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America’s Holy War

Proposal for an armistice

Justin Sullivan/Getty

One characteristic of holy war is that the participants will persist in disputation even as the world around them is going to pieces. It must certainly strike foreigners, and some Americans too, as strange that at a time of fiscal crisis, war in Central America, and declining telephone service, the issue that has aroused the most passion in Congress and among the people is whether children should be praying together in school and whether Christmas crèches should be displayed in public parks.

A reasonable first reaction is to view the whole affair with a mixture of amusement and dismay. Does it really matter whether or not passersby at a public display in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, are to be exposed to a plastic rendition of the Nativity? This country survived one hundred eighty years with school prayer and twenty without; would a minute of mumbled devotion put children on the road to salvation, as some would have it, or on the road to religious tyranny, as others would? Nevertheless, though the immediate stakes appear small, the underlying issue is large. Boundary disputes are inherently conducted over small acreage. Yet the slightest breach in a frontier, especially in a religious war, can be ominous. Moreover, a debate over budgets or foreign policy is an argument about contingencies, about the conditions of national existence. A debate over the relationship between religion and government is about the meaning of our national existence.

My contention is that important as this debate is, it has become impoverished and embittered because it has been wrongly framed, because it has been so dominated by two warring tendencies—one sectarian, the other secular—both of which fundamentally misapprehend the historical role of religion in American public life.

The first of these tendencies is sectarian. Its troops are right-wing fundamentalists; its most visible and forceful agent is the Moral Majority; and its method—which above all alarms its opponents—is to ally itself with political power, in particular with President Reagan and the Republican right, so as to bend government to its ends. These ends are stated unequivocally: to Christianize the nation, that is, make public life and public policy conform as closely as possible to the Gospels. Representative Marjorie Holt said it on the floor of the House during the school-prayer debate: “This is a Christian nation.” (To which Representative Barney Frank, who chaired that middle-of-the-night debate at the request of the House leadership and who is Jewish, responded “If this is a Christian nation, how come some poor Jew has to get up at 5:30 in the morning to preside over the House of Representatives?”) The sectarians intend the “Christian nation” to be not merely a demographic but a legal reality. Hence their vigorous lobbying on such policy issues as homosexual rights (against), abortion (against), and school prayer (for). They deserve the name sectarian and not “religious” because, although ostensibly speaking for religion in the abstract, they are interested primarily in promoting their own particular brand. Their ultimate goal is not theist or monotheist or Judeo-Christian, or even Christian, but Protestant, and—judging from the number of Protestant denominations that oppose this movement (denominations whose interpretation of the Scriptures leads them to diametrically opposed views on homosexuality, abortion, and school prayer)—Protestant only in its narrowest fundamentalist form.

The other tendency is secular. Its vanguard is the A.C.L.U., and, because its position understandably elicits less popular enthusiasm, its method is to appeal not to the legislative but to the judicial branch to achieve its ends. These too are stated unequivocally: the secularization of American public life. The secularists are the grinches who try to steal Christmas creches. It is the A.C.L.U. that sued Pawtucket, Rhode Island, charging that the city’s forty-year tradition of sponsoring a public Nativity display at Christmastime violated the First Amendment prohibition against establishment of religion. (Last month the Supreme Court ruled in Pawtucket’s favor, 5 to 4.) But the goal of the secularists is not simply to extirpate Christian symbolism from American public life. Their nemesis is religion. Religion is to be kept private. Any public manifestation is to be fought, from school prayer (even a moment of silence, because of its religious connotations) to the national motto (in 1970 the government was sued for “In God We Trust,” and won in the Supreme Court).

Not surprisingly, observers of this holy war—interested observers, since it is their public life that is at stake here—are apt to wish on both sides the sort of fate that has befallen Iraq and Iran. On the one hand are the Bible thumpers, increasingly resented for their ascending power and pushiness, demonstrated most recently in the enormous pressure they brought on the Senate during the school-prayer debate and in their alliance with the President. They want to make their beliefs the law of the land. Ronald Reagan likes the idea. “I’ve been told,” he recently declared, “that since the beginning of civilization millions and millions of laws have been written. I’ve even heard someone [Ed Meese?] suggest it was as many as several billion. And, yet, taken together, all those millions and millions of laws have not improved on the Ten Commandments one bit.” (Does that mean that Congress should try a quick substitution? Has he read the first four?) On the other hand is a band of zealous relic-hunting secularists, famous for the pettiness of their search-and-destroy missions, bent on excising every last vestige of religious influence from American public life. Not even a 40-year-old plastic baby Jesus is safe.

The whole debate arouses dismay, and not just because of the overreaching claims of both sides. One has an instinctive feeling that religion has a place in American public life, and that both sides misunderstand it—that between sectarianism and secularism lies something else.

What is that “something else”? One answer is pluralism, a pluralism that says, “In public life, religion is proper, but only if all denominations are honored equally.” That is precisely the principle animating the “compromise” wording for the proposed (and later defeated) constitutional amendment restoring school prayer, a compromise worked out principally by America’s quintessential moderate. Senator Howard Baker. The state would neither compose nor mandate the prayer, which could be silent or spoken. What would that mean in practice? No one is quite sure exactly how the prayers would be generated, but it was generally understood that there would be some sort of rotational system, a kind of ecclesiastical musical chairs for kids, each reciting his or her own very special prayer on different days, even if—in fact, because—it had no meaning to the others. (Otherwise, instituting any single prayer would violate the principle of pluralism.)

This attempt at reasonableness is as absurd as it is earnest. It yields the worst of both worlds. If public prayer has any purpose, it is the bringing together of individuals in common devotion. An arrangement in which the Catholic recites his prayer one day, the Jew on another, the Baptist on the next, is not an exercise in prayer, but in anthropology. It trivializes the whole idea of prayer, while the same time managing to offend almost everyone, since it encourages, if it does not require, children of one faith to join or at least witness the prayer of another.

In his Pawtucket dissent. Justice Brennan elegantly describes the religion clauses of the First Amendment as intending “a benign regime of competitive disorder among all denominations.” But not for our common public life, and certainly not for the common life of first graders. Religious pluralism in America means a celebration of multiple privacies. It means that any group may estabhsh any church anywhere. It doesn’t mean thatevery sect shall have a chapel in the house of government. Rotational pluralism does not solve the dilemma of religion in our common public life. It mocks it. Its spirit is that of a remark attributed to Eisenhower: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.”

But what if one does care what it is? If not rotational pluralism, where to find an alternative to sectarianism on the one hand and secularism on the other? The answer, I suggest, is this: in two hundred years of American experience. In the authentic and original American public religion that the secularists wish to abolish and the sectarians to narrow. In what Robert Bellah, in an illuminating essay written two decades ago, called the American Civil Religion.

Civil religion is not an American invention. It appears to have been first described by Rousseau. He distinguished civil religion from three other kinds: private piety; exclusive (i.e., intolerant) national theocracies; and supranational hierarchies, which pervade both private and national life, like the Church of Rome. (“The third kind is so manifestly bad that the pleasure of demonstrating its badness would be a waste of time.”) What is unique about Rousseau’s civil religion, at least in the Western context, is its nonexclusivity. It can coexist with private belief. It is meant to infuse communal life with a religious dimension. He construed its tenets—a belief in a just Providence, in the sanctity of the sociai contract, and in tolerance—”not strictly as religious dogmas but as sentiments of sociability.” Its purpose was to make of the social contract not merely a convention but a faith.

The American civil religion is not nearly as austere, rationalist, or coldly utilitarian. For one thing, it was never planned or decreed by the Founders. One doubts if they were even conscious of it. Yet their vision helped establish it, and for two centuries it has served as the faith—the established religion, if you will—of the American polity.

As elaborated by Bellah, it is not Christianity, though it derives much from it. Nor is it a competitor of Christianity, but a parallel and wholly accommodating faith. It has its own theology. Its God is the God of the (Founding) Fathers: Jefferson’s Creator, who endows inalienable rights; Washington’s Great Author, who guides the affairs of nations; Lincoln’s Lord, whose judgment—even if it be civil war—is true and righteous. He is a deistic God, but with a particular interest in American destiny. Not a set of Newtonian laws, but an embodiment of American Purpose. He has no hell, but makes demands of his people nonetheless.

The civil religion has a sacred history: American history. It is perhaps more accurate to say that it consecrates the otherwise profane history of the American people, endowing it with a religious dimension. Accordingly, it has its own calendar. Its supreme holiday is Thanksgiving, a day devoted to thanking Providence for America, and for meditating on its meaning. Other days are set aside, some to honor the saints, Washington, Lincoln, and King; others to celebrate the civil virtues as revealed in the American historical experience: liberty (the Fourth of July), sacrifice (Memorial Day), service (Veterans Day).

Among its many ceremonies the most important is the Presidential Inauguration. Significantly, every Inaugural Address (with the exception of Washington’s perfunctory two-paragraph second) makes reference to the Supreme Being. Equally importantly, none makes reference to Christ or Jesus. (The sole exception, I believe, is an allusion by William Henry Harnson: “like the false Christs whose coming was foretold by the Savior.” Thirty days later Harrison was dead from a chill contracted while giving this address outdoors in cold weather. Jefferson’s God may be more jealous than advertised.)

The civil religion is a grand American unitarianism, and it has an obvious civil function. As Washington said in his Farewell Address, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Truths may be logically self-evident, but better to root them in the firmer ground of religion. Jefferson is careful to say that the Declaration of

Independence derives from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”; the civil religion serves as a bridge between positive law and a more secure natural law. The President swears not on the Constitution but on the Bible, to uphold the Constitution.

Yet this unique national faith is not some mumbo jumbo created by the Founders for its utility. They genuinely believed in America’s transcendent purpose and in its relation to Providence. Their successors have elaborated the theme, finding echoes of the Exodus in the Revolution, and of Christ and the Resurrection in Lincoln and the Civil War. In our day, Martin Luther King Jr. was perhaps most attuned to the religious cadences of his own and his country’s history (“He’s allowed me to go up to the top of the mountain and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. . . .”). Most Americans believe, though perhaps unconsciously, in the civil religion, and respect its place in public life. Which is why they feel such revulsion for the holy warriors, sectarian and secularist, who neither believe nor respect nor perhaps even understand it. The civil religion establishes a critical distinction in American public life between sectarianism and religion. It forbids the one. It permits, even encourages, the other. Both sides, for opposite reasons, wish to eradicate that distinction.

Among the sectarians, eradicating that line is the project not just of the Moral Majority. In an amicus brief in the Pawtucket case, the Justice Department argued that removing the Christmas creche “mandates an artificial and undesirable sterility in public life, in which one important and enriching aspect of our history and culture [religion] is treated as illegitimate. . . . We ask the Court to rule that the First Amendment does not mandate contrived exclusion of religion from public life.” Now really. Surely one can ban a municipal creche as a sectarian symbol (albeit of the
majority sect) without being against religion. The event commemorated by the creche is outside of American history; the religious idea it symbolizes (the Incarnation of the Divinity) is outside of the American civil religion. Though Christmas is designated as a holiday to accommodate the practice of the majority of Americans, the municipal creche goes beyond accommodation to the (admittedly minor) promotion of sectarian religious vision. (Justice Brennan points out just how sectarian celebrating Christmas has been: the Puritans were so opposed to that “Popish” practice that in 1659 it was made punishable by fine in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As late as 1855 it was not celebrated by Presbyterians, Baptists, or Methodists.)

The creche violates the spirit of the civil religion because it moves beyond religion to sectarianism. More significantly, so does the President. That is why his speech to the convention of Religious Broadcasters created such unease. It is one thing in a public address to invoke—even ostententatiously to ally oneself with—God. Indeed that, minus the ostentation, is in the tradition of the canonical literature of the civil religion. It seems to me equally inoffensive to make religion a political issue. (The whole “hypocrisy gap” charge against Reagan leaves me cold. Tip O’Neill complains that the President hasn’t been to church since last June. So what? Tip O’Neill has made a political career of “compassion,” meaning helping the needy from the public purse. Who cares whether in private life Tip is generous or a Scrooge? Ronald Reagan’s private prayer habits are of interest to his biographer. They are irrelevant to the question of the proper relationship between religion and politics.) But it is seriously overstepping the bounds of the civil religion for the President to announce, as Mr. Reagan did in that speech, that “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The President then added, “I’m a little self-conscious because I know very well that you all could recite that verse to me.” He should be self-conscious: the religious tradition in this country requires that it should have been the other way around.

The secularists are equally disrespectful of the distinction between sectarianism and religion. They are as opposed to “In God We Trust” as they are to the Christmas crdche. This dedication to a rigid secularism and against the slightest trace of religion in public life, derives more from the French Revolution than the American. The Jacobins, deeply anticlerical in a way that the Founders never were, embraced a civic religion, a religion of Reason, as jealous and exclusive as the clerical tyranny they overthrew. That branch of Rousseauism, nonaccommodationist and intolerant, has always remained an extreme tendency in America.

But among the secularists it is not just the extremists who miss the distinction between sectarianism and religion. In Justice Brennan’s (I believe, correct) dissent from the majority opinion permitting the creche, he admitted to some perplexity (“I remain uncertain about these questions”) as to why, if the creche is impermissible, “In God We Trust,” Thanksgiving Day, and the opening declaration of each session of his Court (“God save the United States and this Honorable Court”) should not also be prohibited. Because, he is forced to argue, they are (today at least) religiously meaningless. Their meaninglessness makes them permissible. The practices of “ceremonial deism” are “protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” Civil religion is permitted only because it has degenerated into “ceremonial deism.”

Has it? Justice Brennan is consoled by the thought that the civil religion is meaningless. Many who care about religion are disturbed by it. For them it is an indictment (and an argument for sectarianism): its God is really no God; when denominational differences are homogenized to yield some kind of neutral Creator, there is little that remains. But American history contradicts that view. The pou’er of the idea of an American Providence is evident in the life and liturgy of the Founders, and, a century later, in Lincoln’s deeply religious sense of American destiny. In our day Martin Luther King profoundly grasped the power of the civil religion to move his contemporaries. It is the drivingforceof his great “I have a dream” speech: “. . . all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews anci Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” will sing “. . . thank God Almighty we’re free at last.” What God, if not the American God?

Furthermore, apart from history, there is logic. It is not true that as one widens concentric circles of belief, one necessarily abolishes any content. Take the phrase “Judeo-Christian.” Judaism and Christianity disagree over the divinity of Christ, not a trivial matter. Nevertheless, it is certainly not meaningless to speak of a Judeo- Christian tradition. What is agreed upon is important. The American civil religion, emanating from this Judeo-Christian core, enlarges the circle to capture other monotheistic, theistic, and even deistic notions, It has content, and power. (Most of the reaction to Reagan’s recent speech to the evangelicals focused on his invoking God, not His Son.) The Pledge of Allegiance’s “under God” may, as Justice Brennan suggests, be vestigial. What lies behind it is not.

There is one final benefit of the idea of the civil religion. It offers some direction through the minefield of church-state problems. It suggests that the creche, though a minor matter, lies just beyond the realm of the permissible. On school prayer, it suggests that a common (“civil religious”) invocation is perhaps permissible—better certainly than a hodgepodge of rotating sectarian prayers—but that a moment of silent devotion is preferred. The American civil religion is uniquely tolerant, noncoercive, and inclusive. It is meant to infuse American life with a sense of transcendence, not to impose a religious order on individuals. Schools are uniquely coercive institutions, because of the vulnerability of children to authority, and the compulsory nature of public education. If adults, say, members of Congress, wish to engage in communal public prayer, there can be no objection; but it would violate the spirit, and the history, of the civil religion to impose a form of worship on the least autonomous members of the community.

Useful as it is, the existence of the American civil religion forces us to face the fact that we do have a kind of established religion in this country—and that for two centuries it has supported, and elevated, the nation. Now it is jeopardized by ignorant armies of secularists and the sectarians who wish to abolish it. Perhaps they fight it so bitterly because it offers a way out of their holy war.