotism in a time of crisis. “As a representation of the ‘living’ nation and a ‘living thing’ [Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist’s terms] the sacred flag also offered a reassuring, resounding counterpoint to the real and symbolic wounds experienced by American citizens.” (30) In order to punctuate this point, Laderman provides a link to the Youtube video of the band U2’s 2002 Super Bowl half time show. Here after a giant screen listing the names of the victims had run its course, lead singer, Bono, concluded his song by unzipping his jacket to reveal that its lining was an American flag. The audience response was sheer pandemonium.

[6] Part II, “Blood in the Body Politic” begins with second of the case studies, the Civil War. Here we have an epic event that brought a rift in the nation’s civil religion. The battle over slavery, which was also a conflict over different ways of life, was seen on both sides in religious terms. Both saw God on their side. Each side demonized the other. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address became iconic expressions of American civil religion as seen from the vantage point of the Union. Laderman provides a link to the text of Lincoln’s second inaugural address as yet another profound expression of American civil religion in which there is an intimate connection between the violence of war and national rejuvenation.

[7] Laderman follows the Civil War case study with a chapter entitled, Violence as a Sacred Sacrament, perhaps the most disturbing chapter in the book. “American civil religion is animated in part by ritualized and glorified violence and the tendency to frame national experience in millennial terms generally allows for clear, unequivocal lines to be drawn between good, associated with the chosen nation acting righteously in the world, and evil, associated with devilish savagery threatening the body politic.” (56) The nation’s idolizing of its war heroes is of paramount importance for this aspect of civil religion. In this regard, Laderman selects Andrew Jackson as a critical figure in history for his role in the war of 1812 but even more so for his battles against Native Americans that drove them from their lands. The reality of violence in American history is inescapable. It is lamentable and yet it also has played a role in civil religion when framed as sacrifice on behalf of God and the glorious nation. Laderman captures the ambivalence of this reality further in the next chapter as he invites us to reflect on the monuments in Washington, D.C., which memorialize inspirational figures like Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr, while yet surrounded by some of the nation’s most “dramatic and powerful” war memorials.

[8] Part III brings the reader into a discussion of “Contested Terrain in Political and Popular Cultures.” It starts with the final case study about Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A.” The account of Reagan is familiar. He is credited with bringing the Religious Right into the political arena in a powerful blend of conservative morality and national chauvinism. The interesting thing is how the Reagan people sought a connection with Springsteen’s famous song, which turned out to be in its content and intent the very antithesis of Reagan’s philosophy and vision of America.

[9] It is fitting that the discussion of Reagan, “The Great Communicator,” should be followed by a chapter devoted to the role of the media in spreading the message of America’s religious culture. The manner in which the media construed the significance of key events like the death of Washington, the Civil War, and the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy served to undergird the religious culture by the language of narrative and the symbols it chose.

[10] Laderman’s concluding thoughts follow from what has gone before that: despite the shared values that have endured, the religious culture of America is diverse. Over time a variety of historical experiences and the experiences of particular groups, such as African Americans or Jews, have led to differing perceptions of what America is about and some that represent a rejection of the claims of the religious culture. Notwithstanding this diversity, and even expressions of opposition, Laderman believes that American civil religion remains a vital force.

[11] Laderman’s book is in some respects a narrative of matters familiar and yet it is done insightfully. He opens up possibilities for thinking about our civil religion that may not otherwise occur to us. Ethicists, theologians, pastors, and other religious leaders will find this book an important exploration of the cultural context in which they serve and which they need to understand.

[12] Since this is an e-book the reader is able to supplement the text by going to links that provide videos and related sources. This makes for a great addition.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.