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American civil religion

Brick flagWhen hearing the word “religion,” often one of the world religions comes to mind, such as Hinduism, Christianity, or Buddhism. Or perhaps one thinks of a more generic belief in something supernatural. Either way, one could easily miss what has become known as “civil religion.” Sociologist Rhys H. Willams (Loyola University Chicago) argues that while in word many Americans profess Christianity, in deed they at least also practice American civil religion.

In effect, according to Williams, Americans follow a tribal religion., the religion of America. Williams believes that religion involves “blood and land.” “Blood” refers to the importance of physical sacrifice. For traditional religions, an example would be sacrificing to the gods. In American civil religion, Williams upholds the events of 9/11 as an example of people sacrificing themselves to save others.

“Blood” also refers to the ethnic bloodlines of a particular community. For most of the world religions, community plays a vital role in religious practice, and for Williams, American civil religion is no exception. Although ideally striving for tolerance, as a whole, America largely favors Anglo-Saxons. Despite electing a president of African descent, racism in America has hardly disappeared.

Secondly, Williams says that religion involves land. Land represents the physical space that people live in and defend. More religiously, land often has holy attributes that make it worth defending. Combined, blood and land provide a lens through which one can understand tribal religions in general and this includes American civil religion in particular.

Williams uses 9/11 as a prime example of how America has a civil religion. Regarding the issue of blood, 9/11 demanded that people sacrifice and be sacrificed. Both literally and mythologically, blood was shed on that day. Consequently, the physical land of the World Trade Center became holy and sacred. On the other side, blood also involves bloodlines – that is, race and ethnicity. Since the terrorists who attacked New York City were not Anglo-Saxon, the entire Muslim community became a ready target for backlash. Yet oddly enough, Williams notes, this did not happen. At least not immediately. Williams expresses surprise at the subdued nature of the initial response of average Americans. Yes, Williams acknowledges murders happened out of sheer prejudice against Muslims, but not as many as one would expect given the circumstances. Instead of the expected initial backlash with gradually increased tolerance over time, Williams sees an initial effort to tolerate Muslims that has slowly been unraveling ever since.

With the combination of blood (in both senses) and land, Williams finds the controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque” quite understandable from the perspective of American civil religion. The mosque would have occupied sacred land in America. Again, Americans strive for tolerance, but Muslims, seen as comprising a racial identity (which of course they don't), work against American civil religion’s preference for Anglo-Saxons, and furthermore Muslims themselves were involved in 9/11. In other words, blood and land alike played a role in turning an otherwise normal event (building an Islamic center) into a controversy.

Moving to current events, Williams concludes that President Obama continues to revive American civil religion rather than trying to squelch it. For Williams, Obama has moved American civil religion into a more universalist and prophetic direction that balances religion and politics. As Williams sees it, Obama has pushed American civil religion in a direction more inclusive than religious nationalism, and one that can provide a stronger basis for community than liberal secularism. For better or worse, unlike most other religions, American civil religion can shift at a moment’s notice.

For more see, “Civil Religion and the Cultural Politics of National Identity in Obama’s America” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

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