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Americans supposedly agree on certain truths. Timeless, universal and famously self-evident, they are the dearest tenets of what the sociologist Robert Bellah called “civil religion in America.” It is a faith whose holy days include the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and every Sunday during football season, though historically it achieves its clearest and most eloquent articulation on presidential inauguration days, as it did on January 21, 2013:

Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional—what makes us American—is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.

In his address, President Obama combined the two fundamental elements of American civil religion: Enlightenment Deism and Protestant theology. From Enlightenment Deism comes a belief in a God of nature (a “Creator”) and natural (“inalienable”) rights. American law does not bestow these rights; it acknowledges and is answerable to them. From the Reformation comes the belief in providence (a directed “journey”) and a covenantal relationship (a “promise”). A chosen tribe (“His people”) pledges itself to the never-ending task of realizing (“here on Earth”) values larger than themselves (the “gift” of “freedom”).

The articles of this faith are more than propositions. The word “religion” comes from the Latin religio, which is commonly understood to derive from religare, meaning to fasten or bind together. In Obama’s second inaugural address, the unifying function of American civil religion is as important as its substance. The core of American civil religion is the conviction that everybody has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that we should organize our common life accordingly. If these rights have been imperfectly realized, as they inevitably will be, it is then our duty as Americans to perfect them.

Robert Bellah published his famous essay on American civil religion in 1967, during the “time of trial” that was the Vietnam War. Today it feels like the country is undergoing another one. At the same time, it is hard to say what would count as doubting “the promise of our democracy.” Does conventional atheism (denying the existence of a Creator, providence and so on) preclude membership in America’s civil religion? What does it mean to lose faith in America? And what happens to our shared values if we no longer hold certain truths to be self-evidently binding?

The term “civil religion” is Rousseau’s. In ancient societies, he ventured, there was no meaningful distinction between politics and religion. Rites and sacrifices, commandments and prohibitions, fasts and festival days, stories about the gods and beliefs about the nature of the cosmos—they all served the purpose of gathering people into a single political body. But if a modern state includes many competing faiths, how should a sovereign unify it? Rousseau’s answer was to promote an overarching religion with vague, widely shared beliefs about moral behavior and civic duties. He recommended a benevolent and providential deity, rewards for the just, punishments for the wicked, the sanctification of law and contracts, and the rejection of religious intolerance. He called these tenets “dogmas” before quickly correcting himself: “the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as sentiments of sociability.” By emphasizing social sentiment rather than doctrine, Rousseau connected civil religion to its roots in Roman religio. The “dogmas” of a civil religion are the spirit of a society, its often unspoken but vital habits of thought and behavior.

Rousseau’s “dogmas” show up in some of the founders’ writings, but American civil religion was something else. It tied seemingly irreconcilable people into one nation in a new and unexpected way. In eighteenth-century Europe, Protestants and proponents of the Enlightenment eyed each other warily, and the memory of sectarian warfare between Christians of all denominations still lingered. To a good Calvinist minister, Enlightenment liberalism, with its social contracts and negative rights, seemed to prize self-sufficiency over reliance on God. And to the Enlightenment philosophe, Protestants (let alone Catholics) might declare at any moment that the laws of their God trumped the laws of the state. There was no reason to think that, across the Atlantic, these two strands of thought might be woven into a strong social bond.

But they were. In the run-up to the Revolutionary War, ministers and statesmen endorsed each others’ ideals and borrowed each others’ language. Ministers, especially the evangelically minded nonconformists who distrusted the established churches, exhorted their congregations to throw off the yoke of English tyranny and seize political liberties to match their spiritual freedom. Deists like Franklin and Jefferson mined the Old Testament, equating America with Israel: the chosen people in flight from Pharaoh’s Europe. The Book of Exodus would become a wellspring of inspiration for American social movements, from abolitionism to civil rights. After independence, the agreement held, and even grew stronger. Clergy could see God’s handiwork and favor in the progress of the nation, while men like Washington, and later Tocqueville, thought religion indispensible because it built the virtues necessary for a free people’s survival.

Americans pursued political causes with religious fervor, and an increasing number of churches organized themselves democratically. American Protestantism grew skeptical about received authority, becoming largely voluntary and individualistic. At the same time, the jeremiad, traditionally a sermon chastising the congregation for its failures and faithlessness, was directed at the body politic as a whole. “Oh, Americans! Americans!” cried the black abolitionist David Walker in 1829, “repent and reform, or you are ruined!” If the nation was suffering, it was because the American people had betrayed their founding ideals. Repent and reform—and the nation might still be saved. The result, according to the historian Mark Noll, was that Americans of every kind (which included not only Protestants of every stripe but also Catholics and Jews) sounded the same themes: “fear of abuses from illegitimate power and a nearly messianic belief in the benefits of liberty.” Indebted to both Enlightenment social thought and Protestant theology, the emerging civic faith was reducible to neither.

The persistence of that faith has been most evident in the rhetoric of our presidents. After the revolution, George Washington told the crowd at his first inaugural that “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” During the existential crisis of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s speeches added to the old story of emancipation from tyranny the themes of sin and sacrifice, which would last until “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” (At the end of all that suffering lay rebirth.) During Reconstruction the government tried to reunite the nation through new national festivals: Memorial Day (1868), Washington’s Birthday (1885, later “Presidents’ Day”), and a federal holiday for the Fourth of July (1870). In the twentieth century, John F. Kennedy invoked the tenets of American civil religion in West Berlin, as did Lyndon B. Johnson in Washington, D.C., when he called for Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.

Obama’s second inaugural, which echoed Washington’s first, could have been delivered yesterday, or centuries ago, because the foundation of American democracy remains the same: a birthright that each generation must accept, interpret and realize more fully than the last. And yet, in every generation there have also been doubters of that birthright—some who question whether the country is living up to its convictions about equality, justice and happiness for all, and some who question something even deeper: whether those ideals were ever worth honoring in the first place.

Challenges to American civil religion have little to do with personal religious conviction. Atheists old and new may scoff at the idea of providence, but they are proud heirs of the Enlightenment. The most prominent of them champion liberty of thought, speech, association and inquiry as the highest social values. A society founded on opposed values (say, submission to the will of God) would be deplorable. Christopher Hitchens may not have believed in Jefferson’s distant, Deist God, but he did believe in liberty, promoting it abroad with missionary zeal. In Rousseau’s terms, his sentiments of sociability—even in their excesses—placed him firmly within America’s broad church.

A more serious challenge would question our collective commitment to those values. The statement “black lives matter,” for instance, implies that American society as a whole does not really believe in liberty and justice for all. That message has been a rallying cry in the streets and on social media, and at athletic events a silent indictment. Athletes like Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick have knelt during the national anthem to protest the deaths of African-American men and women at the hands of police officers. According to David Brooks, Kaepernick’s gesture is an explicit challenge to American civil religion. By refusing to honor the flag, Brooks argued, Kaepernick was tacitly criticizing everything it stands for.

But what exactly was the content of the athletes’ critique? When asked if his gesture disrespected American soldiers, Kaepernick replied, “They fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up as far as, you know, giving freedom and justice and liberty to everybody.” One of the legacies of American civil religion is that it both invites and requires dissent: Brooks himself claims that it originally included both the thought that America’s English settlers were called on by God to create a “good and just society,” and that they were “screwing it up.” Without dissenters, our civil religion would be heretical and, worse, might lapse into idolatry. An idolater is someone who worships the creation rather than the creator, as if the people of Israel revered the Ark of the Covenant rather than the promise it represented. The American idolater would ask us to revere the greatness of the vessel, the nation, rather than the values it is supposed to carry. Whether Kaepernick, his supporters and his detractors recognize it or not, his seeming challenge to American civil religion is also a reaffirmation of it.

In his column, though, Brooks grouped Kaepernick with another contemporary critic of the American ideal, Ta-Nehisi Coates. In a sense, the connection was fairly drawn. Coates’s Between the World and Me provoked a broad and intense discussion of American race relations, providing the intellectual background against which many Americans viewed Kaepernick’s protest. Coates, like Kaepernick, is appalled by the police shootings. But there is a difference in the form their skepticism takes. Unlike Kaepernick, Coates does not suggest that America has betrayed its noble, founding ideals. Instead, he tells his young son: “Here is what I would like for you to know. In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

No less emphatically than Hitchens, Coates rejects “the church and its mysteries.” But unlike Hitchens, Coates demystifies American history as well. There is no righteousness for our prophets to call us back to, because from the very beginning white Americans have achieved their liberty and happiness “through the pillaging of life, liberty, and labor and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents.” Coates links the founders’ pillage of black liberty and labor to subsequent crimes: Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and the current rash of police shootings. Those who believe America was ever otherwise, or will ever be otherwise, are lost in a comforting illusion. After quoting John C. Calhoun’s contention that the real divide in America is between white and black rather than rich and poor, Coates replies: “And there it is—the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning.”

To be a thoroughgoing unbeliever when it comes to the American faith, it’s not enough to doubt providence as a traditional atheist might, nor is it enough to say that America has never done justice to its ideals. Even someone who sees everything from what Coates calls “the dungeon-side view of Monticello” could still believe that the sentiments in the Declaration of Independence should become a reality for all. In Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again,” Hughes makes it quite clear that “It never was America to me”—and by “me” he means everyone whose work went into giving men like Jefferson and Washington the leisure to pursue their happiness. And yet Hughes can still conclude “O, yes, / I say it plain, / America never was America to me, / And yet I swear this oath— / America will be!” America, for Hughes, still names a set of ideals that are valid and could be realized.

But what if the ideals themselves were empty? Since the election, in articles for the Atlantic and in interviews, Coates has returned to his insistence on the dreadful weight of history. “When you study civilizations,” he told Ezra Klein in Vox, “it tends to be true that history has a weight, a gravity—if you’re going to go in an opposite direction, you need to consciously exercise an opposite force. And I don’t see us doing that.” Pessimistic as this may sound, such a statement still suggests that history is susceptible to human effort. This contrasts with how Coates describes the violence America visits on its black citizens in Between the World and Me, where he makes clear that his comparison of such violence to natural disasters—earthquakes, floods and hurricanes—should not be taken merely metaphorically. The one advantage of living in fear of sudden, random violence, he tells his son, is that it clues you in to a larger truth: “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.” Here Coates evinces a truly tragic anthropology. The self-evident truths of human nature are not equality and liberty but vulnerability and fear. Vulnerable, we are afraid. Afraid, we seek security by dominating our neighbors. Far from exceptional, then, Ferguson, Missouri reveals the heart of human sociability.

In that case it makes no sense to appeal to supposedly inalienable rights to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. Those rights exist only in our dreams, and to the extent that Americans try to build their common life on them, they are living a lie.

But if basing a society on inalienable rights is wishful thinking, how should we order society instead? After the publication of Between the World and Me, critics like Darryl Pinckney (New York Review of Books), Thomas Chatterton Williams (London Review of Books), Michelle Alexander (New York Times) and R. R. Reno (First Things) faulted Coates for having no hopeful or constructive vision of the future. In terms of American civil religion, he undermined the faith without offering any new sentiments of sociability we might share. These critics were half right: Coates doesn’t offer an alternative for everyone, but he does for a select few.

Coates calls this alternative the Mecca. In a literal sense the Mecca is Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., but the school’s red-brick campus stands for something more. When he arrived at Howard in 1993 as a devotee of the young Malcolm X, Coates had expected to find a bastion of black nationalism. What he discovered instead was an alternative to nationalisms, or any great myths. The Mecca is Coates’s name for an existing culture formed by the weight of oppression—a culture whose “sentiments of sociability” are forged in shared experiences of suffering and beauty. He, his classmates and the local poets “were bound because they suffered under the weight of the Dream, and they were bound by all the beautiful things, all the language and mannerisms, all the food and music, all the literature and philosophy, all the common language that they fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream.”

Coates uses the word “dream” advisedly. Although never mentioned by name, Martin Luther King, Jr. is Coates’s constant foil. American civil religion formed the core of King’s most famous speeches, sermons and letters; he drew with equal felicity on Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Aquinas, and he insisted that liberating African Americans from injustice required liberating white Americans, too, from their fears and their ill-placed pride. Coates, by contrast, rejects American civil religion’s sentiments of sociability and recommends a kind of secession from white society. “Struggle for wisdom,” he tells his son in the final impassioned pages of the book. “Struggle for the warmth of the Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers.”

In his emphasis on struggle and in his rejection of the American creed, Coates’s most direct predecessors are the black nationalists. But he and they also represent a more general type. America’s deepest skeptics have all stood, in one way or another, outside of the Enlightenment-Protestant détente. Descendants of the radical Reformation, such as Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Amish, have never made their peace with a liberal political order based on inalienable rights. Committed to the sovereignty of God and His law, they do not think America is God’s chosen country, and they do not think its ideals are worth struggling for. They are bound to each other, not to America at large. And they thrive on visions of America’s imminent and deserved destruction.

This is a vision Coates shares. In the last scene of his book, he imagines the changing climate as an imminent apocalypse. “Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the sea,” he thinks as he drives through America’s urban ghettos. “Through the windshield, I saw the rain coming down in sheets.”

Perhaps the rising tide will wash America away. Its faith could be lost, too. The rights enshrined in American civil religion may theoretically precede the law’s recognition, but unlike traditional religious doctrines, their reality depends a great deal on Americans’ willingness to realize them. God providentially directs creation (or not) regardless of peoples’ beliefs or behavior. But, as William James observed in his lecture “The Will to Believe,” the truth or falsity of some beliefs hangs on how they’re held. Consider a train robbery. Each passenger is too weak to fight off the robbers alone, but if they all believe that their fellow passengers will rise up with them, “faith in a fact can help create the fact.” Freedom and equality may be more like courage than providence. Their existence depends on whether you believe the promises of our democracy and will fight to keep them, or place your faith elsewhere.

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This essay was published in
the “What is America for?” symposium
in issue 13 of The Point.
To read the rest of the issue,
purchase it in our store or subscribe now.

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Art credit: Adam J. Long

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