Distinguished sociologist Peter Berger defends what he regards as American civil religion, the first commandment of which is (he says)  “Thou shalt be tolerant!”  He takes as his text this story about an interfaith Thanksgiving service in suburban Westchester, New York. In the story, there’s mention of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and various brands of mainline Protestants.

But not Catholics (well, there is an ex-Catholic) or evangelical Protestants. Perhaps this was just an oversight on the part of the reporter. Or perhaps they don’t participate as fully in this form of civic religion.

The choice of closing “hymn” was also a little odd, although perhaps explained by the presence at the service of Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s daughter.  Consider these verses of “This Land is Your Land”:

I’ve roamed and rambled and I’ve followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me

The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me


Sounds a bit like a promised land, no?

The participants in the service—possible only in America, of course—may not have fully eschewed American exceptionalism, but one of them—a Methodist minister—explicitly rejected “religious exceptionalism”:

The message seemed obvious, that the more people of different religious backgrounds shared their experiences, the more they understood each other and transcended what Mr. Phillips called religious exceptionalism: the belief that there’s only one path to God and that one’s own religion has it.

Perhaps that’s why the Catholics and evangelicals weren’t there. No pastor of a congregation in which I’ve worshipped would have sat still for that remark. He wouldn’t have been uncivil, but he probably would have either gently objected or left the room. I can’t speak for my Catholic brethren on this point.

But this, Professor Berger tells us, is what American civil religion is all about:

From the high ground of theological sophistication every form of popular religion appears superficial. But that is in itself superficial. Popular piety often contains insights, however inarticulately expressed, which are more profound than the cerebral exercises of theologians. As to the American civil religion, it is built on a very profound insight indeed—the intrinsic worth of every human individual as an individual, regardless of any collective identifications, including the ones based on religion. This civil religion has, of course, its sacred texts (notably the Constitution), which are often understood in a fundamentalist manner. But more importantly, I think, this creed is lived by many people who don’t read any texts. One of the more impressive manifestations of this popular piety was the warm outreach to Muslim neighbors in the wake of 9/11, which, at least to date, has continued—as evidenced by the aforementioned event.

Oddly enough, he has just got done telling us that “every school of Buddhism” regards the self as an illusion. How can Buddhists subscribe to an American civil religion that affirms “the intrinsic worth of every human individual as an individual”?

Only in America, you might say, where the Buddhist is a former Catholic. Only in America, where the civil religion owes much to roots it is bent on ignoring, reinterpreting, or destroying.

I don’t mean to say that America is or was officially a Christian nation, only that its “popular culture” owed much to Christianity. I recognize that it’s possible to offer an account of human rights and human dignity grounded in reason or human nature (I have read and taught John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government more times than I can count and wrote a dissertation of Immanuel Kant). But even Locke and Kant couldn’t do without some appropriation and reinterpretation of Christian doctrines. And no one thought that “religion within the limits of reason alone” would be widely disseminated anytime soon.

But when you have Methodist ministers disdaining religious exceptionalism and distinguished sociologists of religion celebrating this, are we not diminishing the very source of our toleration, a toleration nurtured by distinctive theological teachings?  Is it enough to have what Berger says all religions have in common?

Every religion has a common perception of reality that sets it apart from a purely mundane worldview—namely, that there is a reality beyond the reality of everyday life, that this reality involves mystery , and that it evokes awe. I think that such awe is salutary in a social and even political way, quite beyond any particular religious practices or doctrines. It teaches tolerance, because, at the end of the day, we all stand before the mystery of the world.

I’m not sure this is enough. And even if it were, I wonder how long we can sustain mere awe before a mere mystery in an age where science has such intellectual and moral authority.

But that would be another post (at least).


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