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Is America losing her civil religion?

To rekindle faith in democracy, focus on ‘enduring ideologies’ that can bring Americans together, scholars say

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To rekindle faith in democracy, focus on “enduring ideologies” that can bring Americans together, scholars say.

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran

Although he’s a former congressional staffer who knows the U.S. Capitol well, Peter Loge says he’s still awed when he looks at the Apotheosis of Washington, the painting in the Capitol dome that depicts George Washington ascending to heaven.

“Nothing will crush your soul like a post-State of the Union media scrum, but I still catch my breath” looking at the fresco, said Loge, an associate professor at George Washington University.

Loge said the Apotheosis and the reverence it inspires shows the power of American democracy as a “civil religion,” a term that describes the belief, symbols and practices that hold a nation together. 

But like the practice of religious faith, civil religion has declined in recent years, according to Loge and other scholars who recently convened to discuss the civil religion’s importance and how it can be rekindled.

“I would say that we really haven’t seen much civil religion in the last four years, under the previous administration. And I think much of the country, whether you supported the previous administration or not, felt its absence,” said John Carlson, associate professor of religious studies at Arizona State University and interim director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. If you are religious, he said, “It’s like not going to church for four years.”

The erosion of civil religion is seen in Americans’ declining trust in government and other institutions, as well as in coarsening political discourse, said panelists at the April 1 event, jointly sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and the Project on Ethics in Political Communication at The George Washington University.

But it’s also revealed in events such as the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and widespread polarization, to include increasingly disparate ideas about the country’s founding, the scholars said.

The answers can be as simple as reaching out to others in our daily lives, said Loge, founder and director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. “Danielle Allen, a really brilliant scholar at Harvard, says one of the things we need to do more, for example, is just to talk to strangers,” Loge said. But the county also needs to coalesce around a set of principles on which we all agree, he added.

“Our challenge as a country is to tell an American story that’s honest, that’s true, that’s aspirational and that finds a place for all of us in it in the present, while acknowledging the awfulness of the past and can move us toward a better, sure future.”

That story may have to expand to include the experiences of Indigenous and enslaved people and the struggles of their descendants, the scholars said. But the sacred documents, the canon, of this civil religion are writings and speeches that are widely known. And there is evidence that there is robust agreement on what the pillars of this civil religion should be. According to political analyst Scott Rasmussen, more than three-quarters of Americans cite freedom, equality and self-governance as the nation’s principal ideals.

‘Faith in democracy’

While most people think of religion in terms of faith in God, the Latin root of the word — “religare” — means to bind, or hold together, like a ligament.

That’s precisely the purpose of a civil religion, although the term is scholarly and needs updating to enable a better understanding outside of academia, Carlson said.

“One of the best I can think of, is ‘democratic faith.’ Faith is belief in things unseen. And there are people who believe in this democracy, still believe in this democracy, even though they’ve been left behind, even though their ancestors have been enslaved, or marginalized, or have had treaties broken with the federal government,” he said.

“As (Philadelphia 76ers Coach) Doc Rivers says, ‘it’s amazing, we keep loving this country, and it doesn’t love us back.’ That doesn’t mean we stop loving the country … There’s a kind of faith in democracy here.”

Nichole R. Phillips, associate professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and director of Candler’s Black Church Studies Program, said a civil religion doesn’t require unanimity of thought; in fact, there are multiple forms of civil religion scattered throughout the nation.

For example, she said, “religion of the lost cause” is a form of southern civil religion that existed alongside a civil religion that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the civil-rights movement practiced. “There has never been this uniformity or umbrella that doesn’t allow for differences,” she said.

That said, “there are still enduring symbols, enduring ideologies, enduring rituals that really distinguish us as citizens of the United States of America.”

These symbols and rituals can be religious in nature — such as the Capitol fresco that Loge finds moving, or another example he cited, the funeral procession of his former boss, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

But the “religious” part of civil religion is deistic, not theistic, and its goal is the public good, Phillips said.

“It might employ the terminology of what would be understood as an American church Christianity, but it resides outside of the institutional church. It is this identification with a God that legitimizes the nation but stands above and outside the institutional church,” Phillips said.

To Carlson at Arizona State University, the “scripture,” or canon, of American civil religion are the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, as well as Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and his “I Have a Dream” speech, and the Gettysburg Address.

But there can be others, so long as they are not just about the past, but also reach to the future, he said.

“It’s not a closed canon. As we think about American civil religion, any tradition that is looking back and not thinking about how it speaks to the realities of the day is going to die, and it’s appropriate because it’s not addressing the realities of the day.”

The borders are violent

Loge said that public servants and political strategists play an important role in helping to fix the nation’s attention on its shared ideals.

“As a political guy, my question is, how do I articulate that in a way to elect my candidate, to advance my cause, to pass a piece of legislation? … We’ve got to debate, and we’ve got to debate hard. This is partisan and I’m incredibly competitive.

“But we need to do it in a way to strengthen this idea of the ideal. Danielle Allen says ‘this country was born in talk.’ At that level, that talk matters. What we can do as strategists is to root our arguments in a shared civil religion. We can speak to a higher ideal and then reinforce that ideal and debate the best way to get to it,” Loge said.

Allen wrote that the Constitution is morally flawed but a “work of practical genius” and a diamond found in a dirty stall is still a diamond.

Similarly, Carlson recalled a quotation by Richard Rorty, the author of “Achieving Our Country” who wrote in 1997, “You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than the one to which you wake up to every morning.”

Ultimately, Loge said, a return to a civil religion will lower the temperature of the nation, although there will always be room for vigorous debate. “We can argue about the hard stuff, but we’re going to agree about the important stuff.”

The Jan. 6 riot, Carlson said, showed why we need it.

“It demonstrated the clear need for some kind of basic, minimal set of commitments, beliefs, creeds, whatever you want to call it — a democratic faith — that we all can adhere to, regardless of what political party you belong to, and that we understand what that basic minimal consensus looks like, in part, because the borders of that are violent.”