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.