Response to the Respondents to my Civil Religion Argument

[1] I am honored and delighted that five persons of such stature have taken time to respond to my article on civil religion-“Civil Religion-Destructive, Useless, or Beneficial?” All five responses were helpful, civil, and of high quality. They are fine demonstrations of the kind of moral discourse at which this journal aims. I can only hope that my response to these contributions will measure up to their quality.

[2] Hans Tiefel offers an accurate summary and interpretation of my article, kindly identifying it with Catholic capaciousness. However, Tiefel argues that civil religion can never be critical or prophetic, no matter how important civil religion may be for other functions. I disagree on several counts. First, prophetic figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., used a blend of biblical and civil religion not only to criticize where America was in the early 60s with regard to racial justice, but to inspire the nation to take up that cause. Lincoln was able to use both biblical and civil religious discourse to point to God’s judgment in the Civil War, but also to inspire the nation to reconcile and rebuild without recrimination. John F. Kennedy made similar moves with his New Frontier. Now, to the consternation of many religious intellectuals, George Bush is combining notions of the dignity of all individuals (“endowed by their Creator”) with the spread of democracy in the Middle East. Second, a major point in my article is that an underlying, rich biblical faith gives texture and content to the rather thin themes of the civil religion, and that that civil religion provides the common framework for expressing religious notions in public. Prophetic biblical religion has been expressed through that framework.

[3] Gilbert Meilaender, though sympathetically restating some of my positive points better than I did originally, worries that we cannot speak of God in the First Person alone. His point seems to be that the common framework provided by the civil religion is finally idolatrous because its theology points to a different God. Therefore, when we speak, we must speak with the full force of Trinitarian faith. However, when we are speaking in the public realm (the Kingdom on the Left Hand), why must we speak in full Trinitarian terms? In many ways the moral norms of the civil religion are those of natural law, as Joseph Bottum has written in a Weekly Standard article about Bush’s project of democratization. And, for Christians and Jews, and perhaps for Muslims, the natural law is most clearly revealed in the Old Testament. Thus, the Old Testament, natural law, and civil religion provide a framework of public moral and religious meanings. Of course, we do not speak in that language when we are in church or when we are making specifically Christian arguments. But the public realm necessitates a different rhetoric that, in my opinion, is not necessarily idolatrous.

[4] Walter Stuhr offers qualified support for the proper exercise of civil religion but laments that it has been hi-jacked by the Religious Right. He is perhaps correct that the Religious Right is currently dominating civil religious discourse and has selected its favored elements of civil religion to emphasize and connect with its own prized topics (abortion, end of life issues, anti gay-marriage, etc.) There are several reasons for this. One is that liberals have grown increasing uncomfortable with employing civil religious themes, or any religious themes, for that matter. This makes them appear to many as the party of secularization. Secondly, the rise of the Religious Right has been largely reactive. It has been awaked by the huge changes provoked by the judiciary as well as many organizations (ACLU, etc.) that have used the courts to effect those changes. Generic, civil religious prayer ruled out of the schools, laws concerning abortion struck down in the peoples’ state legislatures, laws regulating divorce radically liberalized, permissive sex education mandated in the schools, homosexual conduct legitimized, and the religious and moral foundations of the law denied (the banishment of references to the Ten Commandments from courtrooms.), to name but a few.

[5] Religious people of a conservative bent have come to believe that their country is being taken away from them by a secular elite, and they are fighting back politically. And they are employing themes of civil religion to make their cases. But liberals in an earlier day used those themes to make the case for civil rights, universal suffrage, the war on poverty, and many other programs. Maybe they can reclaim some of those themes in the future if they haven’t already made up their minds against religion in public.

[6] Stuhr also argues that the ELCA and its predecessor churches did in fact prize the civil religion, contrary to what I argued in the original essay. However, the examples he cites simply indicate that these Lutheran groups-and the theologians that guided them-held the conviction that God was active in the secular world with his Law. The Law guides and judges human activity in the Left Hand Kingdom. But this is quite different than an appreciation and use of civil religion. Civil religion is the public “deistic minimum” that is informally established in American practice. I do not find many Lutheran theologians (including the ones writing these responses) or Lutheran church bodies who actually have a positive evaluation of that civil religion. They may affirm that God as Law is active in the secular world but for the most part do not like civil religious appropriations of that Law.

[7] I have saved our two legal minds-Tuttle and Witte-for the last. They both have given clear and elegant accounts of how the courts have recently balanced their interpretations of the First Amendment. The courts have recently allowed a lot more functional interaction between church and state than earlier. However, both of our distinguished legal respondents believe the days of state-sponsored or state-established civil religion are over. “Government support of a common civil religion might have been defensible in earlier times of religious homogeneity,” says Witte. But no more, he clearly implies. Tuttle disapproves of the role of the government as progenitor and guarantor of such a civil religion. Both believe the courts have allowed for and protected a wide range of what Witte calls “the freedom of public religion.” What both Tuttle and Witte mean by that is that private religious groups can express themselves in all their particularity in the public sphere. They cannot be legally disabled because that expression is religious. So both authors encourage religious persons and groups to enter the public sphere with all religious guns firing, as it were.

[8] I have no trouble with that, but it still seems to me that it is better, when possible, to enter the public sphere by appealing to a frame of reference shared by far more people than one’s own particular religious tradition. I argued in the original essay that such a common framework is the civil religion. For example, we can more easily communicate our conviction that our country is behold to God by reciting the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance than by trying to say “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” in that same pledge. Likewise, it was important that Martin Luther King could appeal to the “inalienable rights endowed by our Creator” than to our redemption by Christ. I could give many examples of such cooperation between biblical and civil religion.

[9] My reservations about the Witte and Tuttle solutions are these. First, there must be something in the public national tradition itself (the civil religion) with which the more specific biblical claims can resonate before compelling arguments can be made. The civil religion has played that role and I think it will continue to play that role, even as our society becomes more heterogeneous. (Remember, many of the immigrants coming to the USA are Catholic Hispanics and goodly number of the rest are Islamic, who will not particularly appreciate a naked public square.) Also, it is important to note that the civil religion is already ensconced in American rhetoric and practices; it need not be generated or guaranteed by any particular administration. Second, the complete denuding of the public sphere of those inherited civil religious themes and practices will have a chilling effect on the “freedom of public religion” that Witte and Tuttle themselves want and encourage. (What psychological effect will the systematic removal of all civil religious themes and practices have on our people? What anger against the courts will it provoke?) Note what has happened to the private expression of religious displays and symbols since the courts have prohibited their public expression at religious holidays, for example. Merchants no longer use the word “Christmas.” Even Christians are reluctant to send real Christmas cards to their friends. If the courts denude the public sphere of any civil religious presence, will Presidents be willing-or even able-to appeal to transcendent guidance or inspiration? Will public religious expression by private Christian or Jewish persons and groups be welcome in a radically secular public square?

[10] Such denuding will make us into quite a different country-one of a weak, lowest-common -denominator consensus-and a country that will discourage those who try to rise above that lowest-common-denominator. Consider what has happened in the European countries. It is now unwelcome for anyone-in either their public or private roles-to express their religion publicly. Even the Christian sources of Western Civilization cannot be mentioned in the public documents of the European Union.

[11] While I certainly welcome Witte’s and Tuttle’s affirmation of the rights of all religious groups and persons to exercise their specific values in the public sphere, I worry that expunging civil religious themes from public life will strongly discourage such exercise.

[12] Thanks again for all the fine responses to my essay. I have learned much in reading and responding to them. I hope the exchange has been mutually enriching.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.