American Civil Religion is Dead, Long Live American Civil Religion

Dan Schultz gets it exactly right: Democrats don’t need to learn to speak the language of faith in order to win.

Predictably, Dan’s analysis—in two recent pieces here in RD—provoked consternation among certain folks who have a stake in promoting a progressive religious voice in the public square (I heard from some who were seriously provoked).

While I’m very glad my friend and colleague is challenging the received wisdom on faith in public life I believe that his most recent piece—”The Clenched Fist of Truthiness“—ends in a somewhat too-despairing place. To wit:

The Founding Fathers were explicit in calling for their politicians to set aside “faction” in favor of the American project. But the singularity of that project was always bullshit, most notably in its equally explicit rejection of a role in the political body for African Americans. […] Now that the fraud has been exposed and there is little, if any, agreement on what the American project is or should be, there is correspondingly less agreement on who ought to lead the nation.

Without any flag waving on my part (and I do expect many of this year’s July 4 celebrations to be jingoistically repellent beyond belief), I want to propose that there is still a way forward for this country: an alternative to the descent into raw tribalism.

I believe we can reinvent American civil religion in a way that fully acknowledges the abomination that Dan euphemistically refers to as the Founders’ “rejection of a role in the political body” for African Americans—not to mention a wide range of other foul crimes against people of color, including the Europeans’ genocidal treatment of the First Nations.

Is a renewal/reinvention of American civil religion possible with our eyes fully open to this criminal history? Is it even conceivable??

Let’s have a quick look at the main elements of the old religion:

1. The United States enjoys a unique (some would say, “a unique and God-given“) place in world history in that it was birthed from a bourgeois but still far-reaching revolutionary culture;

2. Our constitutional system, despite its creakiness and rigidity, still makes room for self-correcting reforms when existing social arrangements become intolerable;

3. This “nation of immigrants” is stronger because various immigrant groups have been allowed to keep their national cultures while they are also expected to understand and respect the common American culture;

4. We acknowledge the nobility of the American experiment even as we acknowledge certain “flaws” that God needs to “mend” (in the prayer-hymn wording of Katherine Lee Bates).

Now suppose we update this problematic creed for the sake of telling the truth, junking the impossible notion that God has somehow chosen the United States for a special destiny or is interested in mending our “every flaw.”

Try this:

1. Our country’s history has been a mixed bag from the start, with white male supremacy and white racist violence lying at the very core of the Anglo colonial culture—and with that toxic inheritance carrying right through into the revolutionary period and into the young republic and down to the present day;

2. That real history also shows clearly that resistance and revolt from below can nevertheless make a difference (see slave rebellions, Abolitionism, women’s suffrage/women’s rights, civil rights, gay liberation, today’s immigrant rights struggle, etc.—and if God’s providential fingerprints can be found anywhere, this ferment from below would be where to look);

3. Crucially, despite the plutocratic domination of the current political system, the idea (and the legal concept) of popular sovereignty remains very much alive;

4. Our job—our calling, so to speak—is to leverage this popular sovereignty idea to organize power from below. And not just the power to resist the worst but the power to shape a different kind of economy and a different kind of common future.

Does this work for you? Can you say, following the formulation of the late Manning Marable, that all of the celebrated might and wealth of the United States derive from a brutal regime of “force and fraud” and also say, with equal conviction, that the American experiment is not yet over?

Our dissidents, labor agitators especially, always festooned their marches and rallies with American flags, making the point that theirs was a higher patriotism, their protest an affirmation of the American idea rather than a dagger pointed at its heart.

This is obviously a very different approach from treating any reference to the “melting pot” as a form of microaggression, as the University of California apparently now does (the phrase may be inaccurate but it’s not criminal). As Peter Beinart points out, it opens the way to a discussion of immigration policy that respects the concerns of non-racists who nevertheless worry about declining social cohesion.

This was also Dr. King’s approach, applauding the promise of Declaration of Independence even while bluntly insisting that “America has defaulted on this promissory note” and demanding that the country make good and “cash the check” presented by Black people. It was President Obama’s approach as well, always patiently teaching us that despite the many defaults and defeats in our mixed history we need to keep on organizing and never give up on the possibility of change.

It may be relevant here that, even now, African Americans tend to be more patriotic than others, albeit in a special way, precisely because of all of the horrors visited upon Black people here over the course of 400 years.

Let’s give the last word to Langston Hughes:

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

“Rack and ruin of our gangster death”? That describes us, all right. But so does “we, the people” who can still redeem it. Despair is not an option.