Everyone agrees: President Obama had a tough 2013. With his approval ratings falling, many Americans think it unlikely that the president will do much of significance for the remainder of his term. Second terms can be disheartening, especially when partisan gridlock blocks meaningful change.
But despite his inability to implement important policies this past year, President Obama has already accomplished something that future historians may well consider one of his greatest achievements. In his second term, President Obama is helping to reinvent American civil religion, the way we think about God and national purpose. Call it the Obama doctrine of American civil spirituality.
There is nothing new in reinventing civil religion. America’s public God has had many faces through history: the stern God of Puritan Calvinism; the revolutionary God of Deist Providence; the activist God of Protestant Benevolence; the sword-wielding God of the Civil War; the earnest God of Progress; the tolerant God of Judeo-Christian America. As a people, we have a great capacity to create God in our image, a deity that baptizes each new American generation with a sense of destiny, purpose, and meaning. Our presidents serve as high priests of America’s many gods. And if the past tells us anything, we can be certain that a new American god is being born as we move toward being a different, more religiously diverse nation.
President Obama is not creating a new national self-understanding from whole cloth. His presidency has coincided with one of the most dynamic, transformative periods of religious life in United States history, and he is responding to this era of profound change.
What happened to Judeo-Christian America?
For most of last century, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews almost entirely comprised the nation’s religious life and formed a social vision referred to as “Judeo-Christian America.” The images, ideals, and virtues from these three religions formed the basis of a soaring American political rhetoric of sacrifice and service. Presidents, like John F. Kennedy, and prophets, like Martin Luther King, Jr., drew inspiration from the biblical stories shared by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to make a better America.
While religion has often divided Americans, there have been historical moments when faith pulled citizens together. In 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah called this form of shared faith “American civil religion,” a communal language and set of public practices based on the “biblical archetypes” of “Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth,” with the goal “that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations.” In the middle of the twentieth century, American civil religion functioned in a largely unifying way, strengthening community and contributing to a cohesive political language.
And so is the demographic pattern that made this “Judeo-Christian” self-understanding possible. In the last fifteen years, the percentage of people identifying as Christian has dropped roughly 10 points, from 82% to 72% of the population (down from 95% in 1960). There has been an across-denominational decline in Christian adherence and churchgoing, accompanied by a rapid increase in religious disaffiliation and a rise in pluralism.
Although the United States is still a majority Christian nation, its historic Protestant center has collapsed, including an unanticipated decline in evangelical church membership among Anglo-Americans. The nation’s large Catholic minority is in spiritual disarray with 1 in 10 citizens claiming to be “former Catholics.” American Judaism is under significant stress, having gone from 4% of the population in 1950 to just under 2% last year, and is facing serious issues, especially related to intermarriage and childbirth rates. More than one third of young adults under 30 claim no religious identity; another third belong to new immigrant faiths (either ethnic Christian minority traditions or non-Western religions).
The biblical language that shaped twentieth-century political rhetoric and leadership no longer commands the attention or influence it once did, and the congregations where it was nurtured struggle for survival in a shifting religious landscape.
How civil religion became religious McCarthyism
In the late 1970s, conservative evangelical Protestants and Catholics appropriated this notion of a Judeo-Christian civil religion, especially in presidential politics. (Ironically, in the previous decades many fundamentalist preachers and Catholic bishops had explicitly rejected civil religion as not theological enough). White evangelical Protestants and white, middle-class, conservative Catholics forged a new political alliance nicknamed “the Religious Right.” This group voted solidly Republican, with a large part of their appeal based on “returning” America to its foundation of biblical faith. In effect, the new right made preserving and strengthening civil religion part of its political platform.
From 1976 to 2004, religion and politics functioned in a relatively predictable way: the white religious alliance of evangelicals and conservative Catholics voted solidly Republican; black Protestants, Jews, progressive Catholics, and minority religious voters were dependably Democratic; a shrinking demographic of mainline Protestant voters generally split between the two political parties. From Jimmy Carter onward, if Republicans won white evangelical and white Catholic voters, they won the presidency; if Democrats could swing 5-10% of the white Christian vote, they won the election.
Both political parties, therefore, designed language and strategies to woo the two groups of religious voters that seemed to matter most: evangelicals and Catholics. As an unintended result, America’s public religious discourse actually contracted to address the particular religious concerns of only these voters, functionally rendering everyone else’s faith politically invisible.
Civil religion, by definition, is intended to be a broadly inclusive understanding of faith and nation, as it was in the mid-twentieth century. As the Religious Right became more important, however, public discourse on faith and politics became increasingly theologically particular as political leaders attempted to sway evangelical and Catholic voters. An odd sort of religious McCarthyism set in, demanding specific religious commitment and rigorous biblical speech from politicians. Thus, presidential politics, and its attending civil discourse, became a matter of crafting rhetoric toward conservative evangelical Protestants.
Few politicians noticed, however, that evangelical and Catholic adherence in the United States was softening or that the number of unaffiliated Americans was rising.
Winning the pluralist vote
In the eight years following the 2004 election, the percentage of Americans rejecting organized religion rose from less than 15% of the population to more than 20%, including an increase in the number of atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secularists. By 2013, the unaffiliated formed the second largest religious group in the United States, coming in with a slightly smaller percentage than that of Roman Catholics. In both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama.
In the 2012 election, for example, 25% of all Obama voters identified as “unaffiliated,” while only 7% of Mitt Romney’s voters belonged to that category. At the same time, white evangelicals, along with white Catholics and white mainliners, continued to vote for Republicans, maintaining their thirty-year voting strategy. But the old coalition could not offset the power of the new unaffiliated voters where Obama and the Democrats dominated.
The election of 2004 may well have been the last successful campaign of the religious right. The election of 2008 may have been the first of a new group of American voters. Looking at election data from 2008 and 2012, it is hard to conclude anything but the fact that religiously unaffiliated Americans have been the key “religious” voting group in recent elections.
Obama’s voting coalition included religious voters. In 2012, 75% of his voters identified with some faith tradition: 8% were white evangelicals, 13% white mainline Protestants and an equal percentage of white Catholics; 10% were Hispanic Catholics; 16% black Protestants; 9% came from other Christian groups (for example, Mormons, Christian Science, Orthodox Christians); and 7% were Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or another religion. As a result, the faith coalition that voted for President Obama included both the non-religious and the religious, and was itself religiously pluralistic. The last two elections prove that it is possible to win the presidency with a religiously pluralistic coalition of voters.
Obama’s spiritual-but-not-religious politics
In 2008, presidential candidate Obama generally drew on the older form of civil religion, proving himself comfortable with biblical language, social justice evangelicalism, and the themes of Christian theology, with an occasional nod toward Islam or Buddhism. By 2012, however, President Obama’s tone had changed. His speeches included a far more embracing view of God, along with an appeal to a wider faith audience.
The transformation of Obama’s civil religious speech was most apparent in his second inaugural address in January 2013. In it, the president moved beyond specifically biblical images and language toward a broader set of spiritual themes to speak to for a diverse American future.
The address began with a powerful image: America is on a journey, a perpetual pilgrimage, never arriving at a settled place. At our best, we seek deeper justice, greater knowledge of ourselves, and elusive wisdom as we try to live in the world and remain faithful to our original principles. “Today we continue a never-ending journey,” President Obama stated, “to bridge the meaning of those words [of our founding texts] with the realities of our time.” We are political sojourners.
Journey is not only a biblical image. It is a central theme to many faiths: the Buddhist seeking enlightenment; a Native American on a vision quest; a Muslim embarked on the Hajj; a Jew hoping for “next year in Jerusalem” at Passover; a Catholic visiting a shrine; a Protestant tracing the footsteps of Martin Luther; a Wiccan making a way to Stonehenge; a humanist celebrating Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. We are a nation of spiritual migrants and immigrants, a restless sort of people, on innumerable sojourns paying homage to our saints and heroes, always searching out new meaning in the universe we inhabit.
Religious people—and non-religious ones as well—understand pilgrimage as the call to leave the familiar for an uncertain destination. Pilgrimage is a shared sacred practice, one that can frame American meaning whether you think of it as a reference to the Exodus, Jesus in the wilderness, Muhammad’s journey to Mecca, medieval travelers following the Camino, or novices at a Buddhist meditation center. A journey is an invitation toward a new understanding of who we are and who we might be.
In the second inaugural, President Obama proposed that the American journey is not aimless. Instead, it is a journey toward a deep realization of community, prosperity, mutual care, stewardship of the Earth, peacemaking, and human rights. These six ideals form an American creed, the fundamental aspects of the democratic project. Each one of these could be interpreted as Christian or Jewish (as they have traditionally been) or could be much more widely understood through other religious perspectives. The address ended with a call to action: Serve the poor, have hope in the future, renew your hearts. Make new the nation’s ancient covenant of justice and equality in this uncertain world. Create a new American future.
And, of course, President Obama referred to God. Mentioning God would seem to limit the possibility of a new civil religion—after all, the new American pluralism includes a large number of atheists, agnostics, secularists, and humanists. It has often been noted that President Obama invokes God far more often than many of his predecessors. But, listening carefully, it becomes obvious that the God of Obama’s public speech is not the God of previous presidents.
Gone is the God of biblical revelation, the generalized God-as-Father-in-Heaven, and the distant God of Providence. Rather, Obama’s public God is a personal spirit, the relational presence of inclusion, community, empathy, irony, justice, and service. The God of this new and emerging American civil religion is a God who is with humankind, a far more embracing rather than judgmental figure, who loves and acts in the world through the works of human beings. Most theists can recognize this God (or gods) in their own religious traditions; most non-theists can interpret this sort of God as a spirit of beauty or justice in humankind.
Thus, Obama opened the theological door of American civil religion toward atheists and humanists as well as those who hold to more conventional faiths. This God may or may not be the God one chooses to worship at church or pray to at home, but this is a God (or “not-God”) who can function in the public square to bind Americans together with a larger sense of meaning and purpose.
President Obama’s 2013 inaugural address modeled an innovative form of pluralistic post-religious civil discourse. The speech reaches away from traditional civil religion and toward civil spirituality—a less dogmatic, more open-ended form of inspirational public speech.
As a doctrine, civil spirituality is still in its infancy. But as American pluralism grows and deepens, it is very possible that this sense of communal spirituality will mature and bind us together as did the tradition of civil religion in the past. And like some of the great presidents who articulated older forms of public faith, President Obama will be remembered for pointing a way from within our religious diversity toward a fuller unity.