II. Faith of Our FathersCivil religion broadly defined is a universal phenomenon. The ancient Greeks and Romans worshiped the gods and goddesses whom they believed to be patrons of their local city-states and regional empires. To chant “Great is Diana of the Ephesians” or to burn incense to Caesar was to pay political as well spiritual obeisance. The cults of the god-kings and god-emperors of Egypt, China, Korea, and Japan were civil as well as religious. Even monotheistic Judaism displayed features of a civic cult in the eras of its monarchy and two temples. In late medieval and early modern Europe, the divine right of kings conflated civil and religious loyalties, while the city-states of the Italian Renaissance, emulating as the ancients, inspired their own patronage cults albeit this time to saints (e.g., St. Mark in Venice). But the modern concept of civil religion was born of the Protestant Reformation’s notion of civic polity as a holy covenant or social contract made by the people themselves. James Harrington, theoretician of Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth in mid-17th century England, and Jean- Jacques Rousseau, philosopher from the Geneva Republic in the mid-18th century, asked, what might hold a government of the people together in the absence of royal or ecclesiastical hierarchy? Their answer was civil religion, a faith and commitment all the more powerful for being voluntary (not imposed), devoted to the unity and prosperity of the commonwealth (not a king or oneself), and inspired by devotion to God or Nature (rather than corrupt human authorities). Patriotic American choirs gave voice to such religiosity when they sang in 1778, “To the King they shall sing Hallelujah, and all the continent shall sing: down with this earthly King; no king but God.”
I was not aware of our American civil religion (ACR) until I began researching my new book, Freedom Just Around the Corner. Evidence of the ACR piled up until I was obliged to make it a major theme in the story of American independence and early national growth. Then, while preparing my seminar, I learned how few Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries were fully conscious of the religion they shared. Walt Whitman, the ACR’s poet laureate, certainly was, as was Whitman’s hero Abraham Lincoln, the ACR’s martyr and messiah. Later, when the United States got into the business of exporting its faith in the Spanish-American and First World Wars, a handful of scholars wrote books on “the American religion” and “the religion of the flag.” But otherwise American statesmen, artists, teachers, and preachers disseminated the creation myth, martyrology, moral code, theology, liturgy, and eschatology of American republicanism without explicitly acknowledging its status as a transcendental creed.
Indeed, not until 1967 did Berkeley sociologist Robert N. Bellah describe, in a celebrated article, what he christened “the American Civil Religion.” Curiously, what inspired him to think about the matter was the 1961 inauguration of the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. Prior to that, intellectual scoffers could dismiss the “God talk” permeating American public life as evangelical cant aimed at Bible Belt voters. Bellah observed a young, hip, liberal, rich, Harvard-trained Catholic politician intoning “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God” and “asking His blessing and His help” in the knowledge “that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” Fascinated by the nonsectarian (or polysectarian) cast of this rhetoric, Bellah recalled President Eisenhower’s observation, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is!” Clearly there was more to this than feel-good piety or pandering to the “religious right” (or, in past eras, left). So Bellah turned to history and found he could trace the ACR back to the Founding Fathers. They had indeed preached a civil faith meant not to replace Bible-based denominations, but rather to stand above them in benign toleration so a disparate people might unite and fulfill the glorious destiny God planned for them.
But who is this God of the Founders, the God of the ACR, if not Jehovah or the Holy Trinity? He is the God with no name, but a hundred names. Franklin called him Father of Lights and Supreme Architect; Washington the Almighty Being, Invisible Hand, and Parent of the Human Race; John Adams the Patron of Order, Fountain of Justice, and Protector; Jefferson the Infinite Power; Madison the Being who Regulates the Destiny of Nations; Monroe merely Providence and the Almighty; John Quincy Adams the Ark of our Salvation and Heaven; Andrew Jackson that Power and Almighty Being Who mercifully protected our national infancy; and so on down to Lincoln who reached the tragic understanding that Northerners and Southerners prayed—as Christians—to the same God in the Civil War, but as Americans must hear “the mystic chords of memory,” indulge “the better angels of our nature,” admit “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” and strive to bind up the nation’s wounds “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
Lincoln never could bring himself to embrace Christian faith, but was himself the Christ of the ACR. Jackson posed for electoral purposes as a Presbyterian, but was in fact a fervent Freemason who believed in a God above all theologies, the very God whose All-Seeing Eye looks down benignly on the Unfinished Pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States and our one-dollar bill. Jefferson was an Enlightened philosopher who clung romantically to a faith in reason alone. Yet they, no less than devout Protestant presidents, swore fealty to the Providence that seemed to watch over the American people.
Tuesday, July 4, 2017
Meditations on a High Holy Day: The Fourth of July
By Walter A. McDougall, July 4, 2004, here: A taste: