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.