Response to Robert Benne on Civil Religion

[1] In his essay, “American Civil Religion: Destructive, Useless, or Beneficial?” (JLE April 2005), Bob Benne offers a spirited defense of the “commonly-shared religious framework” that undergirds, and invites attachment to, the transcendent ideals of American political culture. There is much to admire in Benne’s argument; foremost is his implicit claim that liberal polities need more than mutually-respected procedures to thrive, and perhaps even to survive. Such polities – or at least ours — require, Benne claims, a “transcendent frame of reference” to secure respect for the vulnerable and to motivate the political community to embrace the “ideals of democracy, liberty, equality, and opportunity.” The question of whether or not a liberal democracy can flourish without such deep cultural commitments is being asked across the world, and the early returns are not promising.

[2] Though raising an important question, Benne’s argument intertwines two quite distinct strands of the issue, strands that must be disentangled if we are to have serious debate about civil religion. The first strand, and the one that Benne emphasizes, challenges Lutherans’ traditional skepticism toward claims about the identity or work of God known apart from the person and work of Jesus Christ. Though my sympathies tend toward the traditional view, I think Benne is right to distinguish Lutheran understandings from that of Hauerwas and the “radical orthodox.” As anyone who is familiar with Luther’s various commentaries on the Decalogue well knows, the reformer was not shy about claiming the work of the temporal realm as a divine blessing and responsibility.

[3] My concerns with Benne’s essay relate to a second, and less developed strand. In defending American civil religion, Benne challenges not only those within the Lutheran confession who raise theological objections, but also the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations that object within the political – or, more accurately, the legal – realm. These organizations, Benne argues, aim to “purg[e] the public sphere of all religious symbols and language.” Benne’s claim is accurate only if one adopts a very specific and, I believe, overly restrictive, definition of the “public sphere.” The ACLU does not seek to “purge” religious broadcasts on radio or TV, or religious billboards along highways or holiday displays in shopping malls. Nor does the ACLU challenge the inclusion of religious perspectives or gatherings in what lawyers call “limited public fora,” such as public parks made available for demonstrations. Instead, the ACLU and its kindred organizations focus on government-sponsored religious exercises, such as religious instruction in public schools, or government funding of faith-infused substance abuse treatment, or display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses.

[4] By focusing on the ACLU, Benne seems to assume – but does not defend – a positive role for the state in America’s civil religion. Strict separationists make easy targets for ridicule; those who object to the religious roots of a city’s name or religious images on a state’s seal invite others to regard them as pathologically anti-religious. But not all concerns about government-sponsored religion can be written off as secularist – or atheist – hostility to religion. Among the lessons we surely must have learned from the past century is a deep skepticism about any government that claims for itself control over the transcendent.

[5] If we keep in mind the distinction between the two strands – the positive appraisal of civil religion, and the state’s role as progenitor of that faith – we might come to a subtly different conclusion than the one Benne reaches. The most compelling evocations of civil religion turn out to have at least one of two features, either that of prophetic judgment on American culture or of balm in times of shared grief. The centrality of religious themes in the Civil Rights movement clearly belong to the former, while Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Second Inaugural belong, in important respects, to both. Remembrances in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks fall into the latter. Note, however, that these positive evocations of civil religion did not arise from institutionalized practices of the state.

[6] It is at best an open question whether a civil religion articulated by the state, one performed and confessed in state-sponsored ceremonies, can bear the shared hopes and ideals and raise the critical demands that Benne’s vision of American civil religion promises. Such a vision is rich with possibilities, including not just its resources for our common life, but rich also in the wide variety of means through which its message can be transmitted in the “public square,” even if the state itself is not one of those means.

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