Decorum dictates that we should not speak ill of the dead, and in what follows, I have no intention of doing so. But with the occasion of the death of Jerry Falwell on Tuesday, I cannot help but consider what his true significance will be. In a nutshell, I believe his life and legacy mark a transition in how religion is understood and employed within American public and political life, from its status as a civil to an uncivil institution, from its role as a unifying cultural force to its frequent employment now as a political wedge. In order to chronicle this transition, allow me a brief foray into history.
Back in 1967, the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah published what has become the classic statement about the role religion plays in American public and political life. The article is entitled "Civil Religion in America." It begins with the observation of how every president in U.S. history has made reference to God in his speeches, particularly during solemn occasions. It then asks the question of how we should interpret this fact of our history? Does it represent a betrayal of the separation of church and state? Is it a case of political pandering that conveys the "semblance of piety" or a "sentimental nod" to the "unenlightened"? Or might it just perhaps reveal something essential about our national character?
Bellah pursues the last of these explanations. In the course of his analysis, he draws on the anthropological tools of ritual studies to demonstrate how what appears as "only a ritual" with "only a ceremonial significance" is in fact "indicative of deep-seated values and commitments."
The values and commitments he has in mind can be boiled down to the following: First, the religious language employed by our elected officials suggests that, broadly conceived, it is the religious that legitimates our political system. That does not mean, as those on the religious right would have it, that the U.S. was or is a Christian nation. Rather, there are certain foundational beliefs that we as a people share in common that take on a religious quality. As expressed in the Declaration of Independence, we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. This means that in spite of the democratic principle of popular sovereignty, "we the people" are not absolutely sovereign, that there is a limit to our power, and that there are times when we may be judged wrong in spite of an overwhelming majority of popular opinion. It also means that we will have to answer for our actions, that there is a moral accountability to our politics.
In Bellah's mind, this first aspect of our civil religion provides our politics with a persistent revolutionary leverage --which means that whenever our government oversteps its bounds, the people have the right and the responsibility to resist. In this sense, it is our civil religion that saves us from all forms of totalitarianism by making "any form of political absolutism illegitimate." Second, our civil religion provides us with a transcendent goal --meaning that our politics must be about more than winning the next election or securing our hold on power. As an expression of our national character, our civil religion bespeaks our collective sense of purpose, even a divine sense of mission.
It is with this second meaning to civil religion that we as a nation have so often fallen into trouble, and it is on this point that Bellah has so often been misconstrued. For instance, one might read this as an expression of American exceptionalism --that is, that the U.S. has a "manifest destiny" or is a "city on a hill" or a light to all nations, as any number of preachers and politicians from John Winthrop to James Polk to Ronald Reagan have famously done. But for Bellah, the transcendent goal provided by our civil religion is no excuse for national self-idolization. On the contrary, Bellah is exactly in line with someone like Reinhold Niebuhr who cautioned against the elevation of any nation or ideology as an ultimate truth. For Niebuhr, and by extension for Bellah, all institutions, all nations, and all ideologies stand under the judgment of God. While we might strive for justice and liberty for all, we would be fools to think that we have ever realized this striving. The sad and ironic fact of history is that we always fall short of our promise. In this sense, our civil religion teaches us that America remains always a promise unfulfilled. Indeed, even civil religion itself suffers a similar fate whenever it precludes religious dissent or the healthy skepticism which is necessary to our democracy.
One further point from Bellah before turning back to Falwell: think of the meaning of this phrase "civil religion." The term civil has at least two connotations. First, the civil is that which pertains to us as citizens; it belongs to our civic life together. Second, being civil is characterized by benevolence and common courtesy; it adheres to the norms of social intercourse. The term religion is drawn from the semantic root that means "to bind back" or "to bond together." Putting these two terms together, then, we see how religion might function as a social and cultural thread weaving a fabric of diverse beliefs and identities into a whole--the one out of the many, e pluribus unum. In other words, there is much that we can and should agree about, and religious language, at least in the past, has been a useful tool for giving expression to that unity of conviction and commitment.
Of course, this notion of civil religion comes well before today's 51% rule that governs our present politics. Sometime after Falwell's sermon from 1964 called "Ministers and Marchers" when he condemned all forms of religious inspired political activism, he himself, along with the evangelical right that he came to represent, had what can only be described as a conversion. The result is not only the commonly referenced finding that the level of one's religiosity is the greatest single predictor of how one will vote in American politics, but more fundamentally, this new politics of religion now finds its strength by stressing our differences. This Manichean mindset not only plagues our domestic politics (who can forget Falwell's statement in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that it was the secularists, abortionists, homosexuals, and lo, even the ACLU who were somehow responsible for the devastation?), but also drives the present war on terror, which is seen by our president as a clear-cut case of good vs. evil.
As the Reverend Jim Wallis has written, this is not only a case of bad theology, but it is a dangerous religion (see Wallis' article from Sojourners. I would only add that it is also a remarkably uncivil one, and as such, is a fundamental betrayal of our best and most promising character as a nation.