What Is an American?
Civil Religion, Cultural Diversity, And American Civilization
By Leroy S. Rouner

(From The Key Reporter / The American Scholar )

A week before he died in the first battle of Bull Run, Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the Union Army wrote to his wife this letter, made famous by Ken Burns's Civil War TV series:

. . . I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how the triumph of American civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution; and I am willing, perfectly willing, to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break; and yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly, with all those chains, to the battlefield.

What was it about "the triumph of American civilization" that made it worthy of Sullivan Ballou's passionate commitment and untroubled sacrifice? How do we explain the extraordinary depth of this "love of country" that comes over him "like a strong wind" carrying him away, even from his beloved Sarah? Where did he get his intense personal identification with the politics of the American adventure?

We forget that "love of country" is not usually a mark of citizenship in world politics. Sullivan Ballou's letter is a seamless, simultaneous celebration of politics and personal passion. Religion is not mentioned, much less Christian values. But were there some vague and visceral forms of "a Christian nation's" values that had somehow slipped free of religious institutions and insinuated themselves into Sullivan Ballou's sense of what it meant to be an American?

I believe that American civil religion has made possible the multicultural ideology of freedom that gave Americans their identity and is a major contribution to contemporary world politics. To make this argument viable, let us explore the meaning of religion, reflect on the role of religion in the state, and show the distinctive role that American civil religion has played in American politics.

Religion is among the most inadequate category designations in our current cultural lexicon, and scholars regularly make unsuccessful attempts to throw it out. The discussion of religion by America's founders illustrates our problem. Sometimes they simply meant Protestant Christianity; sometimes they seemed to mean a vague natural religion, supposedly common to all religious people. But the founders had no experience with and no anticipation of the radical religious pluralism that we mean today when we say "all religions."

Nevertheless, this idea of a natural religion of all religious institutions provides a bridge for us between the institutional religions, whether traditional or modern, and the "civil religion" that all Americans share whether they are formally religious or not. American civil religion is so general and vague that it almost isn't anything at all. So no one even noticed it as a distinct entity until Robert Bellah, the sociologist, pointed it out. This was partly because, unlike the other religions in America, it is nonexclusive. In Beyond Belief 1 Bellah argues that the themes of American civil religion are derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition. But there is no absolute conflict between being a Buddhist, for example, and identifying oneself as an American, one who believes in the purposes and values of what we unabashedly celebrate as the American Dream.

American civil religion is not what we believe in our heart of hearts about the destiny of our immortal souls. It is, rather, the beliefs we share with our fellow citizens about our national purpose and about the destiny of our national enterprise. Vague and visceral it may be, but there is an American creed, and to be an American is to believe the creed. America is, in this sense, a religious venture.

Some years ago Carl Friedrich, professor of government at Harvard, spoke of the United States and the Soviet Union as nations that

rest upon a convictional rather than a cultural basis. The conviction is expressed in a more or less explicit creed which, in the Soviet Union takes the form of a carefully elaborated ideology. Characteristically, it is possible to become an American or a Soviet citizen because it is quite within the capacity of any human being to become converted to the particular creed and by adopting it, to become a full fledged member of that community. 2

The religious language of "conversion" is significant. Friedrich contrasted this phenomenon with nations "held together, each of them, by a common culture and tradition re-enforced by religious ties. . . ." Here he meant a single, common religious tradition. In the case of creedal nations, the creed includes various cultures and religions.

Today the Soviet Union has collapsed, partly because its too-explicit ideology was never grounded in an authentic "civil religion." The United States continues to flourish, but a new wave of Asian immigration with non-Judeo-Christian religious cultures, and the current intellectual debate over multiculturalism, reminds us again how vulnerable any democracy is to what Lal Bahadur Shastri in India called the "fissiparous tendencies" of ethnic and religious sects.

We have forgotten that any culturally diverse democratic society is a marvel. By every law of politics and social physics it ought to fall apart. So the question isn't, "Why did the Soviet Union fall apart?" The real question is, "Why doesn't America?"

So far at least, we have had a workable civil religion providing a "binding ingredient" for American cultural diversity. American civil religion is that transcendent loyalty to the values and purposes of American civilization that makes a community out of an individualistic and culturally diverse people.

American civil religion differs from America's common religion. Until recently, America was a Protestant Christian nation, and Protestant Christianity, while always separate from the state, was the dominant religious institution in the state. American civil religion is not a religious institution. It does indeed have its high holy days--Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and presidential inaugurals--and it has its creed. But as we shall see, this creedal content transcends other religious institutions, as well as the state itself. It is a noninstitutional celebration of the point and purpose of the American adventure, and thus the definition of what it means to be an American. And because multiculturalism has been part of what America means, the American vision went beyond America to the global community itself. 

Religion and the State

The classic document on the role of religion in the state is still Book Ten of Plato's Laws. Here is how Charles Griswold has summarized Plato's argument:

In Book Ten of the Laws, Plato's Athenian Stranger sets out the outlines of an argument of the sort that effectively dominated thinking for several millennia about the political role of religion. A polis that is to be free from faction and free for the right development of character requires a shared understanding of the human good and of the virtues of soul that are its components; religion provides that understanding in a way that connects up the human good with the nature of the whole; as the function of government is to support civic peace and a flourishing citizenry, it must support the means thereto, namely, a civic religion; and effective support, in turn, requires state-enforced prohibitions against publicly expressed disavowals or corruptions of that dogma. 3

The "civic religion" of the Athenian Stranger differs from American "civil religion" in a crucial respect. In Athens they wanted strict state control and explicit dogma. In America they wanted no control (the separation of church and state), and the dogma--freedom--is nonexplicit and vague. The basic notions of American civil religion--"sacrifice" "loyalty," "brotherhood" and "sisterhood," "freedom," "the American Dream"--are not clear and distinct ideas; they are all vague and cloudy.

So, for our purposes, we can bypass the Enlightenment and Liberal arguments about "civic religion" because Rousseau, Locke, Adam Smith, and their ilk were essentially opposing the Athenian Stranger's "State Religion." The major voices in the American discussion also rejected "state religion," but they shared the Athenian Stranger's conviction that the state needs religion to create those moral values that, in turn, provide the political morality without which the state is helpless.

But our nation's founders were largely persuaded that religion could provide a national morality for the state only if it was free from political control. No one was more articulate on this point than James Madison, who formulated the doctrine of the separation of church and state in the Bill of Rights. Earlier, in a petition to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1785, he spelled out 15 specific objections to Patrick Henry's "Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion."

Madison argued that religion can serve the state only if the state does not control it, and that the individual's religious freedom is a natural right. He went on to argue that establishment of religion would violate the liberties of citizens; unbalance the equality among them; make civil magistrates judges of religious truth, which they are not competent to judge; corrupt the churches themselves; and jeopardize the multiculturalism that is fundamental to the American adventure. His paragraph 9 objects,

. . . because the proposed establishment is a departure from that generous policy, which, offering an asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion, promised a lustre to our country, and an accession to the number of its citizens. What a melancholy mark is the Bill of sudden degeneracy? Instead of holding forth an asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution. 4

Madison argued that "the bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity," but he also argued a point Adam Smith had made a few years earlier in The Wealth of Nations, that establishing one religion "will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forebearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced among its several sects." So not only is religion a resource for the state, but the sectarian nature of religious institutions is a threat to the state's stability.

The founders' happy view of religion as a creative resource was later challenged by Frederick Douglass in his 1852 "Fourth of July Oration." Christianity had provided theological justification for slavery, and Douglass asks:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy. 5

Yet Douglass concluded with a celebration of American civil religion: "I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery." He ends, "Drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions . . . ."

Douglass's critique was echoed a century later in a different context by Reinhold Niebuhr,6 who reflected Augustine's fears that religion and the state would corrupt each other if they were too closely identified. Niebuhr sees American Christianity as both contributing to the destructive idealism of the American dream and saving the dream from that same unrealistic idealism with sobering cautions about finitude, death, and sin. The original context of the book was the struggle with communism, and presupposed in his analysis is the idea of America as a Protestant Christian nation.

Today, the struggle with communism has been won, America's Protestant Christian identity has been lost, and the Vietnam War has sobered America's idealism. The political left is now widely out of love with America, and the political right celebrates America for all the reasons Niebuhr criticized. Still, his critique of American idealism is valuable for our attempt to understand the relationship between religion and politics in America, and the way in which religion informs that national morality, without which the state founders.

Niebuhr argues that the Calvinist and Jeffersonian Deist traditions in America share the same political philosophy. The American purpose was to make a new beginning in a world that was essentially corrupt. Hence the pretension of both traditions is the pretension of innocence.

For Niebuhr, our real virtue lies in those ventures where we are not trying to be virtuous, but only to make things work. "The unarticulated wisdom embodied in the actual experience of American life has created forms of justice considerably higher than our more articulate wisdom suggests." 7

The message is that any future "success in world politics necessitates a disavowal of the pretentious elements in our original dream, and a recognition of the values and virtues which enter into history in unpredictable ways and which defy the logic which either liberal or Marxist planners had conceived for it."8 But lest Niebuhr's thesis seem only negative and cautionary, his conclusions on "The American Future" make it clear that the unpretentious humility he espouses is prerequisite for a genuine community.

It is significant that most genuine community is established below and above the level of conscious moral idealism. Below that level we find the strong forces of nature and nature--history, sex and kinship, common language and geographically determined togetherness--operative. Above the level of idealism the most effective force of community is religious humility. This includes the charitable realization that the vanities of the other group or person, from which we suffer, are not different in kind, though possibly in degree, from similar vanities in our own life. It also includes a religious sense of the mystery and greatness of the other life, which we violate if we seek to comprehend it too simply from our standpoint. Such resources of community are of greater importance in our nation today than abstract constitutional schemes of which our idealists are so fond. 9

Well, so much for Sullivan Ballou's pretentious and touching devotion to "the triumph of American civilization." Yet who can fault Niebuhr? The moral self-aggrandizement of American imperialism has been unmistakable. Niebuhr quotes the 19th-century views of one Senator Beveridge of Indiana:

[God] has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force this world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race he has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. 10

But is it possible that the pretensions of America's moral idealism have also been creative, that beyond its moral grasp the American moral reach has, in fact, touched on what, to Niebuhr, are only the happy accidents of our practical experience? It was not, after all, the American mousetrap builders who won the Civil War, because the technology was roughly equivalent on both sides. The war was won by those like Sullivan Ballou who trusted the triumph of American civilization.

The greatest American civil theologian was Abraham Lincoln, who put slavery and the Civil War in their ultimate perspective in the course of his Second Inaugural:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

What we remember from this speech is the kindly conclusion: "With malice toward none, with charity for all." More important, I think, Sullivan Ballou's president had often articulated crucial commitments of "American civilization" to human freedom. Even more than that, Lincoln had elicited such loyalty to that cause that men like Sullivan Ballou were willing to give their lives to it. And perhaps most important, the Civil War gave Americans a sense of the meaningfulness and nobility of a sacrificial death for America's cause. In his address at Gettysburg, Lincoln confessed the hope "that these dead shall not have died in vain," and committed American civilization to this cause: "That government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth." The cause, the dream, the goals of American civilization are the things that, for Americans, transcend their ethnic, cultural, and linguistic ties to the "old country," and give them their identity as Americans.

The internal test for American civil religion today is whether it can survive without a common religion as its basis. Is it possible for a radical pluralism to be cohesive? The immigrants who are reinvigorating American life today are not from Christian Europe; they are largely from Vietnam, Korea, and China, and their religious backgrounds are Buddhist and Confucian, in which, for example, the idea of "rights" is regarded as asocial and divisive. Furthermore, various states such as California now challenge the assumption that English is the national language, and the educational debate on multiculturalism threatens to substitute disintegrating raw plurality for the loosely integrating civil religion of American pluralism.

The crisis in America's role in world politics is even more serious. What William Fulbright called "the arrogance of power" during the Vietnam War was the corruption of American civil religion's missionary spirit.

The future of what Ernest Hocking called The Coming World Civilization will depend on a common set of values among people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It can be vague, but it must be visceral enough so that we stop short at the water's edge of mutual self-destruction, in whatever form. The world's great religious traditions have enough in common that such a set of values is at least possible. This does not mean that American civil religion will spread, but that it is something of a model for those nations that have recognized their own internal diversity and fashioned a dream with goals and purposes beyond their own national self-interest.mosaicbullet.gif (844 bytes)

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1 New York: Harper and Row, 1970.
2 Quoted in Leroy S. Rouner, Philosophy, Religion, and the Coming World Civilization (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966), p. 334.
3 Griswold in Review of Metaphysics, Sept. 1990, pp. 160-61.
4 The Mind of the Founder, Marvin Meyers, ed. (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1981), p. 10.
5 Douglass, in What Country Have I? Herbert J. Storing, ed. (New York: St. Martin's, 1970), pp. 34-35.
6 Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Scribner, 1952).
7 Ibid., p. 105.
8 Ibid., p. 79.
9 Ibid., p. 139.
10 Quoted in ibid., p. 71.

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Leroy S. Rouner (PBK, alumnus member, Harvard University, 1970) is professor of philosophy, religion, and philosophical theology and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University. This article is adapted from one of the lectures he gave as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar in 1998-99, when he visited eight campuses. The author of numerous books, Rouner is also general editor of Boston University Studies in Philosophy and Religion.