That Old Time Religion

[1] Upon hearing that both houses of Congress approved legislation to allow the use of the Capitol Rotunda for their prayer session, the ubiquitous-and by now frenetic-Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), complained: “If members of Congress want a religious service, they can go to their houses of worship.” “The U.S. Capitol is not a revival tent,” he added.

[2] But poor Barry, and the many others who want to sanitize all public space of religious symbols and language, are bound to be frustrated. For what is called the ” Civil Religion” has been present and active in the public sphere since the beginning of the Republic, and there is little chance that it will disappear in spite of the relentless efforts of the AUSCS and the American Civil Liberties Union. It is present in all the major events in American civic life and rushes in with special power in times of national crisis. In the current crisis it has been expressed in schools, Congress, the rhetoric of many leaders, the media, and especially in the civic piety of the people.

[3] Even some of those who are sympathetic with the sanitizers’ general program participate in the Civil Religion in these times. The Roanoke Times, for example, ran full pages in several issues with the banner headline: “God Bless America.” Indeed, the song of that name, with its overtly religious language, has almost replaced the official national anthem as America’s favorite hymn of unity. “God bless America, Land that I Love, Stand beside her, And guide her, Through the night with the light from above…”

[4] Written in 1938 by Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Siberia, the song is a perfect expression of America’s Civil Religion. It strikes notes common to both the Jewish and Christian tradition-God’s blessing and guidance. Moreover, one might expect American Muslims to share in such a civil religious expression, if “God” can be a worthy substitute for “Allah” for them. The Civil Religion carefully avoids allusions to specific elements of Jewish or Christian faith that depart from that common ground.

[5] The American Civil Religion is the common denominator religion of a religious country with the First Amendment. When there is no established church or religion, and yet there is a great deal of religious vitality in the country, the Civil Religion is an inevitable result. A religious people want a transcendent dimension to the great moments of national life and the Civil Religion is the vehicle for that. One might add that the pressure for that transcendent dimension in elementary and secondary education is also the result of a religious people seeking the blessing and guidance of God at crucial moments in their children’s lives.

[6] It has been so from the beginning of our country. Part of the Civil Religion stems from the deism of some of the Founders, who rejected the specifics of Jewish and Christian religion. They thought they had a rational basis for the Civil Religion. But the Civil Religion’s genius is that serious Jewish and Christian believers can use it for their public religious aspirations. And they have. Among the great practitioners of the Civil Religion have been Presidents who articulate their vision for the nation in their inaugural addresses. Many of these expressions are boilerplate, but some of them rise to grand heights. Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is perhaps the grandest and most profound of them all. What makes it so great is that he discerns both God’s blessing and judgment in the cataclysmic movement of history in his time. His address is also ethically serious in that it makes moral demands on the nation to complete its unfinished tasks.

[7] Civil Religion can be both trivial and dangerous if it is used merely to give a religious gloss to national ambition. But if there is a serious effort to connect America with both divine blessing and guidance, as “God Bless America” does, Civil Religion can be noble and necessary. And it won’t go away.

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.