The uncertain fate of civil religion in the Trump era

Does American civil religion, a shared, generic faith based upon belief in America as an exceptional nation and marked by national symbols and rituals, have a future? Judging by reporting on the recent death and burial of evangelist Billy Graham, it seems that the idea of civil religion is alive and well. In the Religion News Service feature “The ’Splainer,” (February 28), Kimberly Winston writes that the rituals surrounding Graham’s death, such as having his body “lie in honor” in the nation’s Capitol, the first religious figure to do so, are “part of the American civil religion that can unite us all.” But according to scholars speaking at a recent Fordham University conference in New York attended by RW, growing religious illiteracy as well as the more nationalistic policies and themes of the Trump administration spell more of a death knell for this political religion. Proponents of civil or public religion, such as the sociologist Robert Bellah and Martin Luther King, Jr., viewed such a non-denominational faith as a basis of moral judgement that could be espoused independently of specific religions. But the speakers at the February conference viewed civil religion as either dissipating or shifting to more secular grounds.

John Carlson of Arizona State University said that the stress on pluralism and consensus in American civil religion may be giving way to greater “tribalism.” He pointed to the recent change of motto on presidential coins from e pluribus unum to “Make America Great Again.”  Kathleen Flake of the University of Virginia said that while civil religion provided a way for the “nation to judge itself beyond itself,” today there is little sense of the common good and how it is defined with religious values. “Schools are no longer teaching it…even my graduate students show little basic knowledge of the Bible,” Flake said. Most of the participants cited the weakening of mainline Protestantism as serving to empty American civil religion of its religious contents. Mark Silk of Trinity College of Hartford, CT, argued that “[w]e don’t need theism to appeal to a civil religion based on patriotism.”

Silk argued that many of the functions that civil religion was supposed to fill now have a more secular basis, as reflected in the kneeling protests in the National Football League and the protests over immigrants’ rights. Such efforts provide the “transcendent” value of equality even if they are not addressed to a religious audience, he said. The conference participants seemed to rule out the Trump administration or its religious allies providing any civil religious values and located most of the energy on that front in state-based and local activism and movements. Flake cited the protests over confederate statues as more prominent in southern states than in national government. Carlson concluded that the neglect of civil religious themes by the government may “provide an anti-virus, where the public provides its own account” of a new civil religion.