Spring 2008, Vol. 11, No. 1

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:

Sally Gets Religion

God and Mammon on the Web

Off with their Head Scarves

Playing Godless

New books

Letter to the Editor



Civil Religious Revival
by R. Stephen Warner 

This article is an abbreviated version of a talk given at Trinity College March 25.

Sociologically speaking, the black church should no longer enjoy the public presence it once did in American society. Since the civil rights revolution, opportunities for advancement have opened up for African Americans that ought to have weakened the relative monopoly of the church as a channel for black ambitions, and with it the centrality of the church especially for the African-American elite. 

But that has not happened.

To be sure, it is no longer effectively mandatory for African Americans to be church members. But it is disproportionately those lower on the African-American socio-economic ladder who have left the church—the result of declining social control in central city areas of concentrated poverty. 

For the relatively more privileged, the church has undiminished salience. It is precisely those African Americans who by reason of education, occupation, and income are upper-middle-class who most intensely feel the sting of persistent discrimination. So the black church continues to flourish among the black elite—among people like Barack and Michelle Obama.

Because of the religious racial segregation that remains most persistent along the black/white color line, the black church continues to be characterized by racial, not social class homogeneity. Although professionals like the Obamas are prominent among the members of Chicago’s major black churches, they are not isolated from the issues that beset the lives of working- and lower-class African Americans.

If anything, the significance of the black church tradition is increasing beyond its former confines.  The black church in the United States is classically defined as the seven historically black-controlled denominations—three Methodist, three Baptist, and one Pentecostal. But now in Chicago, at least two of the city’s most important black churches are found in historically white controlled denominations.

Trinity United Church of Christ is the largest congregation in the UCC, the mainline Protestant denomination whose roots lie in New England congregationalism. St. Sabina, whose pastor, Fr. Michael Pfleger, is often called the best white Black Preacher in America, is Roman Catholic. The talk by Pfleger at Trinity in May that pushed Obama to leave the church was, to say nothing else, evidence of the close personal bond between Pfleger and Trinity’s recently retired pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

The affiliation of Trinity with the UCC has a complex history—as has St. Sabina’s relationship to Chicago’s Catholic archdiocese. But the connections have clearly been mutually beneficial to the congregations and the ecclesiastical entities to which they belong. Among other things, this suggests that white (and otherwise non-black) church leaders have an inkling that African Americans have some pretty good ways of doing church.

An argument can be made that the black church is increasingly a model for American religion. As I see it, the chief contribution of the black church tradition to American public life today is that it is not polarized along the lines of what church historian Martin Marty famously dubbed the “private” versus the “public” parties in American Protestantism.

In predominantly white mainline churches like my own, it is rare to hear anyone speak of the moment they were “saved.” In the white evangelical churches I go to with my students, it is rare to hear anyone speak of “the sins of society.” But in black churches, people confess their personal sins and demand that their society live up to its obligations.

“Out of necessity,” writes Obama in The Audacity of Hope, “the black church had to minister to the whole person. Out of necessity, the black church rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation.”

This integrated spiritual message can be confusing in a political discourse that tends to follow white Protestant norms.

In February, the Chicago Sun-Times found it worth a headline that Obama should tell a mostly African-American crowd that parents need to help their kids do better in school: “Obama to Blacks: Shape Up.” That’s something you will hear from black church pulpits every Sunday.  It’s in the ideologically polarized climate of white America that a black politician who argues that black families have responsibilities for the educational chances of their children is typed as a conservative.

In his March 18 speech on race in Philadelphia, Obama insisted not only that parents bear responsibility for their children’s welfare but also that society help them do that by providing jobs and good schools. In the view of the conservative syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg, that amounted to the “same old baggage” of reliance on “big government.” In the white world, calls for individual responsibility  or collective obligation tend to be mutually exclusive.

Some secularists hear otherworldly fatalism in God talk and calls for prayer, but in the black church tradition, people both expect miracles and know that God needs their help. A motto above the choir loft in the black Baptist church I researched a few years ago reads P.U.S.H. (Pray Until Something Happens), but another motto facing the congregation sits on the pulpit and reads “If It Is To Be It Is Up To Me.”

The black church works in this world but is convinced there is also a better world. As the sociologist Mary Pattillo has shown, this is a template for activism in the African-American community at large.

This helps explain why Obama, who deserves his reputation as one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Senate, can so readily speak the language of faith. Beginning 23 years ago with his work in Chicago as a community organizer, he made many friends and acquaintances among black church leaders, from whom he learned how important it is for a would-be African-American leader to have a church home. Coming just at the time when he was exploring his own racial identity, this invitation to a public profession seems to have met intensely personal needs as well.

Obama’s church credentials may or may not enhance his capacity to win “the church vote”—to bridge the red-state/blue-state divide by reducing the politically polarizing effect of publicly proclaimed religious identity. Of greater consequence is the  possibility that his brand of religiosity may provoke a revival of what the sociologist Robert Bellah four decades ago called the American civil religion.

Writing in the journal Daedalus, Bellah defined American civil religion as a covenantal relationship between the nation and God. It did not consist in national self-worship, although that was always a temptation. Rather, it centered on the idea that the nation imperfectly but progressively embodied ideals that were greater than itself—ideals enunciated especially in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths…”), the Constitution (“We the people of the United States…”), and the Gettysburg Address (“the great task remaining before us”). Ultimately these ideals were understood as the will of a transcendent and providential but otherwise ineffable God.

Although the religion that most of the founders bore in their skeptical minds was Protestantism, American civil religion is not Christianity. Its hallowed texts make no mention of Christ or Jesus. Its central savior/martyr figure is not Jesus Christ but Abraham Lincoln. Although theistic, it is not sectarian, resting on the many, very particular religious communities of American civil society.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 (which Bellah did not mention but might well have), Martin Luther King, Jr. cited an old Negro spiritual to thank “God Almighty.” He affirmed the faith and “soul force” of the people. He cited the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and quoted from the Hebrew prophets Amos and Isaiah (but not from the Gospels). And he defined the American family of “God’s children” as “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles [and] Protestants and Catholics.” American civil religion is inclusive.

In Bellah’s telling, American civil religion was typically invoked in inaugural addresses, notably by John F. Kennedy (in what was for Bellah the recent past), who also spoke of “Almighty God” as a witness to his promises to the nation. Bellah persuasively argued that this religion, far from being mere ceremonial window dressing, could and did manage to motivate citizens and public officials to act to bring society and the state more and more into conformity with the ideals of the founders—ideals that have over time come to be applied across racial and gender barriers in ways that were not initially intended by their authors but are now understood to be immanent in their words. 

Such was Bellah’s understanding of Lyndon Johnson’s motivation in presenting the Voting Rights Act to Congress in 1965: “God will not favor everything we do. It is rather our duty to divine his will. [Yet] I cannot help but believe that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.”

Ironically, it was in that very year that Lyndon Johnson also began the massive escalation of the war in Vietnam that did so much to erode and corrupt the faith in high American ideals that prevents American civil religion from being mere idolatry. So at the very time Bellah was codifying it in his seminal essay, it was entering a period of eclipse—an eclipse that has lasted until the present day.

How might an Obama presidency restore American civil religion and even elevate it beyond the flaws it still carried in the era of JFK? Consider the following:


• Obama did not grow up in any church. Raised primarily by his white mother and her parents, who themselves had Methodist and Baptist upbringings but had long left organized religion, he was not baptized as an infant, did not attend Sunday school, and declared himself a Christian only after he finished college. His memoir makes clear that he got the rudiments of his faith from his mother, who had the eclectic spiritual leanings of an anthropologist but the skepticism and value system of a secular humanist. With such a background, Obama doesn’t take for granted a Protestant Christian viewpoint.

• Obama’s extended family is anything but primordially Christian, not to mention white Christian.  His parents’ multiple marriages endowed him with blood relatives of every color in the human rainbow, and several religious professions, including none. His in-laws and normatively fictive kin make the family even more diverse.

• His paternal grandfather and his half brother, Roy, were converts to Islam, and his stepfather was at least nominally Muslim. Much has been made of the middle name (“Hussein”) that Obama shares with his grandfather, but his given name means “blessed” in Arabic and after going by “Barry” when he was in high school, he has chosen to be identified with that exotic name.  (“Barack” is cognate with the Hebrew “baruch,” which also means “blessed.”)

• Obama has not shaken off all of his mother’s religious skepticism, which is undoubtedly one reason he joined a congregation of the theologically liberal United Church of Christ rather than any of the far more prevalent Baptist churches in Chicago where he would be equally welcome. Unapologetic about being a Christian and dedicated to discovering God’s truth and doing His will, he writes nonetheless that the questions he’d long had “did not magically disappear” when he joined the church.

• As a black man, Obama cannot ignore the history by which America has so often failed to live up to its lofty ideals. Insisting that those ideals matter, he cannot but view the American experience through what he calls a “split screen,” seeing America both as we would like it to be and the grimmer reality that it has been.

• Obama is young. Born in the summer of 1961, he was barely in his mother’s womb when JFK delivered his inaugural address. As he said in his address on race, he came of age in a different society from those who grew up in the shadow of Jim Crow. He grew up in a different society from the baby boomers who were so scarred by the Vietnam War. 

• But Obama did grow up in a society profoundly shaped by the gender revolution. Although his first book tells the story of his struggle for identity in the face of an absent father, his writings are full of testimonies to the influence of women in his life—his mother, his maternal and paternal grandmothers, his sister, his wife, and his daughters. It is hard to imagine him speaking of himself in the hyper-masculine terms Kennedy used when he said that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.”

Here are the words Obama used to identify himself in his speech on race:

“I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations.  I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners—an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents.”

 The civil religious spirit that Obama is drawn to—the generosity with which he approaches his fellow humans, his love of his country, his conviction that his fellow Americans share common values and a common fate, his faith that the ideals they believe in have the power to draw them toward their better natures, the awesome God that he knows is worshiped in both blue and red states—is less likely than in the past to be put in service of national, racial, and religious group self-interest. 

He is also less likely to privilege matters of war and peace over matters of family and nurturance, as if the former are truly “public” and the latter merely “private.” Reflecting on the more than one billion dollars in American non-governmental relief aid that was sent to areas affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Obama suggests in The Audacity of Hope that “the world’s fate depends not just on the events of its battlefields; perhaps it depends just as much on the work we do in those quiet places that require a helping hand.”

The prophetic voice of American civil religion is memorably expressed in patriotic songs. The second stanza of “America the Beautiful,” written by Katherine Lee Bates in 1895, includes the lines:

            America! America!
            God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
            Confirm thy soul in self-control,
            Thy liberty in law.

The second stanza of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the so-called “Black National Anthem,” written by James Weldon Johnson at just about the same time, points to the need for national reformation in much tougher terms.

            Stony the road we trod,
            Bitter the chast’ning rod,
            Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
            Yet with a steady beat,
            Have not our weary feet
            Come to the place for which
our fathers sighed?
            We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
            We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered…

Yet this hymn, too, ends on a note of patriotic redemption:

            May we forever stand,
            True to our God,
            True to our native land.

Barack Obama may have had just this sort of critical civil religion in mind—this never-ending but always evolving tension between the was and the can-be—when, without disowning Jeremiah Wright, he precisely diagnosed his pastor’s theological error.

That error, in Obama’s view, lay not in Wright’s using his sermons to denounce racism in America. It was that he spoke as if American society were static, as if no progress had been made, as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own parishioners to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—were still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.

What Obama claims is that America has changed, and can continue to do so. That, he makes clear, is the genius of the nation. His use of the Rev. Wright’s phrase, “the audacity of hope,” is both an acknowledgment of the more generous side of Wright’s preaching and an emblem of his own civil religious, as well as his Christian, faith.

Hit Counter