The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin   Editorial
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Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin
March 1, 2002 Issue

U.S. civil religion

Nation's common religion has nothing to do with eternity, but with symbols and daily life

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

Does America have a common religion? And, if so, where is it leading us?

Whether Christian, Islamic, Jewish, or any other faith, Americans share a common belief network. Some have called it our civil religion.

"American civil religion is not what we believe in our heart of hearts about the destiny of our immortal souls," explains Leroy Rouner, who directs the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University. "It is, rather, the beliefs we share with our fellow citizens about our national purpose and 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 that creed."

American civil religion has been in place a long time, perhaps since the Founding Fathers. Rouner says James Madison, who used the Bill of Rights' to separate church from state did so realizing that, unhindered by law, formal religion would positively influence the civil venue.

Like other religions, our American civil religion has symbols -- Old Glory, the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty. It has holy days -- the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Veterans Day. It has invocations and prayers: "God Bless America" and "I pledge allegiance to the flag ... "

And these symbols and invocations have been used more frequently since Sept. 11.

Is civil religion good for America?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, in light of this renewed outpouring of religious expression, sought to explore American civil religion. At a Feb. 6 forum, a panel of legal and religious experts gathered to debate whether civil religion is good for America.

Derek Davis of Baylor University noted that each nation "is religious at bottom" and that this can be a good thing, since it gives us meaning and causes us to "reach for the transcendent."

Civil religion engages emotions. It summons up courage and devotion. It has led us to fight for great causes and pull together in tragedy. The panel agreed that American civil religion also turned us toward our own religions after 9/11 -- church attendance rose and prayer at public gatherings was embraced. The Budweiser Super Bowl ad with Clydesdales bowing to Ground Zero was a perfect example of civil religion in action.

Our civil religion can cause problems

But, the panel warned, civil religion can also lead to closed doors, elitism and condemnation of those who don't practice the civil religion.

Panelist Majit Singh, a Sikh of Indian descent, noted, "You had to have a flag after 9/11 or be viewed with suspicion."

Herein lies civil religion's danger: It can, as Davis warned, become "a justification for doing virtually anything because it's very powerful in its force and its affects and its appeal."

This should warn us as we contemplate the "axis of evil" Pres. George W. Bush highlighted in his recent State of the Union address.

We must deal with evil, but we must not become evil in doing so. It might help to keep before us the words of another president (now an American icon) who faced evil -- and led the United States to triumph over it:

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." Abraham Lincoln, second inaugural address, March 4, 1865, given amidst the Civil War.

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