Mile High Civil Religion


For connoisseurs of religion in American public life, last night’s stadium extravaganza offered a couple of tasty morsels. Let me begin with Rev. Joel Hunter’s benediction, which ended with the novelty of asking all attendees to pray in the name of whatever they pray in the name of. Or as he put it:

Now I interrupt this prayer for a closing instruction. I want to personalize this. I want this to be a participatory prayer. And so therefore, because we are in a country that is still welcoming all faiths, I would like all of us to close this prayer in the way your faith tradition would close your prayer.
So on the count of three, I want all of you to end this prayer, your prayer, the way you usually end prayer. You ready? One, two, three.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Let’s go change the world for good.

So like the good evangelical he is, Hunter got to pray in the name of Jesus without conveying the idea that everyone in the crowd was with the program. What the avowed agnostics and atheists in the crowd might have muttered under their breaths I don’t know, but perhaps they were happy not to have to be included in the kind of generic theistic enterprise that is the rule on such occasions. The loser was that very enterprise, which has, for the past 40 years, sailed under the name of the American Civil Religion. Of course, the god in that great civil religious slogan “In God We Trust” can also be what you will–the word serving as a place marker for anything from the Holy Name to Kali to the totem of my ancestors. But going awkwardly out of your way to have each of us do our own spiritual thing does detract from the sense of common cause that is civil religion’s raison d’etre.
Then there was Barack Obama’s adaptation of two passages from the New Testament in the peroration of his acceptance speech. What counts about the United States, he said, was not our wealth or military might or educational institutions:

Instead, it is that American spirit, that American promise, that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.

And he wrapped up with:

At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise, that American promise, and in the words of scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.

The first passage plays on 2 Corinthians 4:18 (“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal”); the second, on Hebrews 10:23 (“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful”).
These appropriations have caught some flak, including on the CT election blog, where Collin Hansen points out that the entire passage from Hebrews “explains something far more beautiful than the American promise”–namely, how Jesus’ sacrifice has enabled humanity to be cleansed of sin and draw near to God. But was Obama really substituting the American promise for the divine one? I don’t think so.
In the first passage, his claim is that the American promise, by pushing us forward and binding us together, makes us look at the “place around the bend,” the eternal. In the second, he urges Americans to keep that promise and to hold firmly to “the hope that we confess.” What is that hope? He doesn’t say. For some it may be life eternal through Christ Jesus. For others it may lie in some other unseen dimension of life, religious or secular. It is, in short, what each of us sees when we look around the bend. It is, in other words, the classic, ambiguously inclusive American Civil Religion, delicately and daringly expanded. In sum, there was Hunter, pushing in one direction, and Obama, pushing in the other.