in this issue
No Bad Sects in France
The Stem Cell Conundrum
Gain, No Pain
On the Beat: Covering Religion in Hard Times
Letter to the Editor and Reply
From the Editor:
The Civil Religion Goes to War
by Mark Silk
On September 14, President Bush went to Washington’s National
Cathedral, that monument to Episcopalian establishmentarianism, to offer
remarks at a prayer service for the victims of the September 11 attacks.
He spoke of grief for the people who died, of the heroes who had given
their lives to rescue others, of the prayers and candlelight vigils and
displays of American flags that were taking place around the country. He
asked God to watch over America and to grant its citizens patience and
resolve and comfort and consolation. And, towards the end, he declared that
Americans now had the responsibility "to answer these attacks and rid
the world of evil."
This did not sit well with Robert Bellah, emeritus professor of sociology
at the University of California at Berkeley. "It was a stunningly
inappropriate talk by Bush, basically because it was a war talk,"
Bellah told Bill Broadway of the Washington Post. "What was it
That is a curious comment coming from the scholar whose 1967 essay,
"Civil Religion in America" provoked an academic cottage industry
on religion and national identity. If civil religion is about anything, it’s
about war and those who die in it.
When Lincoln went to the Gettysburg battlefield to dedicate a cemetery
for the fallen he delivered a war talk, calling on the living to "take
increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure
of devotion" and to resolve "that these dead shall not have died
in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of
It may have been that Bellah objected not to what Bush said but to his
saying it in a church rather than on a battlefield or the steps of the
Capitol—but I don’t think so. Whatever unhappiness we may feel about
conducting Caesar’s business in God’s house, the problem here had to do
with how the civil religious rhetoric was laid on. A presidential call for
Americans to rid the world of evil has an element of spiritual presumption
that would not have sat well wherever it was issued. Nor was it only to
Muslims that the administration’s original name for the Afghanistan
campaign, Infinite Justice, gave offense.
In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln was circumspect in suggesting
that God was committed to the Union’s cause: "Fondly do we hope—fervently
do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if
God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s
two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until
every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with
the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said,
‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’"
In his September 20 speech to a joint session of Congress, George W. Bush
managed language that, if it was not Lincolnesque, at least took some care
in identifying where God stood: "The course of this conflict is not
known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear,
justice and cruelty, have always been at war. And we know that God is not
neutral between them." The speech was received well.
When a new chapter opens in the story of religion in American public
life, it takes some adjustment of word and deed. After World War II, the
"Judeo-Christian tradition" came into general use to define a
common American religious faith against the godless Communist enemy. But
because we understand today that America is not just Protestants, Catholics,
and Jews, we have now mounted an ecumenical enterprise that includes the
others—most especially the Muslims. The hundreds of post-September 11
memorial services that took place across America were, among other things,
displays of religious pluralism.
I would not presume to say that this amounts, as Robert Bellah wrote in
his famous essay, to "a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent
religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through
the experience of the American people." But the readiness of Americans,
from inside the Beltway to the hinterlands, to incorporate a diversity of
faiths into their public ceremonies has been impressive.
Whether such inclusive religiosity can persuasively be marshaled against
an enemy that thinks of itself as supremely godly is another question