the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education

Lately, debates about how to teach American government and history in K-12 schools have turned very hot.

These subjects have high stakes. A government can require children to study the government itself in ways that it chooses. Witness the appalling new curriculum required by the Russian government during the current war. Even when a government’s intentions are benign, education is still a means of shaping the society; therefore, we should expect citizens to advocate various goals and outcomes. Baron von Clausewitz famously called war “a mere continuation of politics by other means,” and one could say the same about civic education.

I believe that “American civil religion” generates additional energy that makes this issue particularly electric today. I take that phrase from Robert N. Bellah’s essay, “Civil Religion in America” (1967). Bellah writes: “What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity.” He calls this collection a “religion,” for “there seems no other word for it.”

Much of American history and civics in K-12 schools has been defined by this civil religion, for better or worse. Efforts to change the curriculum look like efforts to change the civil religion, and maybe they are.

Although Bellah does not cite Durkheim, he evidently accepts Durkheim’s seminal 1915 definition of religion: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p. 41; my thanks to Brian Hatcher for the reference).

As I observed a decade ago in Montpellier, VA, plexiglass now covers the “ink stain on the floor that may be some of the ink with which Mr. Madison took his notes on ancient constitutions, preparing for the Philadelphia convention.” That ink stain is something “set apart and forbidden” as sacred.

It is a good illustration of the original American Civil Religion, which, according to Bellah, “focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.” Bellah acknowledges a close analogy to Christianity but denies that the founders’ civil religion was meant to promote Christianity or to substitute for it. The founders applied a Christian model reflexively; it was all they knew.

Bellah locates a major change around 1860. “With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln.” The sin of slavery and its overcoming become explicit and acknowledged elements of the American civil religion; Lincoln becomes a prophet. Like Christianity, the postbellum American civil religion includes evil, sacrifice, repentance, and salvation. I would add that when Reconstruction is betrayed, the national story gains another series of episodes and new prophets. Martin Luther King ultimately joins the annual cycle of collective remembrances, alongside Washington and Lincoln.

Writing in 1967, Bellah adds a new stage to the story:

We as Americans now face … what I call the third time of trial. The first time of trial had to do with the question of independence, whether we should or could run our own affairs in our own way. The second time of trial was over the issue of slavery, which in turn was only the most salient aspect of the more general problem of the full institutionalization of democracy within our country. This second problem we are still far from solving though we have some notable successes to our credit. But we have been overtaken by a third great problem that has led to a third great crisis, in the midst of which we stand.

The Vietnam War symbolizes this third crisis. Bellah argues that the American civil religion has always posed dangers, but its emancipatory and democratic elements have often been helpful at home. (Here I would note the central role of Black Americans in the liberation for which Lincoln was traditionally given credit.) However, Bellah argues, the American civil religion has often been harmful abroad. “With respect to America’s role in the world, the dangers of distortion are greater and the built-in safeguards of the tradition weaker.” Bellah acknowledges that “the theme of the American Israel was used, almost from the beginning, as a justification for the shameful treatment of the Indians so characteristic of our history [and] has been used to legitimate several adventures in imperialism.”

I think that right-wing Americans today see civil religion as under assault by what they label “Critical Race Theory”; their anger reflects a sense of blasphemy or profanation. They are especially anxious because they know that Christians are shrinking to a minority; thus the decline of the secular civil religion reflects a decline in the literal religion that has always mirrored it.

Ron DeSantis and his ilk miss the central meaning of the postbellum civil religion: Americans must struggle to defeat the evil of racism. This error has many precedents. Bellah wrote in 1967, “For all the overt religiosity of the radical right today, their relation to the civil religious consensus is tenuous, as when the John Birch Society attacks the central American symbol of Democracy itself.” On the other hand, I observe that real, principled conservatives know that the American story combines evil and redemption. They are much less fragile when people point out the evil roots of American history.

Bellah’s civil religion cannot suffice today. For one thing, it never seriously grappled with settler colonialism. Columbus stands alongside Lincoln on the annual civil/liturgical calendar, and that symbolism is no longer acceptable. The deep analogy to Christianity has also become increasingly problematic as the population has become more religiously pluralistic and secular. Because of the indelible contributions of Black Americans, I would not call the American civil religion simply ”white,” but it has never been inclusive enough.

Still, the postbellum civil religion was emancipatory and democratic. The American Civil Rights Movement then appropriated and strengthened the received story in powerful ways. Meanwhile the American national civil religion legitimized a federal role in social policy, which has served progressive ends.

Therefore, I wouldn’t give it up too quickly. I would be more interested in deepening and complicating the national myth than abandoning it. Taking a leaf from the major religious traditions, we should remember to include solidarity, celebration, contribution, salvation, and hope–as well as acknowledgement and repentance–in the recipe. (This is a gentle critique of certain forms of social movement activism that seem to favor repentance and blame over redemption, rather like politicized Calvinism.)

Political leaders and movements should tell and retell the national story in ways that broadly resemble religious narratives. In an educational setting, however, any single story poses a threat to free inquiry and debate. Inculcating a national civil religion, no matter how benign, is not the same as educating free citizens. For this reason, I would use questions to define the content of American history and civics, rather than promulgating any particular answers.

That distinction is a bit too simple, since the choice and framing of questions always reflects deeper commitments. Schools should be committed to such to core values as equity and liberty. It’s also unfair to describe a religion, as Durkheim does, as a “unified system of beliefs,” since religion always involves disagreements, questions, and critical debates. These can be elements of a civic religion as well. However, the more that a curriculum resembles Durkheim’s portrait of a religion as a unified belief-system, the less it involves free inquiry. And free inquiry is the core of liberal education.

See also: constitutional piety; when political movements resemble religions; is everyone religious?; the Democrats and religious Americans; what secular people can get out of theology; civic education in Russia;  the political advantages of organized religionthe I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology;

artificial intelligence and problems of collective action

Although I have not studied the serious scholarship on AI, I often see grandiose claims made about its impact in the near future. Intelligent machines will solve our deepest problems, such as poverty and climate change, or they will put us all out of work and become our robot overlords. I wonder whether these predictions ignore the problems of collective action that already bedevil us as human beings.

After all, there are already about 7.5 billion human brains on earth, about 10 times more than there were in 1800. Arguably, we are better off than we were then–but not clearly and straightforwardly so. If we ask why a tenfold increase in the total cognitive capacity of the species has not improved our condition enormously, the explanations are pretty obvious.

Even when people agree on goals, it is challenging to coordinate their behavior so that they pursue those ends efficiently. And even when some people manage to work together toward a shared goal, they have physical needs and limitations. (Using brains requires food and water; implementing any brain’s ideas by taking physical action requires additional resources.) To make matters worse, human beings often have legitimate but conflicting interests, like the need to gain sustenance from the same land. And some human beings have downright harmful goals, like dominating or spiting others.

One can see how artificial intelligence might mitigate some of these drawbacks. Imagine a single computer with computational power equivalent to one million human beings. It will be much more coordinated than those people. It will be able to aggregate and apply information more efficiently. It can also be programmed to have consistent and, indeed, desirable goals–and it will plug away at its goals for as long as it receives the physical inputs it needs. For instance, it could clean up pollution 24/7 instead of stopping for self-interested purposes, like sleeping.

However, it still has physical needs and limitations. It might use fuel and other inputs more efficiently than a human being does, but that depends on how good the human’s tools are. A person with a bulldozer can move more garbage than a clever little robot that works 24/7–and both of them need a place to put the garbage. (Intelligence cannot negate physical limits.)

Besides, a computer is designed by people–and probably by individuals arrayed as corporations or states. As such, AI is likely to be designed for conflicting and sometimes discreditable goals, including killing other people. At best, it will be hard to coordinate the activities of many different artificially intelligent systems.

Meanwhile, people already coordinate their behavior in quite impressive ways. A city receives roughly the amount of bread it needs every day because thousands of producers and vendors coordinate their behavior through prices. An international scientific discipline makes cumulative progress because thousands of scientists coordinate their behavior through peer-review and citation networks. And the English language develops new vocabulary for describing new phenomena as millions of people communicate. Thus the coordination attained by a machine with a lot of computational power should be compared to the coordination accomplished by human beings in a market, a discipline, or a language–which is impressive.

One claim made about AI is that machines will start to refine and improve their own hardware and software, thus achieving geometric growth in computational power. But human beings already do this. Although we cannot substantially redesign our individual brains, we can individually learn. More than that, we can redesign our systems for coordinating cognition. Many people are busy making markets, disciplines, languages, and other emergent human systems work better. That is already the kind of continuous self-engineering that some people expect AI to accomplish for the first time.

It is of course possible to imagine that an incredibly intelligent machine will identify solutions that simply elude us as human beings. For instance, it will negate the physical limitations of the carbon cycle by discovering whole new processes. But that is an empty supposition, like imagining that regular old science will one day discover solutions that we cannot envision today. That is probably true–it has happened many times before–but it is unhelpful in the present. Besides, both people and AI may create more problems than they solve.

See also: the progress of science; John Searle explains why computers will not become our overlords;

a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups

I few days ago, I proposed that Jane Mansbridge’s great book Beyond Adversary Democracy can suggest practical tools that would assist democratic groups as they make decisions. Such tools should be tested and revised, based on experience in the field.

As a first step, I provide this flowchart (above). The first step is to conduct a survey. The questionnaire would have to be carefully designed, but it could be customized easily for other organizations. Members of the group would be asked what they care about, their attitudes about process, and their social identities and roles within the organization. The survey would yield data that could then inform how the group makes decisions about each issue that the respondents mention.

introducing Habermas

This is a 29-minute video lecture* in which I introduce the core ideas of the great German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas. I made it for our current Introduction to Civic Studies course, but it’s available for anyone to use. It also summarizes the beginning of chapter 4 of my recent book, What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life. In the book, I proceed to raise numerous critiques of Habermas, all of which have some validity, although I continue to find his framework useful.

*New version posted on 9/29, with better audio.

an existential threat?

John Mearsheimer made the case against Ukraine on a well-attended panel discussion at the American Political Science Association. I don’t agree with those who disapprove of giving him a platform. If he’s wrong, his views should be aired so they can be rebutted, and I think that’s what happened when my Tufts colleague Oxana Shevel and other co-panelists debated him at APSA. If he has any actual insights, we should listen and use them.

I would emphasize a point that probably arose already in the panel discussion (some of which I had to miss). Mearsheimer said repeatedly that Russia faces an “existential threat” in Ukraine and is responding rationally and predictably. When he completed this phrase, it turned out not to mean a threat to Russia’s sovereignty, autonomy, or security within its borders. Mearsheimer meant a threat to Russia’s status as a great power.

I do not doubt that Putin and other Russian nationalists view a successful and European-oriented Ukraine as diminishing Russian global power. But this is the problem: Russia is not actually a great power.

In 2019, before the pandemic and the current full-scale war, Russia ranked right below Canada (population: 38 million) in GDP, and well below each of four European countries (Germany, the UK, France, and Italy). Its medium-term economic prospects were much worse than theirs because Russia is so dependent on fossil fuels. In population, Russia lies right between Bangladesh and Mexico (which has almost as big an economy), but its population has shrunk since 1992.

To be sure, Russia has a large military. In 2019, it ranked fourth in the world in military spending and sixth in the number of military personnel (at least on paper). But it arguably could not afford this expense. The Russian military cost 4.3% of its GDP, versus 3.7% in the USA, which nevertheless spent 11 times as much. That year, the proportion of the population that was enlisted in the military was four times as high in Russia as in the USA (an economic burden). And Russia was probably getting bad value for its military spending because of endemic corruption.

Russia has a vast supply of nuclear weapons, sufficient to end civilization. Nuclear weapons guarantee its security against a foreign invasion, and certainly pose a risk to other countries. Perhaps they are an asset in a conflict like the current one, because the US would be more likely to supply Ukraine with aircraft and long-distance guided missiles absent the nuclear threat. On the other hand, nuclear weapons are difficult to use to support conventional political aims.

It is a dilemma if Russia lacks the underlying basis for being a superpower yet views any events that diminish its great-power status as existential threats. However, the proposed solution of allowing Russia to act like a superpower is not only unjust; it is also unrealistic. Sooner or later, Russia must navigate the difficult road that Britain and France began to travel after 1945, reluctantly and incompletely acknowledging that they could no longer have empires. The USA should also make that transition, but in our case, the imperative is justice rather than necessity, since we actually retain the capacity to project global power.

See also: Russia in the larger history of decolonization; when states are blind