Civil Religious Revival
This article is an abbreviated version of a talk given at
Trinity College March 25.
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.
that has not happened.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This integrated spiritual message can be confusing in a political discourse
that tends to follow white Protestant norms.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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
• 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
• 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
• 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
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.
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.”
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:
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
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
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered…
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
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.