Obama: Get (civil) religion

obama_mt_rushmoreHere's a term that you should get used to hearing once again, during the era of President Barack Obama -- "civil religion." You could, of course, make a case that the Bush White House Mach 2.0 featured a heavy dose of that brand of generic, lowest-common-denominator religion that is so popular with historians and scholars. It's the kind of vague faith that helps hold a complex culture together.

But there's the rub: Civil religion is the kind of term that is popular with historians and scholars, the kinds of people who don't think too highly of red-zone yahoos like George W. Bush, who major in prickly moral absolutes. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that they tend to admire people like Obama, who major in nuance and displays of academic dialogue.

But there is no question that the faith-based rites to raise up Obama pleased many people who normally do not cheer for a non-naked public square. Thus, civil religion is back. Here's the lede on a piece of analysis from Daniel Burke and Kevin Eckstrom at Religion News Service:

Seeking to revive a dispirited nation, President Obama on Tuesday (Jan. 20) told Americans to get religion -- civil religion.

"We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things," Obama said, quoting St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, in one of the few explicitly Christian references in his address.

Although at times Obama adopted the cadences of the black church that he called home for 20 years, he borrowed little of its content. Instead, Obama's inaugural address, like that of previous presidents, drew heavily on what scholars deem America's civil religion: the transcendent ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence and other foundational documents.

Those ideals are often assumed -- but not always said -- to be divinely inspired or granted.

With my church-state studies background, I had precisely the same reaction to the address. I thought that what Obama was doing was claiming that old-fashioned brand of civil religion that worked in the first half of the 20th Century, yet has faded in power on the left.

The question, of course, is whether this new old culturally liberal brand of civil religion will be a hit with the public.

Obama, of course, has something else on this side -- genuine talent as a speaker/preacher. He is able to serve as a bridge between the faith of the Civil Rights Movement and the public. That was the thesis of my column for Scripps Howard last week. The inauguration was the ultimate sign that the language and symbols of the civil rights prophets have been woven into the civil religion mainstream.

But what is the unique purpose of America's civil religion? Here's a chunk of my piece, quoting a young scholar who is trying to relate this old term to new content.

Presidential inaugurations are the "high feast days" of the vague, but powerful, faith that binds together a nation of many races and creeds. To no one's surprise, religion played a major role in the rites for Obama, said Darrin M. Hanson, a political scientist at Xavier University of Louisiana.

"Obama has a preacher's emotional style of speaking and he uses that to bring people together. It's a skill he will need in the days ahead," said Hanson, who will be analyzing the 2009 address as part of his research into the role that presidents play in America's civil religion.

In this speech, Hanson said, Obama wanted to deliver a few sobering, "prophetic" messages as well as offer "priestly" words to encourage the million-plus people on the National Mall and the millions more watching from coast to coast and worldwide. ...

When scholars describe "civil religion," they discuss words and rituals that try to accomplish four major goals, argued Hanson, in an essay entitled "The High Priest of American Civil Religion: Continuity and Change."

First, American "civil religion" attempts to promote unity while accepting religious pluralism. Second, this faith must remain separate from both the state and any specific religion, he said. However, if it ever favors a particular creed, it does so in defense of fundamental human rights. Finally, this "civil religion" provides unity by appealing to shared values and beliefs, acted out in common rites that are acceptable to most believers.

So, Godbeat specialists, open up a new file folder -- either analog or digital. Look up the email address and telephone number for Martin E. Marty. Get ready for the next oldline-mainline "civil religion" wave.

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