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By Amarnath Amarasingam
Ever since sociologist Robert Bellah wrote “Civil Religion in America” in 1967, the concept has become one of the most widely debated in the sociology of religion. Many scholars suspected that American civil religion would decline in the face of individualism and secularism that they said was on the rise in the United States.
Anyone who watched Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally this past weekend would have to disagree.
The Fox News broadcaster, with sleeves rolled up, and equipped with the earpiece microphone of a megachurch pastor, squarely planted himself as the new high priest of American civil religion.
It is no surprise that thousands of people rallied at the National Mall to hear him speak, and it is no surprise that many had tears in their eyes. Beck was tapping into time-honored American themes heard many times before: Americans as a chosen people, hope, rebirth, freedom, founding fathers, charity, and faith.
According to Bellah, although there is a separation of church and state in the United States, the political realm is still tinged with a religious dimension based on peculiarly American beliefs, symbols, and rituals. The public expression of this religious dimension, often found in political discourse, is what he calls American civil religion.
Among its various tenets, American civil religion consists of a belief in God, a commitment to following God’s laws, and a faith that God is protecting and guiding the United States. The God of America’s civil religion is intimately involved in American history, and has a special concern for the country.
As Bellah has written, “Behind the civil religion at every point lie Biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all the nations.”
For Glenn Beck, the United States is no longer in accord with the will of God, and is failing to be the light to all nations. As he told his audience in the National Mall, “Today, America finds itself at a crossroads. Faith, hope, and charity – the principles our founding fathers used to build our nation are growing dim in the garish light of America today. We simply must remember who we were.”
Scholars often divide civil religious rhetoric into priestly and prophetic camps. Priestly rhetoric, as sociologist Wade Clark Roof has written, “blesses America as a chosen nation with a special mission to fulfill and legitimate its actions.” Prophetic rhetoric, on the other hand, places less emphasis on America as a chosen nation, and is more critical of its missteps.
Beck sees himself in this priestly role. He brings warning and good news. He brings reminder that America is a blessed nation, but also brings admonition that it has veered off course.
As he told onlookers, “I know that many in this country think that I’m a fear monger . . . I do talk about frightening things, but I don’t think the man who saw the iceberg as the Titanic was about to hit it and said, ‘It’s an iceberg’ was a fear monger. He was warning the people on the ship.”
Beck, as the priestly protector of American values, believes he is doing the same. America, under Obama, has turned its back on God, and is in danger of being abandoned by Him.
“Something beyond imagination is happening. Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God. For too long, this country has wandered in darkness,” he told his audience, “America is at a crossroads, and today we must decide: who are we? What is it we believe? We must advance or perish.”
Robert Bellah noted long ago that American civil religion was capable of holding the United States to a higher moral standard. He also warned that it has often been used “as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions.” In other words, civil religion could be a powerful tool to rally the masses and forge a new path, or it could drive the country into a narcissistic and idolatrous worship of itself. The choice must be made by America’s newly self-appointed high priest.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a doctoral candidate in the Laurier-Waterloo PhD in Religious Studies in Ontario, Canada, and is the editor of Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal. Follow him on Twitter.