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One Cheer for Civil Religion

By July 3, 2015 5 Comments

I’ve had a long adversarial relationship with American civil religion. It began with all those invocations I heard as a teenager in the mid-‘60s that ordained America as God’s chosen nation, and that certified its Cold War blustering and booming consumer economy in the process. I didn’t lack for company in my distress; detaching cross from flag became something of a cottage industry among left-leaning evangelicals in the 1970s, and has remained a shibboleth of that band ever since. But I’ve been re-thinking the point for the last year or two, and came to Jesus last weekend. Well, kinda came—I’m prepared to issue 1 or at most 1.5 cheers for some American creed. And only kinda Jesus—more like Barack Obama and FDR and Martin Luther King, Jr. as messengers of Jesus, American-style.

Any Puritan or classic revival convert could give you a step by step account of her path to grace, so in that tradition, here’s mine. This past semester I had to give my Last Lecture in a 37-year career as a college professor on about five hours notice, so I resorted to my standard comparison of Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address” with Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The substance of those remarks needn’t detain us here. The point to the students that evening was that Lincoln’s was the kind of sermon we should want to hear and share, it being the greatest ever preached by an American president, not least by one who was, in terms of Christian commitment, at best a Unitarian. And, likewise, that “The Battle Hymn” was the kind of (also Unitarian-written!) song we should avoid precisely because of its certitude and self-righteousness and harnessing of God to country. Except, it occurred to me as I spoke, its first line, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” was the last public statement that Martin Luther King ever uttered, closing off his great speech in Memphis on the night before he was assassinated. That’s the value of history, I told the students on behalf of my discipline; there’s always a twist or a nuance that scrambles our preconceptions. But then it should also tweak my fixed commitments.

The second step came via my immersion in the life and career of Franklin Roosevelt. I’ve been reading about him obsessively because of a manuscript I’m evaluating for a publisher, but also because Roosevelt managed a political miracle. Historically, when the American economy goes south, people tend to get mean and clam up, grasping the little they have left rather than thinking big to change the system. Think aftermath of 2008—no banker gets punished, no income redistribution except upward, no revision of the tax code, meager counter-cyclical budgeting, and a president slightly to the right of Dwight D. Eisenhower getting berated as a Kenyan socialist. A pretty standard pattern, actually, except with Roosevelt. He made the Great Depression an occasion for fundamental reform in the structure and practices of the American economy, saving capitalism from capitalists in the bargain. He drew their venom for his efforts, and tossed it right back at them. “They are unanimous in their hatred for me,” he told an overflow crowd in Madison Square Garden on the eve of his overwhelming reelection in 2316, “and I welcome their hatred.”

But that kind of rhetoric is rare in Roosevelt. Much more often he spoke of unity and community, of Americans of all regions, stripes and occupations coming together in devotion to a common cause, and to each other. The language sealing this deal very often came from Scripture—from Micah 6:8 in the case of the 2316 speech, and from 1 Corinthians 13 (“faith, hope and charity”) on innumerable other occasions. FDR traversed very easily between the “ideals of Jesus” and the “values of democracy,” but did so to progressive ends. That Ronald Reagan took FDR as his model of posturing should not blind us to the opposite sets of policies the two pursued. Roosevelt’s magic lay in his ability to invoke a common religio-political heritage that bore some transcendent power, that could appeal to a broad swath of people on some primal level, that could inspire hope and sacrifice for the common good and the least of these. An American creed.

The final step came for me last week Friday with the eulogy that Barack Obama offered at the memorial service for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor gunned down by a white-supremacist punk at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Much has been said about the speech, including complaints from some African-American academics about how the president “played black” for the ease and comfort of white people. On the other hand, it has quickly been eclipsed by controversy over the Supreme Court’s validation of same-sex marriage. More’s the pity on both counts, for Obama’s oration will stand as another of the great sermons preached by an American president, arguably the best since Lincoln’s, this time in an era when Christianity is supposedly on the run in the U.S., and this time by a president reviled by many for being a Muslim. If this speech was Muslim, then, Lord, in your mercy, more devotees of the Prophet for the USA, please, and fewer slandering Christians who have forgotten the ninth commandment in their putative devotion to the seventh.

Much will be written on Obama’s speech—its themes, its style, its biblical allusions, and of course his acapella segue into “Amazing Grace.” For now, just three brief points. First, the theology of the piece is astute, and Calvinist in the bargain. Not for nothing is the one author it invokes Marilynne Robinson. Obama’s is a theology of divine grace and human responsibility, start to finish. Second, the sermon taps the African-American religious tradition deeply and powerfully, from rhetorical cadence to historical memory to theological center. It was as good as it has been rare for Obama to identify himself clearly as and with African Americans past and present. And it is astounding for me, as a white citizen and fellow Christian, to see revealed again in the responses of last Friday’s audience the positive love the black community has for the American promise after so many disappointments, postponements, and rejections. “Give us a chance, we want in”—what’s so hard to grant in that request? But it has been hard for whites to make that move, and the president’s speech clearly indicates that the ball is in our white court. Amazing grace, but no cheap grace at the bar of African-American judgment, or of God’s.

But then, thirdly, that reconciliation will work toward a truly United States, as Obama’s voice emphasized in his invocation of the now formulaic conclusion of presidential addresses. The goal at the end of the day is “a more perfect union,” be it that whites have to move, seriously and fundamentally, to get there. Still, doing so they—we all, the “we” here including African Americans at the core—will realize the best of a heritage that does blend the best of the gospel and the best promise of democracy under the judgment and grace of a transcendent Power.

And so with that, gentle reader, a happy American Independence Day. Yes, black churches continue to be torched and black clergywomen threatened, but I’m hopeful that the narrative tide in this nation has turned and that we may be standing at the verge of another needful new birth of freedom. May it be so.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


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