Columns Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

McCain’s civil religion versus Trump’s

Sen. John McCain waits as he is introduced to speak at a rally in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Oct. 26, 2008. McCain died Aug. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The day of John McCain’s funeral, New Yorker staff writer Vinson Cunningham characterized the late senator as “high priest” of “an American religion” and Donald Trump as “its chief heretic.” More precisely, McCain can be seen as an exemplar of what the late sociologist Robert Bellah identified as the American civil religion, Trump as promoter-in-chief of its darker alternative.

In a famous 1967 essay, Bellah argued that the American civil religion was a bona fide religious phenomenon, an”elaborate and well institutionalized” amalgam of high principles and public liturgies existing “alongside of but rather clearly differentiated from the churches.” He traced it back to the country’s founding, but fixed on Abraham Lincoln as its embodiment, thanks to Lincoln’s articulation of the country’s ideals, his bringing slavery to an end, and his personal martyrdom.

When the essay was written, the American civil religion’s foremost expression was the civil rights movement, and indeed, in the years since, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech has became its best-known text, outranking the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address in its familiarity to the public at large.

But even as he celebrated what the civil religion could accomplish, Bellah was deeply concerned that the war in Vietnam would pervert it. “If the war goes on and expands, if that fatal process continues to accelerate until America becomes what it is not now and never has been, a seeker after unlimited power and empire, then Vietnam will have had a mighty and tragic fallout indeed,” he wrote. King himself was increasingly worried about the war, and found in Bellah’s essay the civil religious terminology to oppose it.

In fact, Vietnam became the crucible of a civil religious war that continues to this day. On the one hand, there’s the Bellah-King civil religion, promoting justice and equality for all, welcoming immigrants, seeking to advance democratic values around the world, and valorizing civil disobedience and dissent. On the other hand, there’s the America First civil religion  that is nationalist and nativist, worried about the loss of “traditional” values and suspicious of racial, ethnic, and religious outsiders.

Barack Obama sought, with indifferent success, to reanimate the first version. Donald Trump, the anti-Obama, rode the second to the presidency. John McCain, for all his policy disagreements with Obama, was firmly in the Bellah-King camp.

He not only stood for its ideals, but the wounds and torture he suffered in Vietnam made him into a kind of living martyr for them. It is not without irony that the war that made Bellah and King so fearful for the fate of the American civil religion should have created an avatar of it. But, as McCain’s too ready support for the war in Iraq showed, a besetting weakness of the civil religion has been its tendency to overreach abroad.

In the past week, McCain’s defense of Obama during a 2008 campaign rally was recalled many times. Largely forgotten was how, eight years earlier, he had fatally injured his effort to secure the GOP presidential nomination by attacking Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance” who “shame our faith, our party and our country.”

In his farewell letter, he declared:

We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic. A nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the progress. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.

It is a text that will live in the annals of American civil religion. Whether its point of view will win out is far from clear.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

27 Comments

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  • “Civil religion” is an oxymoron. McCain supported the various norms, precedents, standards, gentlemen’s agreements, and yes, laws, which keep our democracy running properly. Trump has flaunted all these things and in the process is eating away at the fabric of our society. Religion is a different matter entirely.

  • Interesting. I grew up in the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire, where the civil religion was not only taken-for-granted, but intentionally oppressive. My experience of the US has been that of a society whose traditional values are tinged with religious undertones, but falling well short of a civil religion, largely because of the first amendment. I read Bellah (the essay in Daedalus) some years ago and felt he may have been right back in the sixties, but that it would be harder to make the case for a civil religion today.

  • Disliking Trump and whether he flaunted norms, precedents, standards, and gentlemen’s agreements are two different matters.

  • I am a Donald Trump Christian. I believe that:

    1. God created mankind in his own image (that of a Caucasian male)
    2. Religious discrimination and persecution are perfectly acceptable when practiced BY Caucasian-Christians AGAINST non-Caucasian-Christians.
    3. God will forgive me no matter how many of his teachings I violate so long as I support Donald Trump

    Amen.

  • There’s just one lie too many in this opinion piece, unfortunately.

    THIS IS THE 1ST LIE – “Trump [is the] promoter-in-chief of [the] darker alternative … [to] the American civil religion”.

    For recall counter-factually US President Donald Trump’s Inauguration Speech, January 20, 2017, transcribed by TIME:

    “The bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.”

    THIS IS THE 2ND LIE: “the America First civil religion that is nationalist and nativist, worried about the loss of ‘traditional’ values and suspicious of racial, ethnic, and religious outsiders.”

    Truth is, as Robert Wuthnow puts it in “Divided We Fall: America’s Two Civil Religions”, The Christian Century, April 20, 1988, pages 395-399:

    “The conservative vision seems to embody what Max Weber termed the ‘priestly’ function of religion … The conservative vision offers divine sanction to America, legitimates its form of government and economy, explains its privileged place in the world and justifies a uniquely American standard of luxury and morality. … [It] inevitably sees itself as the champion of higher principles and the critic of current conditions … [while, in] symbols … express[ing] the unique identity of a nation and those that associate the nation with a broader vision of humanity.”

  • Are you making a false accusation here?

    According to the Embassy of the Principality of Liechtenstein, Washington, DC., “Liechtenstein … today it stands as the last existing remnant of the Holy Roman Empire.”

    So prove for us how that Liechtensteinian “civil religion [is] intentionally oppressive.”

  • What “things [of Donald Trump’s civil religion are] eating away at the fabric of our [American] society”? Provide, too, please, 3 verifiable evidences of these tactile ruins.

  • I think there is confusion over what is meant by “civil religion”. Until we define it clearly this discussion won’t go any where. Is it a Religion that practices civility? Is it just a form of civil behavior that attempts to accomnodate religious sentiments for the religious in a way that doesn’t gross out the secularists? Is it a form of nationalism and NOT a Religion at all? Sometimes the word “religion” is used in such a broad way that it has no connection with God/s or super/supra natural forces. Note I used a little “r” when referring to religion in its broadest sense, as just a system of beliefs. AND I try to use a BIG R Religion when referring to an organized system of beliefs about God or the Gods. So what is a “civil religion”? OR is it “civil Religion”?

  • Hi, Susan – I’m not sure there’s a standard definition of civil religion, but many commentators describe it as an attitude that accords the nation and its institutions with a religious aura that makes them both acceptable to the people and virtually immune from criticism. In this view, Abraham Lincoln is often depicted as the high priest of the US civil religion, with his Gettysburg address joining the Declaration of Independence and, to a lesser extent, the Constitution, as scriptures. National celebrations like Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans’ Day, and Thanksgiving are civil but also religious celebrations of the people’s relationship to God and one another.

    Many observers point to Reagan’s repeated use of John Winthrop’s Sermon (A Model of Christian Charity), with its image of a shining city on a hill, as evidence that a civil religion exists in the American psyche. Others point to the idea of American Exceptionalism as an example of a civil religion.

    In the end, many people mean many things by “civil religion” and its not clear that any of them can actually prove their point. – Monica.

  • There are three “remnants” in a technical sense of the Holy Roman Empire.

    The sole princely member state of the Holy Roman Empire still a monarchy is the Principality of Liechtenstein.

    The two remaining Free Imperial Cities still states within Germany are Hamburg and Bremen.

  • That may have been the civil religion of at least some conservatives 30 years ago. It’s not Trump’s.

  • Point taken. Wuthnow, too, is having 2nd thoughts because of Trump.

    (1) “In the late 1980s, the noted sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, reconceived and criticized the idea of American ‘civil religion’ made famous by Robert Bellah in prior decades. In his book, The Restructuring of American Religion, Wuthnow argued that Bellah’s communitarian and unifying American civil religion had fragmented into two competing and utterly irreconcilable religious visions for the country: a conservative vision that saw the legitimacy of American government as dependent on its Christian past; and a progressive vision that saw American legitimacy as dependent on its efforts systematically to overcome the injustices and inequalities of its Christian past. This was the 1980s. The dynamics are quite different today, notwithstanding popular distortions. And now comes a new book from Wuthnow, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, in which Wuthnow studies an American demographic that was not helped much at all either by the previous generation’s religious conservatives or progressives. The publisher is Princeton [in 2018]. What is fueling rural America’s outrage toward the federal government? Why did rural Americans vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump? And, beyond economic and demographic decline, is there a more nuanced explanation for the growing rural-urban divide? Drawing on more than a decade of research and hundreds of interviews, Robert Wuthnow brings us into America’s small towns, farms, and rural communities to paint a rich portrait of the moral order–the interactions, loyalties, obligations, and identities—underpinning this critical segment of the nation. Wuthnow demonstrates that to truly understand rural Americans’ anger, their culture must be explored more fully. … Rural dwellers [you see] are especially troubled by Washington’s seeming lack of empathy for such small-town norms as personal responsibility, frugality, cooperation, and common sense. Wuthnow also shows that while these communities may not be as discriminatory as critics claim, racism and misogyny remain embedded in rural patterns of life.”

    (2) “Rough Country includes some intriguing insights. Wuthnow suggests, for example, that like the United States, Texas has a ‘civil religion’ that serves as ‘an essential component of solidarity in an otherwise diverse and fragmented society.’ … Texas was founded, in part, in reaction to the monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church on religious worship under Mexican rule. One implication of Texas’ civil religion, according to Wuthnow, was that, at first, there was a consensus that lay people rather than clergy should inject religious perspectives into the political arena. Over time, he indicates, that view morphed into a belief ‘held by many religious leaders that what they do and say has no political consequences – or should have consequences only for particular issues such as abortion and homosexuality.'”

    Source: (1) Marc O. DeGirolami and Marc O. DeGirolami, “Wuthnow, ‘The Left Behind’, Law and Religion Forum, January 1, 2018. (2) Glenn C. Altschuler, “A Whole ‘Nuther Country: Review of Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State. By Robert Wuthnow. Princeton University Press. 654 pp. $39.50”, Huffington Post, October 4, 2014.

  • Which means Monica De Angelis possesses dual citizenship. Lucky her, she’s both a Liechtensteinian and a German.

    Well, then, the mud is getting clearer by that clarification. For according to her gossip Italian-style, “civil religion [is] intentionally oppressive” in Liechtenstein and Germany!

    BOING.

  • You may have not run across the term “matrix intelligence”.

    It involves assembling seemingly innocuous bits of information and putting them together.

    If she is in fact Italian as she claims, and lived in what was once part of the Holy Roman Empire, and we know the extent of the Holy Roman Empire in Italy (it’s outlined in red)

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9d/12citaly.jpg

    we know she grew up in northern Italy.

    Drop enough tidbits like that and folks have your name, address, phone number, marital status, etc..

    I doubt that he is a Liechtensteinian or a German.

    But the way she goes on and on we’ll know soon enough.

  • The “Letter of Lentulus,” is an alleged eyewitness account of Jesus Christ, it describes Jesus Christ’s face as being a comely red and his eyes gray, clear and quick.” https://commons.orthodoxwiki.org/images/c/cf/Anon-Publius_Lentulus.jpg

    Whatever the authenticity of the letter of Lentulus might be, if we look at scripture we see that the descriptions given of Jesus Christ and the Israelite peoples of the bible closely resemble that given in the letter of Lentulus. e.g. KING DAVID is described as “RUDDY” in 1 Samuel 16:12, and 1 Samuel 17:42. The Lord Jesus Christ is a descendant of King David, via his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was of the lineage of David (Psalm 132:11; Luke 1:32). Ruddy: adjective. (of a person’s face) having a healthy red colour: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ruddy

    The ISRAELITES are described as “WHITE” and “RUDDY” in Song of Solomon 5:10 “My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.” In Revelation 1:14, JESUS CHRIST is described as having a HEAD that is “WHITE AS SNOW” (Head includes face). The Nazarites are described as being “purer than snow, WHITER THAN MILK,” in Lamentations 4:7. (Nazarites = ISRAELITES, Numbers 6:2)

  • Strong’s Exhaustive Bible Concordance definition of ADAM is to: “SHOW BLOOD (in the FACE), i.e. FLUSH or TURN ROSY — be (dyed, made) red (RUDDY).” http://www.kingjamesbibledictionary.com/StrongsNo/H119/dyed%20red

    “Showing blood in the face, Ruddy, Flushing, turning Rosy,” — These are physical attributes used to describe White people, [a Negro would not typically be described as “turning Rosy”] hence Adam’s description matches that of a white male, and Eve is a white female, as God made Eve from Adam’s rib, [Genesis 2:22]. Adam and Eve’s descendants share their parents DNA and appearance, and are white as well, starting with their son SETH, and further down the line, NOAH, who was “perfect in his generations” [Genesis 6:9].

    Noah’s children, Shem, Ham and Japheth, belonged to the same race as Noah, and shared his DNA and appearance. Negroes believe that they are the descendants of Noah’s son Ham, BUT here’s the thing, NOWHERE in the bible does it say that Ham was Black. I challenge you to show me a single verse in the bible that says that Ham was Black? You won’t find it, because it doesn’t exist! Ham, was the same colour as his brothers, Shem, & Japheth, and they were the same colour as their father Noah. Noah is described as being White in the book of Enoch [See Below] and we also know that NOAH is White, because Noah is ultimately a descendant of Adam and Eve. Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, who repopulated the earth after Noah’s flood [Genesis 9:1] with the Adamic race, which the bible is dedicated to, per Genesis 5:1This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him;”

  • Vlad Baby, you and me, we have TERRIFIC “gentlemen’s agreements” heh heh: We are gentlemen and most everyone else is peon and peasant. Let’s meet in Trump Tower Moscow and watch some more “showers” buddy.
    Luv ya,
    Donny the Orange

    DonnyBoy, you gots that right. We build great Russamerica together on backs of peasants and we send pesky Mueller and other honesties and pressers to Siberia yes. Trump Towers pretty leaky though ha ha watch out those showers.

    You look cute tho in orange jumpsuit ha ha.
    -Vlady

  • Bobby Brown-noser of Donny, no you not block me. You too weak to do that. You like DonnyBoy too, say one thing do other. Now you unblock to read. So funny but you have brown nose and Donny have orange one.
    -Vlad

    Pootie Baby, don’t worry. I have LOTS of Bobs making their noses brown on my team. Useful and cheap even in rubles but we not even pay them. SO FUNNY.

    Getting hot here from the deep state. I might have to jet to Moscow to escape.

    Luv Ya,
    Donny

  • Whereas someone who never reveals any ‘tidbits’ about themselves is likely not a real person at all, eh ‘Bob’?

  • All Christians who do read and understands the Bible, would recognize by Trumps Acts/Works he is the Beast of the Earth who brings forth his little idol the Trumpy Bear that of a Grizzle Bear that brings forth the Storm. That is part of the Forces behind the 8th head that has risen out of the Abyss. The Prophecy of the Bible is being for filled. To fallow or even support the Beast of the Earth will only drag you into the Abyss. God is Tired of False promises/words this is why he will judge you according to your acts and works. https://themessenger.world/

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