The Rabbi Writes – American Civil Religion

Volume 31, No. 7 2, 1995

February is the month when both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were born. They were the two “gods“ of the American civil religion in which I grew up. Together with the American flag their portraits graced the walls of almost every classroom I used.

Fifty years ago there was a powerful American patriotic “religion“ which lay at the heart of public school education. Its gods were the Founding Fathers. Its Torah was the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Its vivid symbol was the American flag. Its ethics with the requirements of good citizenship. (We even received the grades and cooperation, reliability and self-control.) Its sacred songs with the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. Its clergy with thousands of WASP spinsters who had committed their lives to American public education and to Americanizing the children of European immigrants.

National pride, instead of God, lay at the heart of this “religion.” National history, rather than mythology, was the foundation of its holiday celebrations. While the Fourth of July was not a Day of prayer, it was a joyous holiday with your folks to memories of our sacred patriotic American saga. Everybody regardless of his or her personal theology or lack of theology, could participate in the pageantry and commitments of the civic cult.

The American civil religion was the reason why the separation of church and state worked in America. The removal of denominational religion from the heart of public education was not replaced by a spiritual and ethical vacuum. It was replaced by a full-blown and powerful secular patriotic “religion“ which provided the foundation for group solidarity, civic pride and ethical behavior. Without it the separation of traditional religion and government would not have worked. It was one of the great unrecognized achievements of the American political system.

This achievement rested on certain ideological and emotional foundations which gave it stability. There was the belief that there was an American nation, with a unique and powerful culture all its own. There was the conviction that the major cultural element was Anglosaxon and that the English language, which was inseparable from the foundations of America, was intimately tied to that cultural core. There was the understanding that immigrants would be stimulated into this American culture and when identified with the symbols of the patriotic religion. There was the understanding that while diversity was important for personal freedom there had to be a certain level of public conformity in order to ensure community solidarity and moral empathy. If everybody looks and acts like a stranger, it is difficult to develop a sense of community solidarity.

One of the reasons why the separation of church and state is collapsing in this country, why the Religious Right and Christian Coalition are seizing power, is that the American civil religion is vanishing. In its place is a moral vacuum in public education which cries out for replacement. Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed are more than happy to provide one.

Why is this “patriotic religion“ vanishing?

The Anglosaxons are no longer what they used to be. They are now a minority in the nation which they founded. They are no longer providing the major cultural drive in America. They now live amid millions of people who have no connection to Anglosaxon culture and no desire to participate in it. We Americans are all part of a multi-cultural and multi-racial pot pourri which lacks a core cultural commitment in which glorifies diversity over solidarity. Patriotism was struck a powerful blow by the Vietnam War. But it was mainly undone by the emergence of ethnic politics and raise conflict. Values were no longer American. They now became African, Latin or European. In fact, there were no universal shared American values beyond the general agreement not to impose our personal or a group of values on everyone else. In liberal circles it became fashionable to regard values as subjective matters of personal choice and his attributes of ethnic loyalty rather than civic virtue or good citizenship. No one had the right to tell anybody else what to think, feel or value. Every individual was autonomous. And every group with autonomous. There was nothing left for the community as a whole to teach about right or wrong. The public school could provide information. It could help students clarify their personal and ethnic values. But it could no longer indoctrinate. It could no longer be the instrument of the American civil religion as the transmitter of the ideal vision of the American citizen.

The appropriate educational expression of a society committed to multi-cultural loyalty is a multic-cultural school system in which parents and children can choose the culture they wish to identify with. The role of the state is to support and subsidize this choice. It is not to provide a vision, all its own, of ideal behavior.The government becomes like the commander of an army post with many different regiments, each with its own agenda. If what we want is a multi-cultural and multi-lingual America, in the public schools will become an irrelevant issue because there will be no public schools.

I regret the feeding of the “American civil religion.” I regarded it as the major bulwark of the separation of conventional religion from government institutions. I regarded it as the major cultural glue of diverse people and strangers struggling to stick together. Although I often resent the naïve glorification of Washington and Lincoln, I’m up much prefer it to the propaganda of segregationist multi-culturalism which has replaced it. The year “melting pot“ idea is now in disrepute. But, at least, it had a workable vision for a united America.