Civil Religion: social model or spiritual detour?

The concept of civil religion has been defined, studied, critiqued. Civil religion is a theory that posits a specific set of political ideas shared by all Americans. The ideas have nothing to do with God, but they are sacred because they work to forge a nation out of people who have nothing else in common. Surveys have shown it to be a valid concept. However, after 9/11 some people were shocked to learn that the concept has no brakes. Americans, both Republican and Democrat, went willingly to war in Iraq based on questionable evidence for al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction. This was a revelation for many observers who thought that civil religion provided people with a moral compass.

I read Robert Bellah’s “Broken Covenant” and I thought he made a lot of valuable observations, but I missed the part about how civil religion makes people wise. Was that really what he was saying? At most, I thought he was presenting a sort of sociological model. I guess I didn’t see how seriously it was being taken. It would follow that civil religion is a replacement for…religion. In a way, it lets American religion off the hook, although it seems if anything can be blamed for what happened with the Iraq war it would be actual religion, the most vocal one being Christianity.

But I also remember that Wayne Baker compared American Civil Religion to the civil religion of Communist Russia, meaning the Soviet Union’s national identity and sense of community were based on ideology—in their case Marxist ideology. So, apparently all the other religions are not even in the running—civil religion replaced American religion just like Marxist doctrine replaced the church in the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, I really don’t get why a simple article about virgin births and comparative mythology in Wikipedia seemed so offensive to a certain Christian editor that he wouldn’t rest until he’d run me out of town. I really have no idea who I’m talking to any more. I am through trying to preface my posts based on what some ‘religious’ people might think. All the evidence seems to suggest we are on ground zero in the realm of ideas. It’s time to start building.

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