In the grand scheme of our history, we have collectively defined what it means to be American during national and international conflicts. Whether these conflicts escalate toward war or bring new legislation on equal rights, each represents a rite of passage to a new stage of an ever-evolving American civil religion.
The arguments below are not intended to provide either a proud gust for flag-wavers, or the ignition for flag-burners; rather, they seek to explore conflict as the common ground upon which diverse groups converge to perpetuate what Professor Derek Davis of Baylor University’s Institute of Church-State Studies calls “political dynamism.”
In a 1997 article in the Journal of Church and State, Davis wrote that while political conflicts—created by fundamental differences between the conservative and liberal factions of this civil religion—may contribute to a situation of disagreement or “even chaos,” the resulting political dynamism is “the lifeblood of the American system and encourages cooperation as a much-needed and essential ingredient of life in a pluralistic society.”
In considering conflict as an integral part of civil religion, it is appropriate to mention the Iraq issue. Anti-war protestors and pro-war supporters alike invoke language that speaks of democracy, freedom, equality, and justice. Every citizen is a player in the unfolding drama—whether through a peace march, pro-war demonstration, or even seemingly passive observation.
Just as actors and revelers were the embodiment of some force in nature during an ancient pagan festival, we embody the force of ever-present cultural ideals during social conflicts. Unlike the pagans, whose rituals often revolved around the seasons, our rituals are restricted to the battleground of conflict that also serves as our common ground. Americans need conflict in order to be American. Always on the edge of some controversy that stands between the present conflict and the new realization of an old ideal, we are ready for the next revolution that will change the future course of all humanity.
Many talking heads are now suggesting that the possible pre-emptive strike on Iraq could be a turning point in the history of the world. Some analysts think that the decision to either attack or stand back will set the pace for all other countries to follow. It is up to individuals involved in this debate to decide which viewpoints and actions best affirm democratic ideals because, once again, the belief exists that the U.S. determines the course of history for the rest of the world. Both sides of the argument are glued together with the belief that the U.S. is that beacon in the dark, or at least can be or should be.
But if these conflicts can be viewed as rites of passage, then rites of passage to what? “Progress? Development? Change? Redefinition of ourselves? Economic prosperity? If . . . all or at least some of these things, then yes . . . social conflicts of various kinds serve as rites of passage,” said Davis when asked his opinion on this topic recently. He went on to explain that “social conflict is inevitable in any society,” but that in “America the level of conflict is exacerbated by the sanction of so many diverse ethnic, religious, and political groupings.”
What’s interesting in Davis’ response is that he does not pretend that the differences between various groups in America merge perfectly without friction. Nor does he categorize this tension as unhealthy. Rather, he presents a realistic observation of the historical situation in our culture. Davis adds, “All of these groups, in turn, react and adjust their outlooks based on the outcome of these social conflicts. It is an ongoing process, one that never ends.”
This is not to say that we are necessarily aware of our civil religion with its ritualistic conflict. It would be safe to speculate that Americans who already practice a religion subordinate any idea of civil religion to their primary religion, if they even view their public life in these terms; and that Americans who run away from the mere word “religion” will immediately scoff at the attempt to describe any part of public life as religious.
What’s Civil Religion Again?
If this civil religion does exist, then we would have to characterize it as a faith-based system. Yet, the present day understanding of “faith based” does not fully capture the tacit faith in our civil religion. It is best described, not in terms of formal religion, but in terms of internalized ideals. Once these democratic ideals are internalized they are concretized and perceived as essential truths. In this sense, internalization functions as faith since we hold these truths to be self-evident truths without the aid of mathematical calculation or scientific inquiry. For Thomas Paine these democratic ideals were simply common sense.
Doug Adams, professor at Pacific School of Religion, says that although the term “faith may be applied to some Americans’ exercise of internalized ideals of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence,” he doubts that many Americans have consciously sought this faith “in this time when history is unknown to most students.” He does conclude, however, that many people “have derived a tacit faith in such ideals through secondary sources, [such as] films, TV shows, or music.” In other words, when is the last time you watched a movie that, without irony or humor, conformed to ideals and principles antithetical to highly formulaic conceptions of human freedom, justice, and equality?
Others have also attempted to define this tacit faith. Peter Berkowitz, Professor at George Mason University Law School, explored the possible definition of faith as applied to civil religion at a conference titled “God Bless America: Reflections on Civil Religion After September 11,” held by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in February 2002 (http://pewforum.org/events). Berkowitz likened this faith to “an ultimate devotion to individual freedom and human equality” (my emphasis). He went on to suggest that whether or not freedom and equality are truly self-evident, the fact that many Americans hold these qualities as self-evident is proof of our faith in them. Citing the fact that Puritans and adherents of the Enlightenment founded the U.S., Berkowitz suggested that this type of faith might be “where reason and faith merge.”
Since our culture is so saturated with these ideals, it seems unnecessary to follow the lead of most scholars of religion and bind the definition of civil religion primarily to the Judeo-Christian model, or at least to a vague general notion of a universal God. They like to think of it as an extension of an institutionalized religion into public life. When this definition is expanded to include other religions, God remains the center. And even popular secular scholars, such as Robert Bellah, author of Varieties of Civil Religion and many other books on the topic, speak about a civil religion that makes God central, or at least coheres around some ultimate and universal reality that transcends the public that it guides.
There are some interesting statistics provided by the Barna Research Group, LTD. (www.barna.org) that may help to explain the difference between the tacit faith in democratic ideals and an explicit faith in an institutionalized religion that requires God as a central figure. Barna Research Group is a full-service marketing research company that specializes in “providing information and analysis regarding cultural trends and the Christian Church.” In their national survey in 1997, 95 percent of Americans claimed to believe in God. The definition of God is unclear, but one may probably assume this involves the God of the Abrahamic traditions and beyond. Another survey taken in 2002 shows that 85 percent of Americans identify as Christians. In contrast to this overwhelming belief in God are some surprisingly different statistics regarding where Americans are most likely to place moral truth: in personal feelings. For Barna, a Christian organization, this finding must be alarming.
According to Barna’s 2002 surveys, the majority of both adults (64 percent) and teenagers (83 percent) believe that truth is relative as opposed to absolute. In terms of moral decision-making, a majority of adults and teenagers claimed that they choose “whatever feels right in the situation” as opposed to following “a set of specific principles or standards,” such as those put forth in the Bible. There were also a significant number of both adults and teenagers who said that when making a moral decision, they do whatever benefits them personally and adhere to whatever principles they have learned from family and friends.
What’s interesting here is that although a majority of Americans believe in God—and for almost this entire majority it is the Christian God—it is not this belief that guides daily decisions, but their feelings. Since we’re not just talking about physical sensation, it would be, perhaps, more correct to say that what most people mean by “feelings” (especially in terms of decision-making) is more akin to sensibilities: a combination of the mental and emotional.
Our collective sensibilities are reflected in our social norms. The foundations for these norms are freedom, justice, equality, and opportunity. These cultural norms are our second nature, our gut instinct. Judging by the rhetoric that flies whenever conflict arises, we begin to cite what we have internalized as a basis for right and wrong whenever our personal interpretation of what should be is threatened. These ideals are tacit because they are so embedded in our worldview that we are not explicitly aware of their influence upon our “feelings,” our sensibilities. When it comes time to explain our logic in decision-making, we find it much easier to say that we do whatever “feels right,” rather than explore what we take for granted as a basis for right and wrong.
This is not to say our feelings on what should be are the same for everyone. To argue that would be impossible. In fact, our different interpretations of “justice,” “freedom,” and “equality” are often at the center of social conflict.
The concept of a religious civil life is not put forth as an insult to those with religious beliefs, nor is it an attempt to convert the atheist; rather, it is presented in an effort to explore the ritualistic (repetitive, practiced) way in which we confront social conflict. “Religion” is used here less as a signifier for an institutionalized religion (and even less for some realm of vague spirituality), than as a description of an unspoken faith within American civil society. This formulation emphasizes that an individual’s explicit interpretation of this tacit faith is also an exercise or practice of social conflict.
As heirs to the counter-culture of the ’60s and the religious conversions of the ’70s, many of us have moved to define spiritual experience outside the box of institutionalized religion. We can also begin to think of religion itself outside the box. Religion does not depend on ties with a commonly accepted institution; it has more to do with a dimension of living, and with those beliefs, either spoken or unspoken, which inform our decisions and habits.
Evidence of a faith in these principles can even be detected in those Americans that wish to overthrow the U.S. government. Here is a statement made in 2002 by the Federation of Revolutionary Anarchist Collectives: “[We are] trying to learn, expand, develop, prepare opportunities in which we can help bring the struggle for total freedom and equality to higher and deeper levels” (www.anarco-nyc.net/frac.html).
From Bible thumping reactionaries to Battle of Seattle rabble-rousers, we hear much rhetoric that reflects this tacit faith in civil religion. People are passionate about this faith even when religion proper is out of the picture. The interpretation of these ideals holds us in a constant state of disagreement—throughout America’s history, even the Supreme Court has flip-flopped like a dying fish in their interpretation of one of our main source documents, the Constitution. Each major conflict both redefines and re-affirms these deeply held principles.
Bill of Rites
Sept. 11 is a perfect example of how conflict can push the entire country to redefine itself. This attack forced many Americans to reconsider what it means to be alive, and after the dust settled, what it means to be American. The debates began. People went as far as quoting founding fathers in articles and even in blogs. One of the more popular quotes was by Benjamin Franklin: “The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either.”
Over a year later, we have experienced the redefining and re-affirming of our identity on individual, public, legislative, national, and international levels. The looming strike on Iraq will be one of our national rites of passage in the new millennium. Each conflict is another initiation.
With the continuing swell of ground troops in the countries of Arab allies, it seems likely that this 10-year-old conflict with Iraq will end in war and regime change. As this unfolds in the coming year, there will be many more national and international conflicts. Even those who thought the U.S. would set an eternal precedent of pre-emption by advancing war with Iraq over noncompliance with U.N. sanctions may now see another side to U.S. foreign policy, as North Korea pursues a nuclear weapons program. On the domestic front, we are left with many debates over the economy, which will involve discussions on hot-button issues, such as education and social security. In a Senate and House packed with a Republican majority, there’s already rumbling about potential battles on the abortion issue.
The subtext of many of these debates will focus on the ideals of the civil religion. Arguments over legislation on stem-cell research have been revived, in part, by new claims of cloned babies by Raelian-related Clonaid, and have highlighted ideological divisions over the value of scientific advancement vs. the moral question of tampering with primary reproductive components such as the female egg and human embryo. The public discussion of these issues has raised questions about the possible exploitation of women and the commercial harvesting of embryos, as well the development of cures to help us live longer and healthier lives. The surface arguments in this debate invoke concepts of equality and freedom. We are left pondering whether or not embryos have equal protection, or if cloning components of the female egg or embryo somehow breaches standards of equality—questions that, of course, echo those raised in debates over abortion. The argument in support of stem-cell research focuses on an individual’s right to pursue happiness, and be unfettered by disease in order to do so. Some even cite the fundamental freedom of scientists to advance scientific inquiry—for what science popularizer Richard Dawkins calls uplift.
Recent debates over canceling taxes on stock dividends bring to mind standards of equality and justice. The question of who will benefit from this proposed tax cut, as well as from those passed in 2001, is at the center of the debate. The bottom line that will be accepted by most Americans is that these tax cuts will only become legitimate if the majority can benefit fairly, in a way that allows each individual to pursue freedom equally. Once the argument is interjected that these tax cuts will only benefit a privileged minority of Americans, it offends people’s faith in ideals of equality and justice. Many people consider justice to be the fair and equal treatment of all individuals. However, those that argue in support of tax cuts to benefit successful individuals (who will theoretically re-invest this money) focus their arguments upon the freedom of such individuals to manage their own funds, rather than being forced to relinquish control to the government.
The fact that our tacit faith in the principles of our civil religion serves as a reference for what is right and wrong should not surprise us. Robert Wuthnow, along with Robert Bellah, suggests that these public myths help to locate us in the world and in history. We must realize that when we disagree upon the interpretation of this faith that we enter not into random discussions, but rather that we are taking part in ritual conflict. This implies that people who do not engage in this conflict may not be exercising their tacit faith to its full potential. People who adopt a particular point of view without questioning its validity are not only violating intellectual decency, but are also not very adept at recognizing the larger implications of their beliefs. This argument for civil religion is definitely not about accepting any set of rules and regulations by which one is required to live; instead, it is very much about acting upon what we feel are self-evident truths. Because these truths are in part derived from the Enlightenment, they require reason and dialogue, as well as passion. Without reason and dialogue, the exercise of such conflict degenerates into belligerence, and the possible death of innocents—which is antithetical to principles such as freedom and equality.
The impetus of this discussion was not to create any new ideas. We have instead re-examined the function of our faith in old ideas. Following the advice of poet and activist Audre Lorde, we must realize that there are no new ideas, but “only new ways of making them felt.” To echo the sentiment of those who have spent time attempting to define civil religion before me, I must say that it is not important that each person be able to discuss their tacit faith in an explicit way. It is important, however, that we work to engage each other by voicing our interpretations on the issues at hand. If most arguments by politicians and so-called experts on certain topics boil down to personal interpretations of how we should apply democratic ideals, what is the harm in making our voices part of the argument, part of the conflict? It is our nature to disagree, so disagree with passion and be willing to listen and understand your opponent. Otherwise, we are just sheep bleating slogans of agreement as we’re herded along in the name of freedom, justice, and equality.
Previously published in Comfusion Magazine: Winter 2002-03