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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 religion; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology;