There before or very eyes, for most of us on television or online, was the reappearance of American Civil Religion. It was there in the wake churned at the Trump Insurrection at the Capitol, the inauguration of President Biden, and the Second Trump Impeachment Trial. Over and over on mainstream media platforms and social media networks, there were the same cluster of words, a saturated affective charge. The key term was “sacred,” the name of “God” being a secondary buttress. The Trump Insurrection was a desecration, the inauguration of President Biden at the Capitol like a rededication, while the Second Impeachment Trial of Trump raised before the public a platform for the problem of evil, the trial of God, as it were. Thrown into powerful relief were the Big Lies and fissures that undermine for all to see the structural and political incoherence of American moral community.
What American Civil Religion? What is its object? What is its material basis?
A negative revelation, the attack on the Capitol that was the MAGA Insurrection, uncovered the object-affect character that defines American Civil Religion. The object of Civil Religion would be that material site that binds or is supposed to bind up the demos under what Peter Berger called a “sacred canopy.” For democrats and republicans, what the attack on the Capitol revealed was that the object of American Civil Religion is not belief as such in amorphous beings, not belief in God and divine providence, not belief in the myth of American chosenness tracked by Robert Bellah here in his essay “Civil Religion in America”(1967), and then in The Broken Covenant (1975). Against the republic and the institutions of free elections and the peaceful transfer of power, the apotheosis of MAGA at the Trump Insurrection was an anti-democratic lynch mob. It made a mockery of “American exceptionalism,” the old saw that Americans are a “special people.” America is a “great nation,” but Americans are not and never were in any consistent sense “a good people,” as per President Biden here at his inauguration speech.
I would recommend rejecting the view by Bellah and other communitarian thinkers who draw a firm, unflattering distinction between the allegedly flimsy edifice of formal liberal constitutionalism and the allegedly more robust forms of traditional Church religion. I would reject in particular the notion that the former requires the support of the latter as contrary to the basic evidence of the historical record. Rather than support it, “robust” religion tends to weigh down the loose and generic open form of ceremonial civil religion. Indeed, what Robert Wuthnow here called conservative Civil Religion in America is the religion that would found the United States upon Christian or so-called Judeo-Christian values. The guns, cross, and noose of a lawless, super-conservative American Christendom turns out to be the Uncivil Religion of White Nationalism.
An expression of material religion, the essence of American Civil Religion is the Capitol building itself, the sacred site of secular traditions, “temple of democracy.” The affective wave that ripped open the core of American Civil Religion was not the optimistic spirit of naïve, mythic folk-belief. It was instead the experience of raw fear before the mob-face of chaos and death brought to bear upon the U.S. Capitol. More than weak pro-forma lip service, American Civil Religion is palpable; not an idea, but perceived + affectively sensed. The aesthetic form of American Civil Religion is iconic; gripping, object related. The Capitol building, now transfigured into an animal presence under the sickening pressure of a negative event.
Representing the violence of established power, the ceremoniality of American Civil Religion is the in situ expression of deep identification by “the people” with the constitutional institutions of the republic. Sacred is not a simply a notional ascription, but the sense of place wrapped in forms of affect, the poetry that these things, laws, norms and institutions matter and that this site is precious, valued in its own right and for its own sake. What Durkheim called the “negative cult” of American Civil Religion is defined by threat and taboo. The “positive cult” is a coming together, restoration, relief, renewal, joy, tears; kitschy and sentimental; Christian is the recent extraordinary feel for catharsis in the face of violence and over the dead.
It is no wonder that “theodicy” is a theological loanword that appears in the sociology of religion going back to Weber. Because the problem of evil in religion was always more than trying to justify beliefs about the existence of a powerful and benevolent God. The problem of evil that is the chaos of collective suffering affects social and political structures in a two-fold manner. On the one hand, called into question is the value of sacred norms, institutions, texts. Called into question is the meaning, value, and very existence of the moral or political communities whose members inflict pain and misery onto other people. On the other hand, the problem of evil and the problem of catastrophic suffering are stigmatic; they call into question the value of the sacred institutions and texts and community that are unable to protect themselves and their members.
Without death there is no religion, but there is religion because there is death.
Setting aside all matters of belief and founding myths, the naïve embrace of a constitutional edifice like the Capitol was never simply naïve. The priests and scribes who commit knowingly and who tend to this form do so under the leaden clouds of death and suffering hanging over every form of religion. Bellah understood that American Civil Religion exemplified by Lincoln was determined by the experience the sedition, slavery, civil war. His own analysis was self-aware, pressured by the Vietnam War and the forever scourge of American racism. Watching even an ordinary inauguration, the invocation of death, the citation of Scripture, the traditional role of military servicemen at the inauguration ceremonial, the solemn trip of the inaugurated president and vice-president travelling across the Potomac to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier buried at Arlington National Cemetery, you can see how the solemnity of death in religion has always stamped American Civil Religion.
The face of death and the problem of evil in American Civil Religion were especially marked this year. Biden’s inauguration began the night before with the light-filled ceremony at the Reflecting Pool memorializing the 400,000 dead Americans killed in a single year by Covid. The ceremony was accompanied by the broken Jewish Hallelujah of Leonard Cohen joined on cue with the Christian Amazing Grace. In the morning, the new president went to church to attend mass. There was the celebration of Black resilience and the rebuke of White Supremacy, the inauguration of Vice President Harris, the choral forms of gospel, the performance poetry of Amanda Gorman, here with her own appeals to Scripture and faith, and the benediction by Rev. Silvester Beaman, pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Delaware; all of this after a year of racial reckoning with the violence of anti-Black racism, and after a powerful Black surge at the polls and the election of Senators Warnock and Ossof engineered by Stacey Abrams. There on television were the flags fluttering on the Mall in place of a human audience, and the invocation by President Biden of the teaching by Augustine that a people is “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” All the talk at this inauguration about core public values, hallowed ground, and sacred oaths meant something “more” this year of mass death. social death, and insurrection. Trump’s minions and enablers at the Second Impeachment Trial returned to wash their hands at the Capitol, a sacred space and crime scene.
In this country, the lasting public impression of January 2021 is of the physical site of the Capitol building itself and the extraordinary menace that pooled up there against it, and also the revelation. More basic than narrative and make-believe things like American exceptionalism, Civil Religion in the United States is the commitment first and foremost to the empty, virtual form of American democracy and American constitutional government. Political is the actual question. Who controls the power of that mighty and fearsome thing, the U.S. Capitol? Who animates that site and constitutional structure in their own image? American Civil Religion underscores the brute fact of the edifice, which is that in a representative democracy the shape of the demos matters.