Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 2…

Civil Catechesis, Pt. 1… 

University of Chicago Professor Martin Marty has noted that “Americans had civic faiths from the time of Columbus or the Mayflower; Native Americans had tribal equivalents before that, [and] the founding fathers expressly advocated what has since been called ‘the religion of the Republic.” This civic faith, according to Marty, has taken various forms throughout the nation’s history either as a folk religion, a transcendent universal national religion (not to be confused with religious nationalism), a democratic faith, or many times as Protestant civic piety. Nevertheless, in every instance whereby the American body politic has coalesced, particularly in times of war and societal conflict, a civil religion has emerged as the “real religion of the American people by mere fact of their being American people.” Americans have not, however, developed without antecedent the notion of civil religion; that credit belongs in large measure to the 18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his seminal work, The Social Contract.

In Rousseau’s thought, it is of little consequence what the dogmas of any particular constituent religion are so long as they make a citizen love his duties and fulfill his responsibilities to his fellow man. Each citizen is granted license, therefore, to hold any religious opinion he chooses, and those opinions are far beyond the sovereign’s competence so long as they provide for good citizens in the present life. But there will inevitably exist in any given national framework a “purely civil profession of faith whose articles the sovereign is competent to determine, not precisely as religious dogmas, but as sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to be either a good citizen or a faithful subject.” The dogmas of this civil religion should be “simple, few, and precisely formulated, without explanations or commentaries,” and Rousseau suggested both positive and negative articles of such a civic faith: the existence of a powerful, intelligent, benevolent, foreseeing and providential God, the continuance of life after death, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, and finally, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws. As for the negative articles, Rousseau limited them to one, namely intolerance.

Americans seem to be perfectly suited to fit Rousseau’s model of civil religion, as recent analysis of American religious beliefs confirms. For instance, belief in God is nearly universal at ninety-four percent, while seventy-one percent believe in the reality of heavenly reward in an afterlife. Moreover, eight in ten Americans agree that “Depending on how much strength and character a person has, he can pretty well control what happens to him,” and seventy-nine percent subscribe to the belief that universal moral absolutes exist and should be applied regardless of the situation. Finally, with respect to Rousseau’s negative article, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that every individual should have the right to formulate and possess his own religious beliefs independent of coercive institutional indoctrination on the part of any church or synagogue. These widespread affirmations of the American body politic, while not rising to the level of a systematic metaphysic, nevertheless constitute an unscripted creed which exerts palpable influence on the ways that citizens live their lives, raise their children and relate to their neighbors. And while the American experiment has long since eschewed the explicit theological content of Rousseau’s formula, this public creed, or democratic charter, retains adequate theistic avowals necessary to provide an adequate basis for social unity which “links the social order to a higher, truer realm [by providing] religious motivation and sanction for civic virtue.” In this way an American civil religion may resemble a true religion, albeit a doctrinally minimalist and utilitarian one sufficient only to engineer the good society.

Hence, democracy alone is the faith once delivered to the state and for which every citizen is obliged to contend. And while America may champion the separation of church and state by insisting on the separation of denominational religion from the apparatus of government, there is not, nor can there be a separation of religion and state so long as the national democratic creed remains the uniquely sacrosanct theme of public discourse. So important, in fact, is this democratic faith that some have argued it must be taught in churches and synagogues in addition to taxpayer supported agencies and institutions. It should come as no surprise, therefore, when those same voices call for democracy to be taught “as religion” in the public schools, which themselves must become “veritable temple[s] for the indoctrination of democracy.”

To Be Continued…

2 thoughts on “Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 2…

  1. I do not know how much more Jean-Jacques Rousseau had to say about religious intolerance, but it is the American byword for other people’s religions. We never react kindly to intolerant attitudes held by our fellow citizens, and if there is one religious group in our nation carrying the “intolerant” tag, it is Baptists in general, and the Southern Baptists in particular.

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