Against Civic Religion

December 9, 2003 | 43 comments

Some time ago, Russell and Adam challenged me to explain what was wrong with cyrpto-protestant prayers in the public schools. What follows is my response along with some general thoughts on civic religion.

By civic religion, I mean the phenomena of low level, formally non-denominational references to God in our public institutions and rituals. Basically, I am talking about things like “In God We Trust” on the currency, the “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, or teacher sponsored prayers in public schools. I referred to this as a kind of crypto-protestantism for the simple reason that these religious rituals are not as non-demononational as we tend to think. Rather, I think that they represent a kind of untheorized, public version of Protestantism. For example, for many years school prayer consisted of reciting the Lord’s Prayer from the KJV. To a pre-Vatican II Catholic, I suspect that the whole ritual had an undeniably Protestant feeling to it. The prayer was not in Latin.

Furthermore, I think that historically many aspects of civic religion (especially school prayer) represent a Protestant and nativist reaction against an influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. I don’t think it is coincidental that mandatory public education infused with crypto-Protestantism arose in the late 19th century at a time when the WASP establishment (especially in the Northeast) was being inundated with Eastern European and Southern European immigrants. It was part of a self-conscious attempt to Americanize and Protestantize these immigrants. It was an attack on their “uncivilized” and “undemocratic” religions. After all, shifty, insular Jews or Papists in the thrall of their corrupt and lascivious priests couldn’t be expected to be good Americans, could they?!?

Interestingly, public schools and their capture by Protestant reformers played a similar role in Territorial Utah. The Edmunds-Tucker Act confiscated the Church’s property and transferred it to the public schools of the territory. It was not a neutral or accidental move. At the time, Mormons operated their own, church funded schools. Congress perceived crypto-Protestant public education as a way of attacking Mormon faith and community. A generation of kids reciting the Lord’s Prayer and being exposed the blessed influences of Protestant civilization was meant to stamp out the vile fanaticism that was Mormonism in the eyes of WASP reformers in Congress.

So what is wrong with this stuff? Well first, as should be clear, I think it has a shameful history. Various aspects of religion in the schools started their lives as a self-conscious attempt to use the power of the state to undermine minority religious communities by indoctrinating their children.

Lots of church-state theorists argue in addition that civic religion is bad because in a pluralistic society it engenders divisiveness and conflict. I don’t really buy this argument. There is a lot of stuff that engenders divisiveness and conflict that people don’t hyperventilate about in the same way as religion. Furthermore, I think that we are far enough from the Thirty Years War that most arguments about religious warfare, etc. are red herrings.

Let me offer a Mormon, theological critique. In the scriptures, the Lord warns us against those who have “a form of godliness but deny the power thereof.” I think that this is a rather perfect description of civic religion. Most of it has little if any real theological content. It vaguely endorses Protestant forms, but we are not talking about Luther or Calvin here. Rather, it reduces religion to a kind of vague social place holder, a symbol of some imagined community, but certainly nothing so impolite as a God that might actually make demands upon us or pass judgment on any of our doings. Rather, there is the vague claim that God approves of us, but it is not clear that God’s approval really matters all that much since the concept of God doesn’t seem to have much content. Indeed, the God of civic religion seems to me, almost idolatrous. He is a dead and inert figure, a dumb idol that we hardly even bother worshiping. In short, my problem is that I find most civic religion vacuous at best and blasphemous at worst.

There are exceptions to this. I think that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, where he offers a public theology of the Civil War, is incredibly powerful. He gently chides both the North and the South for invoking God in their battles with one another and suggests that the agony of the Civil War is God’s punishment on the country because of slavery. It is powerful stuff. However, it is powerful precisely because it breaks the model of the vacuous civic religion and has some real theological content. However, Lincoln’s God turned out to be too dangerous for our civic theology. He is too demanding and judgmental and has seldom reappeared since. The only place where I can think of Him making a real come back is in the civic theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.

However, even the Gods of Lincoln and King are not the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, or Joseph, or the God of Joseph and Brigham. There continues to be a certain vagueness about his status and certain impersonalness in the way that we relate to him.

At the end of the day, I prefer real religion to the desiccated civic variety.

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43 Responses to Against Civic Religion

  1. clark on December 9, 2003 at 3:05 pm

    One thing to keep in mind is that many of the early founders of the country were Deists whose God is very impersonal. So to assume that a lot of these religious sayings are Protestant is, I think, to ignore the genealogy of the sayings. Further one needn’t look far to see masonic imagery which many Evangelicals would be uncomfortable with.

    The way this topic is cast is unfortuante. I think that were we to view the concept of God in more expansive terms rather than limiting it to a Protestant conception we’d avoid the problems and also be more in harmony with the positions of the 18th century in America. Instead the opposite has happened, which is why conservative Protestants (and some Mormons) are undermining their own position. (I also think that the Deist conception of God offers unbelievers a good step to come to a more Christian conception of God)

  2. clark on December 9, 2003 at 3:07 pm

    Just to clarify, the God of the Deists is much more Being itself – however conceived. As such it is very much able to be harmonized with atheism or agnosticism. Probably the best example might be the God of neoPlatonism proper or the God of Spinoza.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on December 9, 2003 at 3:11 pm

    Nate, two points regarding your critique of civic religion:

    “I think it has a shameful history. Various aspects of religion in the schools started their lives as a self-conscious attempt to use the power of the state to undermine minority religious communities by indoctrinating their children.”

    I didn’t know that the fact that something has, in some cases, a shameful history, constitutes an argument against it in all cases. I can see it constituting an argument for prudence, but I don’t see why I should take it seriously as a critique of the thing itself.

    “In the scriptures, the Lord warns us against those who have ‘a form of godliness but deny the power thereof.’ I think that this is a rather perfect description of civic religion. Most of it has little if any real theological content….it reduces religion to a kind of vague social place holder, a symbol of some imagined community, but certainly nothing so impolite as a God that might actually make demands upon us or pass judgment on any of our doings.”

    But wait–how can I possibly reconcile your second criticism with your first? If civic religion is an empty place-holder, a bankrupt symbol of a vacuous presence, how could it possibly have the power to “indoctrinate,” as you say it does in your first criticism? On the other hand, if civic religion really can, through the agency of the state, “undermine” certain forms of life and belief, well then, it must have some real “theological content,” right? Indeed, you admit this when you write that “these religious rituals are not as non-demononational as we tend to think.” Exactly–the elements of civic religion have some real denominational impact! So what exactly does your second complaint boil down to, except the (very legitimate, but not, I think, insurmountable) concern that you may, in certain communities, happen to find yourself implicated, in a civic sense, in a demonination you don’t like? But that then is no longer an argument against civic religion; rather, it’s just an argument to be (again) careful and prudent with it.

    I’m sure you have larger complaints with civic religion, but I’m not seeing them here.

  4. clark on December 9, 2003 at 4:02 pm

    I agree with you Russell. I also disagree with Nate about God being nothing more than a placeholder in the Civic Religion. I think to the Peircean quote I posted to LDS-Phil last weak.

    There are terms that are well defined and used to mean fairly specific things. Then there are terms whose strength is their ambiguity and indeterminacy. They provide themselves as objects of contemplation to lead to other conceptions. To narrow their definition too much is to rob them of their power. I think the term “God” is like that.

    That’s why, I think, in Mormonism we tend to use more specific names for God. We move in specificity of meaning depending upon the name we utilize. “God,” as a term, has its power in the opposite direction. It is the first place our conception starts. It is the beginning of our movement to determine the meaning of God and shouldn’t be seen as the end.

    As such, I think the criticism of the Civic Religion as “denying the power therein” is misplaced. Its ambiguity and indeterminacy is specifically the opposite of a denial. It is rather what makes both denials and affirmations possible. To say that ambiguity denies the specific is to simply miss how we arrive at determinate conceptions of reality.

    That we have the tools to provide a common religion for all, but deny it because we want specificity is the problem. As such Nate’s first comments certainly due undermine his second. The problem with the Protestant approach to civic religion is that it attempts to make Protestant that which is more fundamental.

  5. Matt Evans on December 9, 2003 at 4:08 pm

    Hi Nate,

    I too prefer real religion to the banal variety.

    But if you’re dissatisfied with the lowest-common-denominator religion that’s survived, so far, the attacks of the elites and professoriate, what do you propose in its place?

    Sure, God was harsh with the Protestants in 1820, but I can’t imagine he prefers the modern religion police, who treat the bible as obscenity, forbidding Protestant teachers from having a bible on their desk, or a Protestant child from reading a bible story when invited to share his favorite book.

    It’s not fair to address the abuses or biased motives regarding religion in schools or government, and at the same time ignore the abuses and biases of those chasing religion from the public sphere.

  6. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 4:12 pm

    Russell: Why can’t an attempt to indoctrinate a dessicated and amorphous theology be itself threatening? Put another way, I think that the point is to indoctrinate children in a view of religion that sees it as being a non-substantive social place holder precisely because more substantive forms of religion are seen as being socially dangerous, subversive, etc. It is denominational in the sense that it wants to indocrinate all of the worst element of vacuous, WASP establishment, liberal protestantism. At times it becomes more substantive. I cited the examples of Lincoln and King. One might also cite the scarier extremism of the “Christian Nation” crowd within the Religious Right.

    Clark: Two points. First, many founders were less deist that one might think. Jefferson and Franklin clearly were. Adams, clearly, was not. (He was a denominational Unitarian who maintained a strikingly Calvinist view of human nature.) Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any patience with pietistic, Cleon Skousen-esque history. I just think that the 18th century deism claim tends to be overstated. Second, most of the current manifestations of civic religion are not 18th century creations. Rather they come from the post-Second Great Awakening 19th century.

  7. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 4:19 pm

    Matt: contrary to what Russell has implied, I am not in favor of chasing religion from the public square. I am not opposed to using religious arguments in public debates. I do not subscribe to some version of per se epistemic abstinance for religious people when they argue about politics.

    My criticism is narrower. I am not opposed to the public presence of religion. I am simply opposed to attempts of the government to promulgate some kind of lowest-common denominator civic religious creed. I am all in favor of religion in the public square. I just don’t see “In God We Trust” on the currence as a significant or even positive presance. I see school prayer as affirmatively bad. Russell thinks that the shameful history provides only an argument for caution. I am not so sure. There may be issues of complicity. Even if history only provides grounds for caution, I think that the substantive message of such prayers is an independent ground for objection. I think that they say precisely the wrong thing about religion, and in so doing I think they serve a view of religion basically at odds with the message of the prophets. Religion is not suppose to exist to as a non-threatening crutch for the status quo. It is supposed to be a challenge and a call to a radically different way of life. School prayer is not a call to repentence. It is not a call to any meaningful kind of religious life. I think of it as a blasphemy.

  8. clark on December 9, 2003 at 4:19 pm

    I didn’t want to imply that the Deists made up the majority of early figures. Clearly this was not the case. Simply that there was more diversity of religious “belief” than Protestants who desire a civic religiosity might recognize.

    My point is that it was the early nation’s ability to have a religion that fit all people that was its power. It enabled a basically agnostic Deist to be just as religious in civic terms as a Calvinist. Further it enabled radically different conceptions of things such as natural law to be brought into an understanding that laid the foundations for a kind of manifest destiny. (Without supporting the abuses that “chosen” view enabled)

    While I recognize that *current* civic religious ideas arise from the 19th century, my point is that the approach this brings denies the power that the earlier conception enabled. That earlier civic religion allowed a figure like Ben Franklin to work with Puritans and maintain a common view of national religion.

    It is just that which has been lost. And it has been lost in the very abuses by Protestants you mentioned. The danger is simply removing civic religion entirely, as many liberals wish to do. It is the fallacy of a false dichotomy.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on December 9, 2003 at 4:34 pm


    I strongly suspect that your vision of “civic religion” is much too influenced by Cambridge, MA. To write that “the point [of civic religion] is to indoctrinate children in a view of religion that sees it as being a non-substantive social place holder precisely because more substantive forms of religion are seen as being socially dangerous, subversive, etc.,” is, I respectfully submit, to have assumed that anyone who argues for civic religion is doing it in the same vaguely nostalgic way New England Unitarians do so. If you stick around Arkansas long enough to send Jacob to school here, you will quickly realize that simply isn’t the case. In my experience, when people talk about civic religion, they very plainly mean EXACTLY what Lincoln and King meant: namely, that the civitas (at least insofar this war, or this racial crisis, is concerned) needs to get some religion.

    That’s not an argument for civic religion, of course: you may hate the religion you find in Arkansas, after all, and feel strongly that it shouldn’t be joined to the state whatsoever. But either way, such is completely beside your point about civic religion being problematic because it’s fundamentally just a bunch of WASPy leftovers. There may be strong arguments against the promulgation of religion–or at least some elements thereof–within the context of some kind of state orthodoxy, but the complaint that it is, as you put it in a subsequent comment, “a non-threatening crutch for the status quo,” simply doesn’t fit what most of its advocates believe. (Come visit some of Arkansas’s “dry” counties sometimes, and see what our local preachers say in their prayers at the beginning of city council meetings about those drunkards down in Little Rock.)

  10. Adam Greenwood on December 9, 2003 at 4:40 pm

    Ah, Nate. I would feel bad about piling on if you weren’t so able and willing to defend yourself. So here goes:

    The “shameful” history of which you speak applies only to public education. America’s tradition of civic religion goes much broader and deeper. Abraham Lincoln spoke before public education had much vogue, but no one was particularly suprised to hear him refer to God.

    I too prefer real religion to some Protestant distillation. I even hope someday to have a religion more full of truth and light than my current understanding allows. But I prefer the Protestant distillation to nothing.

    As I said before, I’d rather my children grew up in an environment where they saw God and faith taken seriously, even if that faith was hostile to their own. Great souls have grown up in conflict. Few have thrived in solitary wandering on the excluded margins.

    Finally, I think the few basic truths of the Protestant distillation–call it the “form of Godliness” if you will–better prepare the good-hearted to accept the power thereof. I think it’s no accident that the great age of conversions has dwindled off in those countries that have relegated religion to the rapidly shrinking private sphere.

  11. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 4:54 pm

    Russell: Perhaps you are right. However, I don’t think that your defense of civic religion does a great deal to assuage my fears. I can choose between the genteel atheism and nihilism of respectable liberal protestantism or the vibrancy of a religious tradition that sees me and mine as essentially evil blasphemers. Fun! Fun!

    As it happens, I think it is a good idea to pray for the civitas and to call for the greater involvment of faith in community and public debate. ON THE OTHER HAND, I buy into the liberal distinction between state and society. I am suspicious of communitarian thinking that attacks that distinction and encourages us to think of the government as some expression of the collective, we. In particular, when we committ our children to the care of the state, I DON’T want that power harnessed to religious views that I find mistaken or blasphemous. I would rather that the state kept its mouth shut and let me take kids to church.

    I confess that I don’t get Clark’s argument. So we want some fuzzy public conception of God a starting place for the question for authentic Christian faith? Or is it that the fuzzy conception is supposed to provide us with some kind of social glue? And it is necessary for the state to perform these functions why? How am I to differentiate between fuzzy concept of God as religious or philosophical starting place, and fuzzy conception of God as affirmative attack on more concrete conceptions of God?

  12. Russell Arben Fox on December 9, 2003 at 4:56 pm

    “I think the few basic truths of the Protestant distillation–call it the “form of Godliness” if you will–better prepare the good-hearted to accept the power thereof.”

    I agree completely Adam. Focusing on the contradictions that seemed to be built into Nate’s definition of civic religion led me to ignore what was, really, the more important response: namely, in what sense can we be so certain that a “lowest-common denominator civic religious creed” is without spiritual substance? Even if it doesn’t, as Nate alleges, have any real denominational force (which I doubt), it still instantiates a communal order; it orients us, however minimally, towards the divine. Even if a prayer given before a legislature meets truly is an exercise in empty rhetoric (and it may not be!), is not the simple FACT of its civic presence potentially of great religious import?

  13. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 5:01 pm

    Adam, I think that you set up a false distinction between the cyrto-Protestantism of civic religion and no religion at all. Why not have a committedly areligious state, and vibrant public square filled with strong, substantive religious voices. No doubt I am not explaining myself well, but I think that you are joining in Matt as characterizing me as calling for a banishment of religion from the public square. I am not. I am calling for an end of cryto-Protestantism by the state. I am then saying that much of public (but not necessarily state) religion — “God bless the USA” — is at best vacuous and possibly blasphemous. Finally, I am saying that some public religion is powerful, but even this stuff is nothing compared to the King Follett Discourse or the Sermon on the Mount. My apologies for not using the term civic religion consistently.

  14. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 5:06 pm

    Russell: I fail to see the real contadiction of my initial post. I took myself to be claiming that school prayer and the like was an attempt to displace real religion with a dessicated and vacuous version of liberal protestantism. It is the vacuousness of the indoctrinated creed that makes it an affront, a denial of the power godliness. This is obviously not a particularlly flattering view of late-19th century early 20th century establishment Protestantism. It is not necessarily contradictory.

  15. Russell Arben Fox on December 9, 2003 at 5:21 pm


    Your original definition seemed contradictory to me because you simultaneously alleged that America’s civic religion lacked content (and thus offended you), but also that it could be a source of offense and abuse against those who disagreed with its, well, its…content. I didn’t see how that made sense. Either something has real content, real substantively teaching, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then how could it cause offense? (Obviously, you can always find someone who will take offense at just about anything, but I didn’t think you’d have much sympathy for such people.)

    Perhaps your real point is that the American crypto-Protestant civic religion you are familiar with strikes you (with good reason, I assume) as a false religion, one which teaches a “dessicated” vision of God (and perhaps thereby encourages a kind of religious laxity and submissiveness)? If so, all well and good; that’s certainly an argument against one manifestation of civic religion. I’m not sure it constitutes an argument against the whole range of the phenomenon.

  16. brayden on December 9, 2003 at 5:23 pm

    I’ll go one step further than Nate. The attempts in the early history of U.S. public education to institute prayer were not merely replacing real religion with vacuous, civic rituals. Those prayers were an exercise of power by a majority that wanted to ensure religious minorities did not gain a cultural advantage in American society. That, in my estimation, is making prayer an unholy act – a form of symbolic violence if you will.

    The separation of Church and state is meant to ensure religious freedom, not constrain it. I wrote a little about this (as it relates to public funding of religious education) on my website today at

  17. clark on December 9, 2003 at 5:27 pm

    Nate, perhaps a different way of thinking about my comments is as the following. Statements can be for two purposes. One is to describe or designate something as accurately as possible. The other is to act as a catalyst for thought, creativity, and reflection. So the question is, what is the purpose of statements within civil religion. Is it to specify what religion is about? Or is it there to get people to think both about the foundations of the nation and to reflect upon that meaning and the role of God within it.

    If it is the former, then civic religion is about accuracy. The more accurate the statements the better. Thus it becomes a fight over dogma, as I think many Protestants see it. It is also why conflicts between religions occur. The conflicts are over accuracy. Clearly the Evangelical and the Atheist disagree over how to describe reality.

    If, however, the role and function of civic religion is to act as a catalyst for reflection and action, then those problems don’t occur. For one the symbols exist in a far more poetic fashion. We don’t ask how well a poem *describes* reality. We ask what the poem does to us, awakens in us, or what it leads us to reconsider. As such, the emphasis is on indeterminacy rather than determinacy. The symbol functions best when it can act on what we bring to it, rather than *demanding* what we have.

    Now what I argue is that in the founding of the country, it is this later poetic sense of religion that is most important. The religion that matters in the civil arena is not dogma, but a poetic demand to reconsider. Put simply it is the difference between closing the door on discussion or opening the door.

  18. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 5:30 pm

    Russell it is not clear to me that we are even talking about the same phenomena. Part of the problem is that you don’t seem to make a strong distinction between state and community. What kind of state-sponsored religion do you approve of?

  19. brayden on December 9, 2003 at 5:30 pm


    I’m not seeing your point about substance and offense. You say: Either something has real content, real substantively teaching, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then how could it cause offense?

    I guess it all depends on what your definition of substance is, but I can think of many theories lacking substance that have been offensive. The KKK’s belief system is extremely offensive, yet it lacks substance in the sense that it isn’t based on “true” principles. Its substance is merely illusory.

    Perhaps you better define “substance” more clearly.

  20. Dave on December 9, 2003 at 5:38 pm

    Nate, I am in full agreement with the whole thrust of your post. I especially like your portrait of Abraham Lincoln as an American Pontifex Maximus, kind of a nice contrast with his contemporary American Moses off worshipping in the American desert.

    I would note that your discussion lends support to a nice policy argument supporting Smith v. Employment Division as rightly decided. If one expands the list of religions that the courts are willing to recognize under a free exercise banner from crypto-Protestantism (the only religion given any consideration in 19th century and the first half of 20th century free exercise jurisprudence) to include all Christian denominations, Jews, Muslims, etc., as well as fringe religions such as the Raelians and Santeria (given fair consideration as a religion in Church of the Lukumi Bablua Aye), then government accomodation with religion becomes unworkable. Smith is the predictable policy consequence of the repudiation of cryto-Protestantism as the unofficial national Church of America.

  21. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 5:39 pm

    Clark, I think I understand what you are saying, but I don’t necessarily see what this is an argument in favor of something like school prayer. It might be an argument in favor of some shared poetic discourse about God. I have no per se problem with this (although I suspect that there are few religious poets among our public figures and intellectuals, but good luck to them). However, I don’t see that it follows that this should be instantiated in particular state rituals. At this point, I suspect that we are arguing over presumptions and burdens, which may not be too useful.

    I am not opposed per se to some kind of poetic public religious discourse. Perhaps “God Save America” can be a call towards a deeper religious understanding by virtue of its ambiguity. I am simply skeptical that it has the transformative powers you ascribe to it. Frankly, I think that your invocation of 18th century civic religious discourse is probably misplaced. Arguably, it is was precisely the inadequacy of this discourse the spurred the Second Great Awakening. Far from being a golden age lost by mindless late 19th century protestant reformers, it may well represent a failed attempt at a meaningful religious discourse shorn of particularity. Indeed, I find the claim that Franklin or Jefferson were somehow engaged in some kind of poetic reference to the divine really quite strange. There are few figures in our history who had less poetry in them. Lincoln perhaps. But Jefferson?

  22. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 5:48 pm

    Dave, thanks for the support. It is lonely here. However, I think that you are dead wrong about Employment Division v. Smith (which I consider one of the worst cases decided in the twentieth century). I am skeptical of state sponsored religiousity precisely because I place an extremely high value of private religion. Thus, I have big problems with the ease with which the Supreme Court allowed the criminalization of religious practices in Smith. Furthermore, I think that Smith was more about the quest for formal realizablity than about limiting religious freedom to protestantish faiths. I think that Church of the Lukumi Bablua Aye v. City of Hialeah demonstrates this point, where the Court was willing to extend protection to a fringe religion that had the good fortune to be attacked by a law that took the proper formal shape for a challenge under Smith. In the end, I think that the issue of accomodation is a conceptual mistake. It takes state regulation as a baseline of acceptable action and requires the believer to show some infirmity in the states action. The burden on the individual becomes almost accidental in the analysis. This state-centric approach, is, I think, exactly backwards.

    Of course my approach would throw a fair amount of sand in the gears of the modern regulatory state. Fine by me. It is not as though it is a fragile and endangered creature about whose health we must be especially solicitous.

  23. clark on December 9, 2003 at 6:06 pm

    I suspect Nate, that you are thinking of poetics in much narrower terms than I. I don’t think one need be a Yeats or a Shakespeare to speak poetically. Sometimes the best poetry is in prose form. Put simply I’m looking at poetry in terms of function and not in terms of form. As such I think Jefferson is one of the greatest poets are nation as had (along with Franklin). However I do not think that their poetry took the form that we think of as traditional poetry – if you can see the difference.

    If we conceive of religion only in terms of dogma, then I think what you say follows. Also I was speaking more broadly than just about prayer. I think civil prayer can be poetic or it can be dogmatic. And it is that question that, to me, is the issue of relevance.

    As to the issue of whether civil religion of the non-dogmatic sort was a failure. I’d disagree. I think it was a resounding success and is what gave America the character it has. Where I think things went astray (and continue to) is in demanding that this poetic function be “filled” with the dogmatic function. It is at that point that I think worries about Protestant domination (or Christian domination or Atheist domination) arise.

    Certainly there was a period of low religiosity in the United States which led to various great awakenings. But I think that was due to the lack of there being the dogmatic *private* religion to balance the poetic *public* religion of which I speak.

    Perhaps I am oversimplifying or even distorting history. But I think the structural analysis I’m making is correct. I don’t think my arguments really rest upon history. Rather my historic examples were simply to clarify what I was saying.

  24. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 6:11 pm

    Clark, I understand that poetry as you use the term does not require Yeates or Shakespeare. My incredulity about Jefferson or Franklin as poet comes not from the meter of their language, but the literalness of their thought. When Jefferson said that we hold certain truths to be self-evident, I really think he meant it. He thought that folks who disagreed with him were either evil or benighted. He had a real problem with ambiguity or reasonable disagreement, which explains some of his rather excerable political tactics.

  25. Adam Greenwood on December 9, 2003 at 6:14 pm

    I’m sympathize with the idea of a public square where religion is allowed to flex its muscle, and of a sort of minimal state in the background that stays out of religion because its just running a few utilities.

    But the governmnent here is grown irreversibly too large, and Americans from the beginning have invested too much of themselves in the idea of their country, for that ever to happen. It’s no more realistic than my adolescent fascination with the forms and practice of kingship.

    Even if we had a hugely invigorated federalism, to where the federal government only marginally touched people’s lives, things likes war would still be too important for faith to be excluded.

    Ultimately, I think your vision of the state is too dry. It doesn’t explain why there would be such a thing as flags, or allegiance, or tears for the nation. If the nation itself partakes of the holy, than the larger sphere of holiness we call religion ought not be excluded from it.

  26. Dave on December 9, 2003 at 6:18 pm

    Nate, I think you underestimate the practical difficulties of giving religion a presumptively valid claim to accomodation unless government can meet the pre-Smith test and make a compelling interest showing. And there is a huge formal problem: there is no definition of “religion,” a real problem for an expanded free exercise policy. The Court has never been too excited about drawing the line between bona fide religion and anything else, what makes you think they would do so now?

    Where would you draw the line for the free exercise deference you are willing to dole out to bona fide religion? Is vegetarianism a religion? Whale watching? Golf? (see Bagger Vance). Surfing? (see Point Break). Religion means a lot of things in California; imagine what the 9th Circuit would do with that question. Better to leave religion and Bodhisattva’s Spiritual Surfing Fellowship out of the courts.

    Alternatively, we can go back to the informal establishment of crypto-Protestantism and the rule of Sherbert v. Verner. I think we’re better off where we are. Smith isn’t really hurting anyone as far as I can tell.

  27. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 6:34 pm

    Dave, The Smith formulation doesn’t get the courts out of the business of defining religion. Laws specifically tagetting religion remain subject to strict scrutiny. Thus, the question of “Is Golf a Religion” (See Bager Vance) could conceivably arise in a challenge to a statute outlawing golf. It seems to me that what prompted the move to Smith was not frustration with the definition of religion, but frustration with the implimentation of the compelling state interest test. The majority is wierd because the swing vote ends up being Stevens rather than O’Connor. For what it is worth, I don’t think that Stevens has a problem with the compelling state interest test. I think that he joined the Scalia opinion because he thinks that exemptions for laws of neutral applicability violate the establishment clause (see his dissent in Corp. of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos).

    It seems that we have two problems with a robust regime of religious liberty. (1) It would not be administerable because we end up with some vague baseline like “compelling state interest”; and, (2) We fear it might cut too large a swath through the regulatory state.

    I find it odd that (1) is a fatal objection in the area of free exercise but not in the area of equal protection or substantive due process. As for (2) I don’t really think that society will come to a stand still if we invalidate a few more laws. We have plenty of them, you know. Also, I am willing to say that we should require some showing of substantial burden, etc. as a way of weeding out trivial cases.

    Finally, if you really don’t like the compelling state interest test in equal protection and are willing inconsistently to deep six it in the free exercise realm because you happen to have the votes because of the wierd curlicue of Steven’s rejected establishment clause position, maybe we could find a more administerable baseline than “compelling state interest.”

    Common law tort, anyone?

  28. Russell Arben Fox on December 9, 2003 at 6:40 pm

    As I understand it, one of the major issues in resolving various establishment clause decisions has been the effort to distinguish forms of state-sponsored religious expression which are not, in the eyes of the court, truly “religious” (that is, in Nate’s terminology, they have no “content”) from those that do. Arguments about public displays of the Ten Commandments, statuary or paintings of Moses, Jesus or other religious figures in public places, the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and so forth, have regularly (it seems to me) been broken down in accordance with some formula that distinguishes those with real “denominational” or “dogmatic” significance from those whose presence is acceptable exactly because they are now “merely” civic, part of the vacuous historical background of the state as it were, and thus without any substantive religious power. It was this kind of distinction that I assumed Nate was invoking: we don’t want “real” Protestant prayers, because that will cause harm to the Mormons (or someone else), but neither do we want crypto-Protestant, lowest common denominator prayers, because they are an insult to the Almighty. My point was simply to say that these two positions cannot be fully compatible: if something is vacuous it can’t be a substantive threat to Mormon (or anyone else’s) belief, but if something really does have a substantive content then it can’t simply be a cheap, degraded knock-off of the Almighty’s commands (though, of course, it could FALSE, which moves the debate in a different direction entirely).

    What kind of state-sponsored religion do I approve of? It depends upon which state. Federal? Local? I appreciate prayers at public events. I approve of the freedom to invoke God’s name as part of one’s pedagogy (my daughter’s second grade teacher regularly refers to the authority of the Bible she has sitting on her desk at all times), since that simply underlines the fact that society should be concerned with ethical formation as well as education. I think religious symbols (Nativity scenes, etc.) have an appropriate place in schools and other public spaces. I even like, though I acknowledge that this is a difficult concept to defend in America today, the idea of a loose but nonetheless real connection between civic identity and collective religious responsibility. (After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Canadian Prime Minister–not a particularly religious man–was able to go into an Anglican Church of Canada and call for a moment of silence in mourning across the whole country, and government offices and the media responded; while President Bush can go to the National Cathedral in Washington and participate in mourning, he is unwilling or unable to speak forcefully about thanksgiving or penance as American Presidents once commonly did.) That’s a good enough list to start with.

    I think Adam puts it well: “If the nation itself partakes of the holy, than the larger sphere of holiness we call religion ought not be excluded from it.” If you insist that the “state” (the institutional source of authority and law) is formally and entirely distinct from the “community” (the communal source of our affective ties to one another), then such talk can only sound theocratic. But I simply don’t see why a “nation” (a people, a community, as represented through their institutions up to and including the state (but not wholly defined by them)) cannot, in fact, be a legitimate forum for the instantiation of the spiritual, without making religion tyrannical. Prudence (good liberal prudence!) is always going to be necessary, of course. So will charity, since there are going to be disagreements about that collective spirituality (on gay marriage, for example!). But to simply assert, as Nate does, that school prayer is always “affirmatively bad,” or that inscribing a brief prayer on one’s coinage can never suggest a positive religious presence in one’s civic life, I think goes much too far.

  29. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 6:58 pm

    Russell, the establishment clause distinction you are invoking comes from the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman. It goes to the issue of whether a state action has the primary effect of advancing religion. (The test is subject to the notorious “two reindeer and a santa exception” promulgated in Lynch v. Donnelly). I did not mean to invoke this distinction in my original discussion.

    I think that the origins of school prayer can be boiled down to this: 19th century protestant reformers thought that certain religions — Catholicism, Mormonism, Judiaism — were affirmatively bad. They were bad precisely because they required their members to act in ways at variance with dominant social norms. In the view of these reformers, good religion was of a respectable protestant variety. It was not enthusiastic or unseemly. It placed a high value on decorum. It did not countence of support deviation from the dominant norms of upper middle class WASP values. For example, one wasn’t supposed to defer to the religious authority of priests, rabbis, or prophets. One was to go to church where thoroughly domesticated ministers would give sermons carefully calculated not to do anything other than suggest that upper middle class American protestantism was the end of history and the ultimate desire of God. The purpose of school prayer was to inculcate this good religion and stamp out the bad, fanatical kind. This is not a distinction that you will find in Lemon and its progeny.

  30. clark on December 9, 2003 at 7:07 pm

    Nate, perhaps we are understanding each other better than I thought and simply disagreeing. I suppose it is saying something about me that I do not consider literalness and poetry in opposition. I think that something can be very literal and very indeterminate at the same time. So I am not necessarily speaking of metaphor.

    Consider the use of the term Democracy. I think that term has come to have a power much akin to what I am discussing relative to God. Further as a term it is fairly indeterminate even though one can (and frequently does) speak in rather literal terms.

    Probably ambiguity isn’t quite the right term for me to have used.

  31. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 9:31 pm

    Clark, perhaps you are looking for a term like excessive. One can say something like “I love my wife” and mean it very literally. On the other hand the term “love” while not really ambigious exceeds our ability to neatly explicate and categorize. Rather, it invokes an experience of knowing that exceeds our capacity to neatly conceptualize.

    How am I doing…

  32. Nate on December 9, 2003 at 9:45 pm

    I suspect that Adam and Russell have hit on the heart of the issue. The question is whether we can endow the nation with holiness, up to and including the state, without running the risk of blasphemy or tyranny.

    I guess that my problem is that I have a more ambivalent relationship with my nation. It probably comes from reading too much nineteenth-century Mormon legal history, but I can’t help but feeling just a little bit foreign in America. I also can’t help but be a little paranoid. Perhaps this makes me more willing to compromise the holiness of the nation in return for the security of some kind of liberal neutrality. No doubt these are just pyschological hang-ups on my part. (Dave can provide analysis.)

    I can view the nation in insturmentally holy terms. I can see something like the constitution, etc. as being some tool in the hands of God for His own purposes. The problem is that some time in college this ceased to provide much spiritual sustance. The result is that I don’t cry much at the flag anymore. (Although I confess I don’t cry at much of anything, including sacrament meeting.) I suppose that there is a sense in which I envy Russell and Adam their spiritual attachment to the nation. It is a kind of spirituality — a faith — that I lost and cannot seem to regain.

    Although no one has raised the issue, I want to point out that I don’t think that the Establishment Clause necessarily mandates the kind of role for religion in the public square that I envision.

    Russell, I don’t think that I made the claim that prayer in school is always bad. Just when it is done under the auspices of the modern state and as part of a tradition of protestantization.

    Adam, I don’t see why the increase in the size of the modern state means that we should endow it with a level of holiness that we needn’t have endowed it with in less statist past. The federal budget is bigger, and the reach of federal regulations is much increased. Does this somehow translate into greater spiritual significance?

  33. Clark Goble on December 9, 2003 at 10:43 pm

    While there is an excess which is not defined, I’m not sure that’s completely apt. Of course now we’re into matters of terminology of the phenomena. Indeterminacy is the way Peirce and the pragmatists describe it. Excess is the common way French postmodernists describe it. The problem with speaking of excess is that typically the French don’t discuss degree. They merely note that terms are, ala Heidegger, not complete or totalized in meaning. They then look at the implications of this. The benefit Peirce brings is that he discusses how defined or determined an idea is.

    That’s relevant for the point I was trying to make in that I wish to say that God as a useful term is far less determined or limited in meaning than more dogmatic terms. Further I wish to oppose this to the more dogmatic senses of religion where the focus is on determined or complete ideas. So there is that Heideggarian sense, but one with a bit more of a twist of degree.

    But you clearly do see the point I’m getting at, and yes, love is a perfect example of what I’m getting at.

  34. clark on December 9, 2003 at 10:44 pm

    BTW – as an aside. Ben Franklin did write poetry and was rather a skill rhetorician.

  35. Russell Arben Fox on December 10, 2003 at 11:45 am


    Maybe we should let this thread die and go on to other things, but I need to touch on your statement:

    “I guess that my problem is that I have a more ambivalent relationship with my nation. It probably comes from reading too much nineteenth-century Mormon legal history, but I can’t help but feeling just a little bit foreign in America.”

    But doesn’t 19th-century Mormon legal history demonstrate a far more substantive, if not outright theocratic, commitment to “civic religion” than anything “crypto-Protestantism” has ever managed to pull off in the U.S.? Brigham Young as simultaneously territorial governor and prophet? Local authorities struggling with federal ones on behalf of an explicitly religious ideal (i.e., plural marriage)? The State of Deseret? If you feel somehow alienated from the U.S. because of our history as Mormons in America, is the flip side of that a feeling of groundedness in the Mormon civitas, or at least your memory (or imagination) of such? In which case, doesn’t that mean you DO endorse some (Mormon) kind of civic religion?

    I guess my real question is: have you been arguing generally against all civic religion, or solely against America’s specific “crypto-Protestant” civic religion? I’ve assumed the former. But maybe your target has always been the latter. In which case, we should be arguing about Protestantism, not the relationship between a religious community and the law.

  36. Adam Greenwood on December 10, 2003 at 1:29 pm

    I can’t let well enough alone either.

    I’m not arguing that the bigger and more bloated a state is the more holy it is. I find that idea as funny as you find it dumb.

    But I’m arguing that all aspects of life and community are holy or ought to be. If the state were practically non-existent, it might be tolerable to carve it out from holiness for pragmatic reasons. The larger the role of the state, the less-tolerable. And even a watchman state that does nothing but punish crime and fight wars has probably too great a role to be exempted, since justice, sacrifice, and divine favor are all implicated.

    Finally, you are very correct that for me, personally, the idea of America is now and always has partook of the sacred. I do cry when I salute the flag.

    My military service was in many respects unpleasant. Not a day went by though, but what was redeemed at the close. In the late afternoon, at the edge of evening, “To the Colors” would sound throughout the post. Every one of us would come to attention–cars would stop–, turn to the flag, and salute for the quiet duration of music. Duty, Honor, Country–they live on.

    I want to thank you, Mr. Oman, for what has been one of the most enjoyable threads I’ve had the privilege of participating in.

  37. Nate on December 10, 2003 at 2:04 pm

    Russell: At this point, I think that I should probably try to post something on theocracy and Mormon political thought. However, I think that this probably deserves a whole new post. I will make just a couple of brief comments. The point of departure for this post was crypto-protestant prayer in public schools. I am against it. As for the general tradition of American civic religion, I am a bit more ambivalent. There is lots of it that I don’t like. There is some of that I admire. There is none of it that I find as religiously compelling as Mormonsim. Thus, perhaps I am not talking about “civic religion” as you use the term. (I confess that I am confused by what you are talking about. What is the ding-an-sich of civil religion that you insist I am missing?) I don’t yet have a grand unified theory of religion in public life. I am working on it, and I will let you know when I am done ;-> My problem is that I have liberal instincts, but don’t want to buy into the atomizing and privatizing implications of liberal philosophy. On the other hand, I am not comfortable with a thoroughgoing communitarianism (complete with a unifying, communitarian civic religion) that is merely pragmatically or prudentially liberal.

  38. clark on December 10, 2003 at 4:34 pm

    (BTW – there was a change in the HTML the past couple of days which makes it so you can’t post using Mozilla derived browsers. There are some quirks with IE5 and the comment edit pane as well. The box css2 bug is still on the front page for Mozilla derived browsers like Netscape or Firebird as well as KHTML browsers like Safari — I may have some time to debug it for you if you’d like)

    Anyway, I recognize people’s interest in this thread has waned and I’m not sure anyone really quite was interested in the approach to the issue I took. But I did manage to find the Peirce quote I was thinking of:

    “Namely, ‘God’ is a vernacular word and , like as such words, but more than almost any, is ‘vague’. No words are so well understood as vernacular words, in one way; yet they are invariabley, vague’ and of many of them it is true that, let the logician do his best to substitute precise equivalents in the places, still the vernacular words alone, for all their vagueness, answer the principal purpose. [...]

    Every concept that is vague is liable to be self contradictory in those respect in which it is vague. No concept, not even those of mathematics, is abosolutely precise; and some of the most important for everyday use are extremely vague. Nevertheless our instinctive believes involving such concepts are far most trustworthy that the best established results of science, if these be precisely understood.” (As quoted in Buchler’s Philosophical Writings of Peirce, 28)

  39. travis on March 31, 2004 at 11:53 am

    i don’t know about you guys, but i have never read anything so beautiful as washington’s first inauguration speech, or his thanksgiving day proclamation. except for maybe george bush’s inauguration speech. all of those speeches referred to god in some conspicuous and appropriate way.

    i agree that “under god” in the pledge may be vacuous. but to unconstitutionalize such references would be a bad move: i’m doing a 3 part series on civil religion (rousseau’s terminology). the second part is called, “newdow still retarded”. come see if you agree.

  40. Cassie on April 27, 2004 at 2:04 am

    I just thought it would be important to point out that to say that many of the Framers were Deists is simply not true. Only 6 of the 119 Framers held to the Deist belief. They were Franklin, Cornelious Harnett, Jefferson, Gouv. Morris, Hu Williamson and James Wilson. The majority of the Framers were associated with a church, mostly Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Unitarian, Methodist, or Presbyterian. I’m not going to sit here and try to say that the Framers were all gung-ho for established civic religion, especially as we know it today, but I think it is important to realize that the writings of the Framers, including the Deists, reflect a need for the people to recognize the God of Christianity. This recognition was what held the people to a moral code, and with this code, the people were better able to understand the doctrine of fallen man who can become corrupt with power. Remember that the Framers feared POWER the most. With Christianity came the idea of limiting the power given to a few men, who, by nature were fallen and would use it for evil. Hence, a Christian understanding of mankind was foundational to understanding democracy, limited government, and the need for responsible, knowledgeable citizens who would live under such a government.

  41. [...] ica as the best evidence of such. So what about Mormon civil religion (which, many months ago, Nate and Adam and I argued a certain amount about)? Well, one person’s civil religio [...]

  42. [...] some of the Times and Seasons permanent bloggers, who are suspicious of school prayer and civic religion. But it seems to me that the Court has gone so far in trying to protect against &# [...]

  43. annegb on February 2, 2005 at 2:11 pm

    Is it against the rules to print these off? I’d really like to study that initial post. I’ve asked myself where I stand and often get e-mails urging me to sign this or that petition. Haven’t answered myself yet.

    But I think this goes to what I was saying in another thread about control, sometimes people argue for the sake of winning the argument, rather than a genuine investment into the topic. I know I do :).

    So I’m intrigued by this post. Because I’ve always felt a little stupid not having an opinion. But I didn’t care enough to study it out. I guess that’s an opinion. I could have God in my life even if I can’t pray in school.

    …thinking about this.


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