Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 239-267
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Civil Religion Redux
University of South Florida
The events of September 11, 2001 have led to a public display of unity unseen for nearly four decades in fractious, pluralistic America. The response could be dismissed as simple reactive patriotism at a moment of crisis, and given the nebulous and attenuated nature of any likely "war on terrorism," one might guess that the fervor will be difficult to sustain at the level apparent at this moment. But American patriotism has always been a more complex matter than the stereotype of unthinking, jingoistic flag-waving might suggest. According to the political historian Richard Reeves, writing in the New York Times on October 1, 2001, "We are a self-created nation driven to defend our own masterwork. Being an American is not a matter of geography or bloodlines. America is a matter of ideas, the rejection of an Old World standards we thought corrupt." He cites De Tocqueville, who wrote that Americans "have been repeatedly and constantly told that they are the only religious, enlightened, and free people," and as a result, they "have an immensely high opinion of themselves." This attitude has been contextualized by a variety of social scientists within the concept of an enduring American "civil religion."
It might be argued that American civil religion became something of a joke in the era of political cynicism associated with Vietnam and Watergate (although [End Page 239] it was revived very briefly during the Bicentennial). (See Jorstad 1990 for a more complete analysis of the transformation of the traditional American pieties into what he calls the "awakening to peace and justice" issues in the 1970s.) It certainly has not been a conspicuous element in the national consciousness during the subsequent decades of increasingly bitter interest-group politics. Social scientists, heir to the positivist traditions of Comte and Marx, accepted as a given the trend of modern societies toward "secularization," and hence have grown increasingly impatient with the notion that religion—even a "civil" one—has any place in a modern polity (Wilson 1998). Nevertheless, troubled people in a secular society may seek meaning and solace in a civil religion in response to the same motives, emotions, and associations that lead people in traditional societies to the standard sacred religions. The historian Joanne Freeman (2001: B6) has noted that "in a way no one ever wanted or imagined, the events of this month [September 2001] have taken us back to the mindset of an earlier time, when the American nation was newly formed." It was a time when "only a deep and abiding loyalty to the nation's founding principles of governance prevented the early Republic from dissolving into civil war." Another historian, Richard Slotkin, reminds us that a society experiencing trauma may come to believe that a certain shocking event upsets its fundamental ideas about what can and should happen. Such a challenge to the authority of its basic values leads people to "look to their myths for precedents, employing past experience—embodied in their myths—as a way of getting a handle on crisis" (2001: B11). This process, regardless of the form it might take in secularized societies, is a fundamental process of any religious system in any culture.
Culture is, after all, more than simple behavior (e.g., patriotic flag-waving). Behavior always flows from a complex of attitudes, beliefs, and values that derive from a common historical tradition. The concept of a civil religion allows us to interpret current behavior—which may appear superficially to be transitory and shallow—in light of historical tradition and values that have historically held meaning in American culture. At the same time, the concept allows for the analysis of particular values and behaviors in the larger context of cross-culturally salient categories of ideology, ritual, and myth-making. For anthropologists trying to get a grip on a huge and somewhat amorphous entity like "American culture," the concept of civil religion may be a reasonable point of entrée, particularly at a moment in history when the residual commonalities of the...