America’s Religion

14 Nov

The election campaign and results have revealed to us something about America’s religion. Eduardo Cruz, the Brazilian theologian, believes that the dark side of our religion has come to the fore. A few weeks ago Martin Marty wrote that football is the American religion. Bob Benne and I wrote a book in the 1960s, entitled “Defining America: A Christian Critique of the American Dream.”

Sociologists and historians like Sidney Mead (a mentor of Marty’s) and Robert Bellah pointed out decades ago that Americans have made a religion out of their society, coining the term “civil religion.” Mead put it in an aphorism: “America is a nation with the soul of a church.”

We’re not the first or the only society to do this–the ancient Romans practiced a religion of society. The Afrikaners, during the apartheid period in South Africa, held a story that is similar in some respects to the American Story.

I agree with Marty about football, but I will focus here on other elements of the American religion. The idea that we have made an Exodus from bondage to the New World is prominent for many different Americans. That Exodus may have been from Europe or Central America or Vietnam or Syria or many other places. The upshot is that everyone holds to a hope– feeling that there is something special or exceptional about the American experience–it is a place of promise. Sacrifice is also a part of the American Dream; hard work assures an upward spiral.

But the upward aspirations of these immigrants to the Land of Promise left a trail of damage in its wake–the dark side of the American Religion that Cruz sees. That dark side is always present, very real to some, even though it recedes into the background for others. It manifested itself first in dispossessing the native peoples who were here when the settlers arrived and became systematic oppression and even genocide by the Europeans. It manifested itself further in two centuries of slavery of Africans, the treatment of women, the exploitation by the robber barons, and the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. We’ve exploited the natural world, wantonly, the whole time. These acts were justified by the sense of Americans that they are exceptional, a chosen people.

This is the America that has assumed the status of a religion. It seems to be more obvious in the aftermath of the election. Both candidates spoke of American greatness. The  most outrageous, theologically, was: “America is great, because America is good.” The other candidate argued that we must regain greatness–by exorcising foreigners, building walls of tariffs and also of fence and brick and mortar. Both are frightening. For our new president, civil religion has become “America First” and a jihad against immigrants. It is also the cult of the free market, even though the market economy is regularly manipulated to the benefit of the few. One form of that market has taken away the livelihood of millions of workers in the past quarter century–globalization still has its community of worshippers. Another group of worshippers hold that a different form of the market–marked by tariff barriers–will bring the jobs back. In the name of the market, health care for the underemployed and the elderly is stingy, public aid is withheld, and education neglected.

The Religion of America promises salvation, but it fails to deliver, and it perverts the idea of salvation. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and serious humanists know this–they know that the civil religion has no real God. America First and the free market just don’t work as gods. They’re not big enough, not honest enough, not loving enough.

I’ll be reflecting on these issues in my coming blogs. Send me your ideas and opinions.

(c) 11/14/2016 Phil Hefner


3 Responses to “America’s Religion”

  1. Eduardo Rodrigues da Cruz November 15, 2016 at 11:58 am #

    Thanks, Phil, for your thoughtful remarks. I think that the precise nature of civil religion is not a big issue, but rather that this ongoing political conflict has a depth, which is religious in nature. I was reminded of Paul Tillich’s prophetic word, in his Theology of Culture (p. 163): “And then it happened that at the end of the road of German philosophy and theology, the figure of Hitler appeared. At the time of our emigration it was not so much his tyranny and brutality which shocked us, but the unimaginably low level of his cultural expressions. We suddenly realized that if Hitler can be produced by German Culture, something must be wrong with this culture.” Of course, Donald Trump is many light-years away from Hitler, and there is no danger of having a nazi-like regime in the US. But we can draw two lessons from Tillich’s reflection: first, there is a wide gap between what is reflected in the Academia and what is going on in the minds of people in the streets. This is true then and now, and it is an affliction that will haunt us forever. For example, at least at first, Tillich’s response was an admirable book, The Socialist Decision, which is almost unreadable by the general public. Second, if the current situation is a religious one, then the reaction should be religious as well. We are watching reactions that are not very effective, but at least have a symbolic character, igniting quasi-religious feelings in the participants. What about the churches? I think that issuing statements saying that there is a threat in the new situation does not work. Recalling Paul Tillich, matters should be dealt with at their deepest, unconscious level. Unveiling the demonic and the idolatrous in the current situation is timely, but too negative. The most positive initiative should be similar to the one by the first Christians in face of the Roman Empire: the witness to a different way of living all secular matters, very different from any fascist-like behavior. Are the churches prepared for this challenge?

  2. sandyjwhite November 15, 2016 at 3:20 pm #

    Yes, it does seem there is a shift from one nation UNDER God to we are God. I think you hit the nail on the head, Phil.

  3. Philip Hougen November 15, 2016 at 3:42 pm #

    Dear Phil, I really appreciate your reflections. We seem to be at a difficult place. Over the years I have been attracted to the American dream of inclusiveness and struck by the difficulty we have implementing it. I was a delegate to the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. During that convention Jesse Jackson gave one of the best speeches I have heard in my life. I was sitting in the Iowa delegation next to another delegate whose acquaintance I had made. My new friend, Ernie, was a Native American from Sioux City, Iowa. During Rev. Jackson’s speech he delivered the line that “Some or our ancestors came here on immigrant ships and some of our ancestors came here on slave ships, but we are all in the same boat now.” Along with rest of the crowd, I jumped to my feet with applause. In a moment, I realized that Ernie had remained seated. I looked at him and he said, “Left out one more time.” I slumped to my seat and realized that being inclusive is really hard work. America’s religious identity is really elusive. Philip Hougen

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