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Celebating America’s civic religion


Maxine sent me this link to an article by a professor of religion, John Carlson, about America’s “civic religion,” which he defines as “a scholarly term for the common understanding of principles, ideals, narratives, symbols and events that describe the American experience of democracy in light of higher truths.” (Carlson adds, “If you don’t like the word ‘religion,’ think of it as a civic creed, a public ethos or even the set of American values that define our sense of ‘who we are as a people.’”)

I think we all rather admire the notion of “American values,” don’t you? Despite its numerous shortcomings (of which we’re all too aware), our country really is “a shining city upon a hill.” This vision of America as a light unto the nations fueled the efforts of the Founding Fathers, inspired Lincoln to save the union, and got us through the Depression, World War II, and subsequent horrors, including the deplorable era of trump.

Carlson’s argument is an optimistic one. Echoing President Biden’s Inaugural remarks concerning unity as guiding principle, he says civic religion helps to establish the guardrails of our republic and provides a framework within which citizens can disagree.” Carlson ends his essay on this inspiring note: “Leaning on civil religion’s language of a higher calling, justice and common purpose, Biden’s inaugural speech provided a moral framework within which diverse Americans can unite, reconcile and begin to redeem our troubled nation.”

Maxine loved this article, she told me, because she agrees that the need for unity, for all sides to come together, is the overarching theme for our time. So what do I think? Sorry, but it’s impossible for me to be optimistic. In order for “diverse Americans to unite,” Republicans are going to have to change many, if not most, of the ways they think and act. For example, they’re going to have to stop lying about who won the 2020 election, Biden or trump. They’re going to have to call out and sanction the chief liars: not only trump, but Cruz, McCarthy, Hawley and the rest of that corrupt crowd. They’re going to have to acknowledge that only the Federal government is big and strong enough to help millions of Americans who are suffering because of the pandemic. For that matter, they have to acknowledge that there is a pandemic, that wearing masks and social distancing can help control it, and that trump deliberately lied about COVID to the American people and is thus complicit in mass murder. Republicans are also going to have to ‘fess up that science is real, that global warming isn’t a hoax, that trickle-down economics is complete rightwing bullshit, that immigration is the backbone of our national fiber, that gay people are the moral equivalent of straight people in every respect, and that America is a secular nation.

Now, reading through this list, above, ask yourself if today’s Republicans are capable of acknowledging any of these things. The answer is no. As they’re already demonstrating in the Senate and House of Representatives, they’re unwilling to give President Biden 5 minutes of a honeymoon. They’re already attacking him for the audacity of having a national plan for COVID. And the attacks will only get worse.

The reason why is simple: the Republican base, a cabal of ill-tempered religious fanatics whom the Senators and Representatives are deathly afraid of. It is precisely this religious aspect of the Far Right that makes them so impossible to reason with. They’re convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that “God” is on their side. Their preachers have told them that “extremism in the defense of liberty is a virtue,” and they define “liberty,” of course, as elevating their brand of Christian theology above all other kinds of religion (including civic religion), and crowning it atop our federal government, creating a theocracy little different from that of Saudi Arabia.

So we have two opposing kinds of “religion” in this country: Carlson’s civic religion (which I think of as “blue” and “Democratic”), and the intolerant superstitions and irrational biases of Republican religion. Carlson’s civic religion might seek to embrace religious Republicans, but religious Republicans have no desire to cooperate with anyone they perceive as sinful, blasphemous and anti-God. In other words, with those of us who believe in civic religion. The result is stalemate. How can “diverse Americans unite” when one-third of those Americans do not wish to unite?

So I’m pessimistic. I’m glad that President Biden is calling for unity. It’s what he ran on; it got him elected, and he’s merely following through on his promise. But I can’t see it working. We’re dealing with very bad, very stubborn and very deranged people in these religious Republicans, and short of getting rid of them—which, desirable as it may be, is obviously impossible—we’re going to have to grapple with them for a long time. So it’s on to the 2022 election cycle, when we increase Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress (and in governorships). The only language these religious Republican insurrectionists understand is power, and power is what we’re going to show them.

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