Since today marks both Passover and Easter, it seems appropriate to consider the role of religion in American life–or at least, theories addressing that role.
So in today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat bemoans the disappearance of what he calls “the religious center”–what many of us who are not Christians experienced as something rather less benign than the unifying force he nostalgically remembers. The problem with a generally accepted religious identity is that those who don’t share that identity are marginalized, forced out of not just the religious but also the civic mainstream.
As Douthat recognizes, the radical diversity that characterizes the modern era makes that sort of religious and civic uniformity impossible.
There’s an old rhyme: “Twixt optimist and pessimist, the difference is droll; the optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist the hole.” Douthat ignores the “doughnut” of greater civic inclusiveness and focuses upon the “hole” of diminished identification with community.
It’s easy to fault Douthat’s indifference to the merits of inclusiveness, but there is more than a nugget of truth to his assertion that a country needs an overarching theology to which most citizens subscribe. The problem lies in identifying that theology in a way that respects our religious diversity and our constitutional commitment to religious autonomy.
The United States is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. Furthermore, even though the U.S. remains predominantly Christian, doctrinal differences among Christian denominations are often as deep as the differences between Christians and Jews or Muslims. Adherents of virtually every religion on the globe live in the U.S., and recent polls put the number of secular Americans (those unaffiliated with any religious body) at approximately 16%.
Douthat is certainly correct that this diversity poses a significant challenge to America’s social and governing institutions: what commonalities enable and define the collective civic enterprise? What makes one an American? The United States’ national motto is e pluribus unum, “out of the many, one.” Prominent social and political theorists have long argued that a common belief structure, or “civil religion,” is required in order to turn the many into the one.
The term “civil religion” was first popularized in 1967 by Robert N. Bellah, in an article that remains the standard reference for the concept. The proper content of such a civil religion, however, has been the subject of debate since the Revolutionary War. Over the past decades, as the nation’s diversity has dramatically increased, that debate has taken on added urgency, with political theorists, sociologists and scholars of religion all offering their perspectives to political and religious leaders. (Douthat’s column betrayed no awareness of or familiarity with that ongoing discussion.)
In a culture as diverse as that of the United States, a “civil religion” or common value structure provides citizens with a sense of common purpose and identity. Despite the claims of some conservative Christians, Christianity does not provide that social glue; the United States is not and has never been an officially Christian Nation, although it has historically been culturally Protestant.
As I wrote in a brief article a few years ago,
“The U.S. Constitution contains no reference to deity, and specifically rejects the use of any religious test for citizenship or public office. In order to be consistent with the Constitution, any civil religion must respect the nation’s commitment to individual autonomy in matters of belief, while still providing an overarching value structure to which most, if not all, citizens can subscribe. This is no small task in a nation founded upon the principle that government must be neutral among belief systems. This constitutionally-required state neutrality has long been a source of considerable political tension between citizens intent upon imposing their religious beliefs on their neighbors and those who reject efforts to enforce religious hegemony. Thus far, no proposed value system or theorized civil religion has been entirely able to resolve that conflict. To the extent that Americans do endorse an overarching ideology or civil religion, it is a belief system based upon the values of individual liberty and equal rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
America’s founding principles–set out in the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights–provide the only content of a “civil religion” capable of providing both the requisite “social glue” and respect for individuals’ right to their own religious convictions.
That sort of civil religion will never satisfy those who believe they are called by their God to impose their “Truth” on their neighbors, but the alternative is the sort of religio-political warfare that has become depressingly familiar, and that Douthat quite properly criticizes.