Civil Religion And America’s Inclusive Faith

Barry Hankins January/February 2004

Most presidents in American history have integrated religion into their political speeches in what scholars have dubbed civil religion. This has especially been the case in wartime, as war seems to inspire in people a need to know that God is with us. One of the president's roles is to assure the American people that this is so. President George W. Bush has been faced with a wartime situation that is unique in American history in at least two ways. First, the nation is not at war with another country. Rather, the war is against a network of terrorists scattered across the globe. Members of this network seemingly have but one thing in common—their hatred for all that America stands for. Second, for the first time in American history, although not the first time in Western civilization's history, the enemy is fighting in the name of religion. The terrorists of al-Qaeda and other organizations believe Allah has called them to holy war against the United States. This second feature has shaped Bush's civil religion. H Civil Religion is a concept scholars employ to describe the use of religion for political ends. Simply put, it is the mixing of religion and patriotism until it is nearly impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.1 This most often occurs when politicians talk about religion or when preachers talk about national affairs.

For example, when politicians mix faith in God with faith in the nation, or when they describe America as if it were itself a transcendent entity, they are engaging in civil religion. Conversely, when preachers mix together comments about personal righteousness and national righteousness, or when they blend Christian symbols such as the cross with national symbols like the flag, they are engaging in civil religion. A second and slightly more specific definition, therefore, holds that civil religion is the use of consensus religious concepts and symbols by the state for the state's own political purposes.

Whatever definition one uses or whichever form civil religion takes, it must be an inclusive faith. In a pluralistic society like the United States, civil religion will fail if it excludes too many people. Until the late 19th century American civil religion was largely evangelical Protestantism, because the majority of Americans identified, at least loosely, with that form of the Christian faith. The 20th century, however, saw civil religion broaden to become a generalized Protestantism; then a generalized Christianity that would include Roman Catholics; then an even broader Judeo-Christian civil religion to include Jews; then, finally, a generalized religion that speaks of a God or providence in terms vague enough to include all but atheists.

As American civil religion has evolved it has utilized five themes fairly consistently. First is the chosen nation theme that views America as divinely ordained for some grand historical purpose. Second is civic millennialism, which is the sense that the American nation is an agent for bringing in the millennial kingdom. American manifest destiny in the 19th century, for example, taught that the nation must expand, first across the continent, then across the seas, in order for God to spread the Christian faith and democratic political institutions. This was part of a providential design for ushering in the kingdom of God. Third, there must be some form of religious consensus or common thread that binds people together religiously. As mentioned above, American civil religion has become more vague and inclusive as the nation has become more pluralistic. The civil religion tent must become wider and wider to ensure that few are left out. Fourth, there is a fusion of biblical values—such as faith, justice, and righteousness—with a deistic notion of God that is very general and includes no mention of Christ. Fifth, there has been in American civil religion what can be called historical authentication. Particular national events seem to prove that God is using the nation for His purposes. The American Revolution, the Civil War, American expansion, and, in the 20th century, American victory over fascism in World War II and over Communism in the cold war, all seem to validate that God has specially chosen America.2

While presidents utilize civil religion to varying degrees, two examples can be used to illustrate two types of civil religion. The first type is prophetic, and the best example is Abraham Lincoln. In prophetic civil religion biblical standards of justice and righteousness are transcendent, and the civil religion, spokesperson calls the nation to live up to these standards. Lincoln, more than any president in history, used this type of civil religion during the dark days of the Civil War. Rather than emphasizing the ways in which God might be on the side of the Union, he placed God above the nation, standing in judgment for national sins. In 1862 when a Northern minister suggested that God favored the Union cause, Lincoln responded, "I am not at all concerned about that, for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and the nation should be on the Lord's side."3 On March 4, 1865, in his second inaugural address, given as the war was nearing its end, he said: "Both [Northerner and Southerner] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."4 Such a statement was a clear rebuke to Northerners and Southerners who were certain that God was on their side.

Later, in that same speech, Lincoln said, "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"5 Note here the sense that the war is God's judgment for the sin of slavery. In none of these quotes is there any allusion to God siding with America. Rather, God's standards come first, and the nation is measured against them. The closest Lincoln ever came to the chosen nation theme is when he called America God's "almost chosen people."6 While he clearly believed God had chosen America for a divine purpose, for him this meant that the nation had much to live up to, not that God favored America.

The second type of civil religion is priestly, and it reverses the God-and-country relationship. The nation itself becomes transcendent and is glorified as being very nearly worthy of worship and adoration in its own right. God prefers and blesses the nation above all others. The politician or preacher using this type of civil religion assures the American people that we are special and that God favors our national agenda. Rather than a God of justice and judgment, the god of priestly civil religion becomes, in the words of historian Martin Marty, a "harmless little deity" who has nothing to do with the Bible. He is "understandable and manageable—an American jolly good fellow." Sociologist Donald Kraybill has said that the God of priestly American civil religion is like a tribal deity who is very slow to anger, an all-round nice guy who is especially fond of American sports like baseball and football. The 20th century was replete with priestly civil religion, especially from its presidents, but none was more adept at using it than Ronald Reagan.

In May 1987 Reagan eulogized three dozen Navy men killed in an Iraqi attack on the U.S.S. Stark with these words: "Let us remember. . . to understand that these men made themselves immortal by dying for something immortal, that theirs is the best to be asked of any life—a sharing of the human heart, a sharing in the infinite. In giving themselves for others, they made themselves special, not just to us but to their God. 'Greater love than this has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.' And because God is love, we know He was there with them when they died and that He is with them still. We know they live again, not just in our hearts but in His arms. And we know they've gone before to prepare a way for us. So, today we remember them in sorrow and in love. We say goodbye. And as we submit to the will of Him who made us, we pray together the words of scripture: 'Lord, now let Thy servants go in peace, Thy word has been fulfilled.'"7

In this eulogy the nation actually becomes immortal, and dying for the nation is sufficient to send one to God. These two concepts have nothing whatsoever to do with biblical Christianity, but instead are part of priestly civil religion's exaltation of the nation to transcendent status. Moreover, they are combined with the biblical notion that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for another.

Reagan had also carried out the priestly function of civil religion the year before when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff, killing its seven crew members. In remembering the astronauts, Reagan, in the view of two scholars of civil religion, functioned as both pastor and priest. As the former, he comforted the grieving families and fellow Americans; as the latter, he consigned the souls of the deceased to heaven, perhaps civil religion's heaven. He said, "We can find consolation only in faith, for we know in our hearts that you who flew so high and so proud now make your home beyond the stars, safe in God's promise of eternal life."8 As would be the case the next year with the Stark, dying for America was enough to reach heaven. The faith of the seven Challenger crew members ranged from evangelical and mainline Protestant, to Catholic, to Jew, to Buddhist, and to nothing in particular, but dying for a transcendent America was enough to gain entrance into God's presence.

Where does George W. Bush fit in the context of presidential civil religion? While the answer to this question is subject to interpretation, there can be little doubt about Bush's personal faith. Raised in the mainline Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, he became a Methodist at the age of 35, largely because of Laura. Until the mid-1980s he was by his own estimation a nominal Christian at best and living a fairly fast and loose life. In 1985 he had a significant conversation with Billy Graham that set him on the road to an evangelical conversion. The next year he quit smoking an drinking, and by the end of the decade, as he approached his 40th birthday, he had been transformed into a born-again Christian. He and some of his buddies changed their Monday Night Football gathering into a Monday night Bible study, he began attending church more regularly, and, perhaps most significantly, he made Bible study and prayer a daily part of his life.

Bush's study of Scripture may be the reason that he has avoided some of the most theologically problematic examples of priestly civil religion that marked the Reagan presidency. Bush too has dealt with a space shuttle tragedy, and, quite naturally, used religious language to mourn the victims. When the Columbia exploded over Texas on February 1, 2003, Bush addressed the nation, saying in part, "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home."9 Whereas Reagan on at least two occasions suggested that dying for America was sufficient for entrance into heaven, Bush was willing only to pray and hope that the Challenger astronauts were in God's care. His words seemed to have been chosen carefully to avoid unbiblical notions of national sacrifice.

Most of Bush's presidential civil religion has been formed in the shadow of September 11 and, more recently, the war in Iraq. In the eight months before September 11, 2001, however, many of his public statements on religion came as he pushed for federal funding of faith based organizations (FBOs). This was consistent with his tenure as governor, where more than any other state Texas took advantage of the charitable choice provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Charitable choice stipulates that when a state uses federal block-grant money to fund social services, it must allow FBOs to compete for the funds along with secular social service agencies. Under charitable choice FBOs no longer need to show that they are not "pervasively sectarian" in order to get government money. As president, Bush was determined to expand charitable choice so that pervasively sectarian FBOs and even churches that engage in social services will be eligible for federal funds.

In his speech to the National Prayer Breakfast on February 1, 2001, Bush emphasized the role of faith in social service, saying, "Faith remains important to the compassion of our nation. Millions of Americans serve their neighbor because they love their God. Their lives are characterized by kindness and patience, and service to others."10 He then pitched federal funding of FBOs: "My administration will put the federal government squarely on the side of America's armies of compassion. Our plan will not favor religious institutions over nonreligious institutions. As president, I'm interested in what is constitutional, and I'm interested in what works." He followed this with a reference to discrimination: "The days of discriminating against religious institutions, simply because they are religious, must come to an end."11 This was a reference to the notion that to exclude pervasively sectarian FBOs and churches from funding is to discriminate, but opponents of Bush's plan point out that FBOs do not want to be treated equally, as Bush implied, but want to retain their right to discriminate in hiring only those from their own theological traditions. This, of course, is necessary so that FBOs can retain their religious identity, but it is also an exemption from federal nondiscrimination regulations that all other social service agencies must follow.

Whatever one's view as to the constitutionality or wisdom of Bush's policies, the president was attempting to make a connection between government funding of FBOs and the best tradition of selfless social service, and he did so within the broad parameters of an inclusive and tolerant civil religion. In the paragraphs preceding his pitch for FBOs, he highlighted that the U.S. Constitution forbids a religious test for office and that the president "serves people of every faith, and serves some of no faith at all." He also said, "We do not impose any religion; we welcome all religions. We do not prescribe any prayer; we welcome all prayers. This is the tradition of our nation, and it will be the standard of my administration. We will respect every creed. We will honor the diversity of our country and the deep convictions of our people."12 Even before September 11, therefore, Bush had set the tone for an inclusive and tolerant civil religion.

This emphasis on a broad, inclusive, and tolerant American civil religion would become especially important in the aftermath of September 11 when some highly visible religious figures such as Franklin Graham denounced Islam as a wicked religion, founded by a perverted prophet. Bush himself made one rhetorical gaffe five days after the September 11 attacks, when he told reporters, "This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while."13 Commentators from the Middle East were quick to seize on his use of the word "crusade," and to translate it literally as "war of the cross." While Americans have a short history and, therefore, a short historical memory, people from Muslim nations in the Middle East have a long history and long memories. Some of the anti-Western sentiment there stems from the Crusades of the Middle Ages, when Christian armies invaded Muslim lands in an attempt to retake the Holy Land. While for Americans this is past history, dead and gone, in a land in which territorial claims go back to the Old Testament, such historical events as the Crusades are much more at the forefront of peoples' minds. Any reference to them, even if unintended, conjures up notions of a West that is hostile to Muslim culture.

That error aside, Bush has worked diligently in his post September 11 speeches to emphasize the best that the Muslim religion has to offer. Indeed, it would be hard to find a more significant and diligent apologist for Islam than the president. Just six days after the September 11 attacks Bush started what would become a consistent theme of his civil religion. Speaking to the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., he sought to separate terrorism from the Muslim faith. "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," he told his audience. "That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war."14 Three days after his unfortunate use of the term "crusade" he told President Sukarnoputri Megawati of Indonesia, "I've made it clear . . .; that the war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims, nor is it a war against Arabs. It's a war against evil people who conduct crimes against innocent people."15

On at least 25 occasions from September 19, 2001, to December 5, 2002, Bush emphasized the point that America was fighting terrorism, not the Muslim faith. In some speeches he has portrayed Muslim terrorists as "traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself." 16 He has also attempted to bring together Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by saying, "We see in Islam a religion that traces its origins back to God's call on Abraham. We share your belief in God's justice, and your insistence on man's moral responsibility." In an attempt to bring together Muslim and Western countries, he continued, "We thank the many Muslim nations who stand with us against terror. Nations that are often victims of terror themselves."17 In a frank acknowledgment of some anti-Muslim statements, and in an attempt to distance himself from the likes of Franklin Graham and a few other evangelicals, Bush told reporters during a meeting with U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, "Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans."18

Bush's kind words about the Muslim faith have come in the context of his continued emphasis on the tolerance and inclusivity of American civil religion. At the first National Prayer Breakfast following September 11 he said, "Every religion is welcomed in our country; all are practiced here." For Bush, however, tolerance does not mean the absence of religion. Instead, he has stressed how the events of September 11, 2001 have caused an upsurge in faith and prayer. "Our country has never had an official faith," he told the 2002 Prayer Breakfast. "Yet we have all been witnesses these past 21 weeks to the power of faith to see us through the hurt and loss that has come to our country." A few lines later he further intertwined faith and tolerance by saying, "Yet for millions of Americans, the practice of tolerance is a command of faith." He also acknowledged that people of no faith at all are often tolerant. "Respect for the dignity of others can be found outside of religion," he allowed, "just as intolerance is sometimes found within it."19 Moreover, in bringing tolerance and faith together with an increased emphasis on prayer, he said, "Since we met last year, millions of Americans have been led to prayer. . . . Many, including me, have been on bended knee. The prayers of this nation are a part of the good that has come from the evil of September 11th , more good than we could ever have predicted."20

Bush has also incorporated the theme of judgment, usually reserved for prophetic civil religion. This theme, however, has almost always been used with reference to terrorists and rarely as a standard for America. On January 5, 2002, Bush told a crowd in Ontario, California, "The evil ones awakened a mighty giant. . . . We're taking action against evil people. . . . This is clearly a case of good versus evil, and make no mistake about it—good will prevail."21 While this stark division of good and evil is in marked contrast to Lincoln's refusal to identify whose side God was on, the situation is quite different. Lincoln was speaking of Americans and Christians on both sides of the Civil War. Bush was referring to non-Americans and non-Christians, whom he is convinced are not very good Muslims either. Bush spoke of Saddam Hussein's regime repeatedly as "evil at its heart," which is reminiscent of a host of holocaust scholars' references to an evil Adolf Hitler. Some historical realities lend themselves to a clear identification of evil. What is problematic is not the naming of evil when it is obvious, but in assuming that "we" are good. Bush has been fairly certain and, it would seem, non controversial in his assumptions. "We can be confident in America's cause in the world. Our nation is dedicated to the equal and undeniable worth of every person," he has said. In his 2003 State of the Union Address he came as close as one can to making the nation itself the transcendent object of devotion and the embodiment of all that is good. "Americans are a resolute people who have risen to every test of our time," he said in reference to the American people. Then, with regard to the nation itself, he continued, "America is a strong nation, and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without conquest, and we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers."22 While many around the world are convinced that America actually adheres to national interest more than eternal ideals, even Bush sometimes acknowledges, "We don't own the ideals of freedom and human dignity, and sometimes we haven't always lived up to them."23

These references to tolerance, inclusivity, prayer, and judgment against the nation's enemies together make up a priestly, or perhaps pastoral, civil religion that soothes and comforts the American people in this post September 11 time of distress. The president, playing the role of civil religion priest and pastor, assures us that real evil is out there, but not in us.24 While other presidents have been faced with war, threats of war, and even potential defeat, no president has constructed his civil religion in the face of enemies who cast their entire agenda in non-Christian yet religious terms. Bush's challenge has been to refute the religious claims of terrorists, remind Americans of their nation's best ideals, and at the same time point out that no one religion has a claim on America. Wartime is usually not an occasion for deep soul searching, and, with the exception of Lincoln, presidents rarely speak of God's judgment on America at any time, let alone when the nation is under attack. With the exception of gentle reminders that Americans should be tolerant, Bush has been soft on the judgment theme and has incorporated very little prophetic civil religion into speeches. Still, in a climate on which ill- chosen rhetoric might well have fueled notions of religious war and inflamed the public against Muslims, the president certainly could have done worse.

Barry Hankins is associate professor of history and church-state studies at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.

1For a good overview of the concept of civil religion as it relates to the US. presidency, see Richard V. Pierard and Robert D. Linder, Civil Religion and the Presidency (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1988), pp. 11-64.
9George W. Bush, address to the nation on the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, Feb. 1, 2003.
10George W. Bush, remarks to National Prayer Breakfast, Feb. 1, 2001
13In Jonathan Lyons, "Bush Enters Mideast's Rhetorical Minefield," Reuters News Service, Sept. 21, 2001.
14Remarks by George W. Bush at Islamic Center of Washington, DC., Sept. 17, 2001.
15Remarks by George W. Bush and President Megawati Sukarnoputri, President of Indonesia, Sept. 19, 2001.
16George W. Bush's address to a joint session of Congress and the american people, Sept. 20, 2001.
17Remarks by George W. Bush at Iftaar dinner, state dining Room, Nov. 7, 2002.
18Remarks by George W Bush in a statement to reporters during a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Nov. 13, 2002.
19Remarks by George W. Bush at National Prayer Breakfast, Washington Hilton Hotel, Feb. 7, 2002
21In Paul Kengor, "God & W at 1600 Penn.," National Review, Mar. 5, 2003, remarks by George W. Bush at a town hall meeting with Citizens of Ontario, Ontario Convention Center, Ontario, California, Jan. 5, 2002.
22George W. Bush, State of the Union address, Jan. 28, 2003.
23George W. Bush Addresses National Prayer Breakfast, Washington Hilton, Feb. 6, 2003.
24Pierard and Linder speak of "pastoral civil religion, particularly in reference to Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan" See Pierard and Linder, pp. 84-205 and 257-283.
Article Author: Barry Hankins