Reflecting upon his second and final visit among the American churches in the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote prophetically of his frustration with the shape of Protestantism in the United States, assessing the influence that religious and ethnic pluralism had in the genesis of an anti-confessional, anti-creedal public life. American Christianity, Bonhoeffer observed, had “no central organization, no common creed, no common cultus, no common church history and no common ethical, social or political principles.” This ecclesiastic phenomenon had profound political implications owing largely to the “concept of tolerance among the Congregationalist-Baptist enthusiasts, particularly as it was developed by Roger Williams in Maryland.” In such an environment of absolute religious tolerance, Bonhoeffer continued, “the dominion of God becomes synonymous with the freedom of the individual to follow by himself the inner voice and the inner light.” Moreover, the path is paved wide for the formation of denominations without creeds wherein “the concept of tolerance becomes the basic principle of everything Christian.”
But perhaps Bonhoeffer unwittingly stumbled across the very religious and very nationalistic faith which binds together the ethnically and culturally diverse constituencies of America’s disparate faith traditions. Perhaps, indeed, there exists “alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” And perhaps, with democracy as its creed and tolerance as its virtue, such an American public faith serves the purpose in the United States that a nationalized, confessional church served in Bonhoeffer’s Germany. And just perhaps, in an otherwise astute critique, Bonhoeffer missed both the existence and authenticity of America’s idiosyncratic “legitimating myth.”
If Bonhoeffer failed to recognize the presence and power of an American nationalistic faith, it is certain that many of his contemporaries in the United States did not. Among them, none other than the famed Harry Emerson Fosdick thundered from the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church against the encroaching and seductive influence of what many have termed “civic idolatry”:
Millions today, some in this country and many elsewhere, are taking that attitude toward the absolute, nationalistic state. It is a substitute religion. It has its dogmas, its rituals, its symbols and its sacraments. At the heart of it is this tremendous matter: the utter devotion of millions of souls to the nationalistic god. Where do you think that substitute god will bring us out? He will tear our world into bloody pieces and make our children’s earth a hell.
Notwithstanding the perennial controversy about whether or not civil religion is truly an idolatrous counter-religion or merely a term employed euphemistically to describe the near-euphoric confidence of the American people in the democratic ideal, there is almost universal recognition that something exists which serves to unite the American people in spite of religious pluralism. That something is itself, to some extent, religious, if not a religion altogether.
Assuming that Emile Durkheim is correct in his insistence that wherever religious life is observed there exists a definite group at its foundation to adhere to and practice the rites connected with common religious beliefs, and that such beliefs are not “received individually by all members of the group” but are rather that which “give[s] the group its unity,” the question remains as to whether, as Durkheim implies, the civil religion of a nation necessarily results in the creation of a national church. If, then, America is run through with civic piety, and if these religious notions inform every citizen about his place in society and responsibility in the world, where then is the church by which the nation is united and in which its young catechumens receive their instruction in timeless truths held self-evident?
With this question providing the framework for the present inquiry, we shall explore the existence of a national, civil religion in the American context, giving specific attention to the role of public education in the cultivation of a “confessional” citizenry. The discussion will involve both the content of civil catechesis and the ways in which American catechumens are shielded from the “heresies” of compromised religious freedom, excessive governmental entanglement and improper religious coercion. In the end, we will argue that if American civil religion is not a truly established religion and therefore inconsistent with First Amendment guarantees, then it surely looks, sounds, and acts like one in spite of copious jurisprudential objection.
To be continued…