For the past year I have watched the unfolding of the election primaries and campaigns with both interest and dismay. I have noticed the hopes and aspirations of the American people and I’ve witnessed the collapse and vitriol as the campaign has degraded into racist, sexist, and religious slurs supplemented with a protectionist mentality. Perhaps most astonishing is that conservative Christian leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr., James Dobson, and Pat Robertson have endorsed a candidate that clearly demonstrates little moral character or interest in the concerns of evangelical Christians, has no political qualifications, and has deviated significantly from the GOP’s party platform. Of course, some could choose to vote for a party rather than the person running for presidential office; but the US is a representational government rather than a parliamentary one. This is not to suggest that the democratic candidate is not without integrity issues, but one has to wonder why the campaign has become so contentious. I am baffled. How can we make sense of this election?
Political theology is a form of theological analysis that engages the social sphere from a theological perspective. One of the issues that has become evident in the last fifty years or so is that Christianity is not the only religion in town. I’m not talking about the pluralization of religions in the United States under the forces of globalization—although America is a multi-religious nation. Rather, there is another quasi-religious dimension that sacralizes the democratic political system. That religion is what social theorists call civil religion. Robert N. Bellah says,
“…few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well institutionalized civil religion in America.”
Civil religion is made up of beliefs, values, symbols, rituals, and holy days that are made sacred, or take on a religious dimension, in order to provide a nation with an ultimate meaning system. Civil religion strives for the social integration and cohesion of a society by placing it within the context of transcendence. One can see this in the United States with terms such as “In God we trust” or “God bless America,” expressions that are not Christian per se, but reference an ubiquitous, universal transcendence.
American civil religion has developed its own mythology that is linked to its national history, starting with the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Rousseau first proposed the concept of civil religion in his social contract theory—though one could look as far back to the “cult of Caesar” in the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Rousseau’s theory was formative in the construction of democracy. Thomas Jefferson’s second inaugural speech specifically compared the founding of America to the founding of Israel. Europe was depicted as Egypt who had enslaved the Hebrews and the new world as the Promised Land that Americans must conquer. The mythologies of Manifest Destiny, the American Dream, and the American Way of Life provided justification for subjugating indigenous peoples and stripping the land of its resources so that the United States could be deemed a divinely ordained nation.
From its very beginning and in support of its new nation, America mixed Christian and civil religious themes.
Like Christianity and other religions in American, civil religion must create sacred symbols. Where Christianity holds Scripture as its sacred text, civil religion holds up the Constitution as its bible. One need only point to the difficulty in changing the Constitution or its Amendments to see that its takes on religious hue. Christianity has priests and ministers that oversee the rites and rituals of the churches; civil religion’s priests are the politicians of the various branches of government. The primary sacred symbol for Christians is the cross, while the primary sacred symbol for America’s civil religion is the flag. One can easily see how important the American flag is as a sacred symbol when a tumult of outrage is voiced upon witnessing its desecration. Christianity has holy days such as Christmas and Easter, while civil religion has Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Martin Luther King Jr., Day. Patriotism is the spirituality of America’s civil religion.
Just as Christianity and other religions have their saints, so too with civil religion. Exceptional presidents such as Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, etc., are celebrated for their contributions. Other types of saints include folk heroes such as Betty Ross or Daniel Boone, business tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller or Henry Ford, who support the rags-to-riches-mythology of the American Dream, or war heroes who pay the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country.
The electoral campaign is the cathedral of America’s civil religion and the voting booth its confessional. Support by the evangelical right has less to do with biblical Christianity than supporting civil religion. This can be seen in how these leaders conflate liberal theology with liberal democracy, as if they are analogous. Clinton and Trump’s changing positions on issues (especially in regard to cultural war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage) is an attempt to secure their position in the American religion (on either side). This is not say that both sides of the issues don’t draw on biblical support for their positions, but
drawing on Christian views is an attempt to give the beliefs and values of civil religion its divine right.
The presidential campaign is hotly contested, and often has been in the history of elections, but the parameters of this election have changed. What is being contested is not just an election, but the very beliefs, values, and symbols at the heart of America’s religion.