God Bless America: Reflections on Civil Religion After September 11
Peter Berkowitz, Professor, George Mason University Law School
Derek Davis, Professor, J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University
Amber Khan, former Communications Director, the Interfaith Alliance
Richard John Neuhaus, Editor-in-Chief, FIRST THINGS
Clarence Newsome, Dean, Howard University School of Divinity
Manjit Singh, Executive Director, Sikh Mediawatch And Resource Task Force (SMART)
Melissa Rogers, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
E.J. DIONNE: Thank you all. Thank you all for waiting, and welcome to everyone. And a tribute to everyone who had airline problems. Derek Davis spent 12 hours in an airport so he could come here, so he has had a lot of time to consider what he is going to say to us today.
On a personal level, I am so pleased to have Father Neuhaus join us. He’s somebody I have been learning from for over 30 years, going back to his campaign for Congress, which many people don’t know about. You were a fine candidate. He came within 1,000 votes, as I recall. It was a close race. Every once in a while I disagree with him, but my affection and respect for him is enormous. And it’s so good to have you with us.
I want to thank the staff of the Pew Forum; Melissa will be moderating the event. Staci Simmons, Amy Sullivan, Heather Morton and Kirsten Hunter.
I just want to say a couple of things before I turn it over to Melissa. I thought it was very appropriate that Melissa chose the words “God Bless America” as the headline on the flyer announcing this event. The last time this song was so popular was in the weeks and months immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Like many societies, but it would appear even more so in our society, we turn to God and religious faith in times of trouble not only for comfort, but also in search of understanding and solidarity.
But I think it’s important that we do this thoughtfully, and perhaps even with a reticence that grows from reverence. A turn to civil religion can be noble because it calls society to higher standards, but forging too close a bond between religion and our own society’s immediate needs and political interests can also be dangerous, particularly for religious faith itself. Religion can lose its integrity if we turn it into something that we use only for the purposes of the moment. And that, I think, is one of the central themes that will be explored in our discussion today.
This issue is especially vexing in a conflict that involves an opponent who has at times explicitly justified horrific acts in the name of religious faith. We can, of course, see our opponent’s actions as involving a distorted view of faith, where religious justifications are found for the murder of innocents. Nevertheless, the religious dimension of this conflict only reinforces the need for care and discernment in our thinking about the role of faith in our public life at this moment, and we have very discerning people to discuss this today.
And so, I want to introduce Melissa Rogers, the executive director of the Pew Forum. She is a fine lawyer, a brilliant analyst, and a great human being.
MELISSA ROGERS: I appreciate that very generous introduction, and especially E.J.’s leadership in the Pew Forum. He brings to the project, as you can tell, so many great talents, and we’re very fortunate to have him as the co-chair of the Forum. We’re also grateful to have Kimon Sargeant with us of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew has been a visionary in the area of religion and public life, and we’re grateful for Pew’s leadership in this respect, and their support for our project.
Many of us associate the term “civil religion” with the work of Robert Bellah, a scholar who has written so many important books on the subject. Bellah calls civil religion in America an understanding of the American experience in light of ultimate or universal reality. He described an ongoing process where, through our history, we’ve attempted to interpret that history in the light of transcendent reality. In our country’s early history, this was most evident in documents like the Declaration of Independence, which refers in a very non-sectarian way to the creator, and the rights that the Creator has given us that are inalienable.
So it was in this context of crisis that we saw in our nation’s early days many references to this transcendent reality. It’s therefore not surprising that in a time of crisis once again, we see a revival of civil religion. The singing and saying of “God Bless America” has seemed a natural response for so many. Recently, in the National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was sung, which as many of you know involves imagery based on the Book of Revelation. There have also been renewed calls for posting the Ten Commandments in our public schools, and for posting signs, such as God Bless America, and In God We Trust, in these venues as well.
These seem to represent the aspect of civil religion that attempts to find expressions of faith that are not specific to one faith, but that are supportive of the nation and generic, if you will, to religion.
A related use of the term “civil religion” describes patriotism as a sort of religion. After 9-11, for example, the flag has once again been understood, at least in some sense, as a sacred object. The idea of civil religion may also encompass – as Peter Berkowitz put it in a conversation that we had – the civic expressions of religion, efforts by religious groups to contribute to the good of the country, another phenomenon that’s much in evidence since the horrific events of September 11th.
Part of these civic expressions were attempts to ward off violence and the harassment of minority faiths in our country, most particularly American Muslims and Sikhs in the wake of this tragedy. And, in the context of doing so, at times we’ve opened the door to a discussion that was needed, but perhaps not attended to earlier, and that discussion was between people of majority faith in America with members of the minority faiths.
Some of the questions we would like to raise today are: Are all of these expressions good for the nation, and good for religion itself? How do these expressions fit within the history of American civil religion? Are some or all of these expressions compatible with our nation’s growing pluralism, including many who are not religious? Are they consistent with the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion? And, finally, is it right to say, as President Eisenhower did, that “America makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is”?
We have an excellent panel here today to help us reason our way through these questions and others, and we look forward to hearing your questions and comments shortly.
I would like to introduce each of our speakers. First, Father Richard John Neuhaus will join us. We are very honored to have him with us today. He’s one of the foremost authorities on the role of religion in the contemporary world. He is president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, a non-partisan research and education institute in New York City. He is editor-in-chief of the Institute’s publication First Things. Among his best known books is The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. He has held presidential appointments in the administrations of Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush.
Next, Derek Davis will join us. Derek, as you have heard, has made quite a journey to be with us today, and we’re very grateful for that. He may doze off at points, but we’ll try to wake him up with jabs to his side. He, too, is the author of many scholarly and popular works, and he’s editor of the award-winning Journal of Church and State. Interestingly, he is also the former Baylor football captain, an all-conference receiver, and thus he’d be perfectly suited for a panel that we keep on envisioning, which is football as religion. And certainly, football is a religion in Texas. So we look forward to that.
DEREK DAVIS: It’s not “a” religion, it’s “the” religion.
MELISSA ROGERS: The religion, I stand corrected. Thank you, Derek.
Amber Khan has graciously joined us today. She is currently the principal of AK Consulting, and has served in the past as director of communications for the Interfaith Alliance. Before joining the Alliance, Amber worked with an extensive number of groups on very important church-state issues, and issues of interfaith relations and religious public political advocacy. One of these groups included the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Also with us today is Manjit Singh, who is co-founder and executive director of Sikh MediaWatch and Resource Task Force, a Sikh advocacy group. It’s known by its acronym SMART. SMART was founded in July 1996, and is dedicated to the fair and accurate portrayal of Sikh Americans and the Sikh religion in the American media and society. And, as you can imagine, Manjit has been quite busy in recent days, and we expect to benefit from his reflections on this critical period in our national life.
Finally, Peter Berkowitz joins us. Peter Berkowitz is presently a professor at George Mason University Law School. He formerly taught at Harvard University. He has written a number of award-winning books, and he is quite the public intellectual as well. Your packets include an article of his from the New Republic, and we’re very grateful that he could join us as well today.
So if I could ask each of our speakers to join us and to give us their reflections, and then we’ll open the floor for questions. Thank you so much for joining us today.
RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS: Thank you so much, Melissa Rogers. I understand we’re under time pressure here to be as brief as possible, and I’ll try to observe that.
Civil religion is a much controverted – and, I think, much confused – subject, beginning with confusion over the very term itself. It takes many, many different expressions. In the 36th Super Bowl, I’m sure you saw the Budweiser horses genuflect at Ground Zero. That’s one form of civil religion, certainly. But, of course, the term as Melissa indicates has a history. In many ways, the very shaping ideas of the interaction between religion and public life and the American political experiment is premised upon reaction to certain historical forms of civil religion. Obviously, in Christianity the Roman world, the pagan world had a powerful and explicit form of civil religion with the gods of the cities, and the emperor worship. And it was precisely Jewish and Christian religion, and Jewish religion through Christianity in world historical terms that challenged that as a form of idolatry, totally incompatible with worshiping the one true God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. So that is civil religion in the Roman world, for example, of a very serious nature indeed.
In the 18th Century, of course, we have Rousseau who spoke very explicitly about civil religion, and very persuasively in many ways about the discrediting from his viewpoint, and a viewpoint shared by many of the enlightenment philosophs, the discrediting of the possibility of premising social and political coherence, and moral purpose on Christianity because, in their view, that was no longer sustainable. And, therefore, there had to be a new kind of religion, recognizing that any nation, any society, any coherent sense of peoplehood requires something like “religare,” which is the route to religion which binds together and holds together an identity and a purpose and a direction. And so Rousseau came up with a different form of civil religion, which in the French Revolution, you’ll recall, in 1789, took very explicit and very literal form, coercively backed by the directorate of the revolution, to impose a new religion, a substitute revolutionary religion to displace what they viewed as the discredited Christianity.
Civil religion of a varying sort, I think, is a term that is applicable to national socialism in Germany in the 20th Century. It clearly had a very powerful, very explicit blood-and-soil notion of religiously binding obligation by which the new man and the new society was to be created for the 1,000-year Reich. Similarly, in a very virulent and powerful and obviously bloodily destructive way, Marxist-Leninism, quasi-religious in character, sometimes not just quasi, sometimes very explicit in terms of presenting the commanding truths by which people were to live, and for which they were to die, and in its Marxist form, of course. Also, Chairman Mao with the Little Red Book which was functionally the bible, the sacred scriptures, by which they knew what order would be established.
All of these are very serious ways in which the phrase “civil religion” has been used and has been applied. In the American experiment, as Melissa Rogers has pointed out, you have a kind of civil religion in the founding period. But it’s always worth remembering that that came out of the much more explicitly and theologically lucid period that is called Puritanism. That involved the grand sense of America as a redeemer nation, as a new Israel, as something that, as it says on the back of every dollar bill, Novus Ordo Seclorum, a new order for the ages, something new that God was doing under the sun, this America. All of that very powerfully articulated and popularly accepted through the pulpits of America was the utterly indispensable cultural, religio-cultural- moral milieu ambiance within which the American founding took place. And all of that reflected in, for example, the Declaration of Independence.
There have been in the American experiment, of course, also times in which people have said, well, what we need is a much more explicit and lucid statement of the civil religion, especially among those who, like the enlightenment philosophs thought Christianity could no longer supply and that Judeo-Christian moral tradition was no longer sustainable, and so you had, for example, John Dewey in 1934. It sounds strange to us now, but it was less than 70 years ago, who wrote A Common Faith, and very seriously along with some of the most prestigious, influential intellectuals in America proposed a new version of essentially Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of the civil religion except attuned to the American democratic experiment.
That brings us up to what Melissa also mentioned – of course, the most recent revival of the discussion of civil religion in this country was occasioned by Bob Bellah and his colleagues in 1968.
Now, what to make of all this? Let me say in summary form that I don’t think civil religion is religion. I think that when it is proposed as religion, at least in the American context, most Americans say, no thank you, we already have a religion, and we’re not in the market for a new one.
Civil religion, if it becomes a religion, inescapably is, as it was in the Roman Empire, and was protested by Christians even to the point of suffering martyrdom for their protest, idolatry. And that is always a very real danger, that the conflation of biblical religion and patriotism and the national sense of crisis and the need for a commanding set of truths that will congeal the allegiance of people in pursuit of a purpose that is attended by a high cost, there will always be a temptation to turn civil piety or the commanding truths of the public square into a sort of religion, and that, it seems to me, is something that we need to resist even while we recognize that American society, like any society, does have a need for commanding truths in public. But these should be, and in fact are in the American experiment with very, very few historic exceptions, commanding truths that cohere and provide purpose are derived from and dependent upon and very self-consciously normed by what in the United States is aptly called the Judeo-Christian moral tradition.
It’s very important at this point, I think, to say, that our past experience will likely be a very good guide for the future as well, since contrary to much of the rhetoric that we hear, the religio-cultural-political circumstance of the United States has not, by any sober evaluation, changed that dramatically, nor is it likely to. Close to 90 percent of the American people believe that they are Christian in some sense or another, about 2 percent believe they are Jewish, with a much smaller percent believing that’s primarily a religious identifier, and the totality of all other religions in the United States is probably no more than 2.1 percent, if you believe National Opinion Research Center of Chicago, or as high as 3 percent. In other words, America is as incorrigibly, confusedly and maddeningly Christian now as it was 50 years ago, and as it is likely to be, barring any transformative demographic change, in the next 50 years.
So we have a long history both in world historical terms, and in terms of the American experiment of thinking about civil religion. It is the most natural thing in the world that following September 11th that there emerges in the public arena the most deeply held convictions on the people who in this society continue to believe that they are in some sense the political sovereign.
And it is inevitable that when the society feels the greatest need for coherence and moral purpose that the articulation of the people’s concern and of their allegiance will take the form of the available religious symbols, myths, stories, et cetera, provided by what has been historically, is today, and will likely in the future be aptly described as the Judeo-Christian oral tradition.
DEREK DAVIS: Well, Father Neuhaus has already mentioned something about the civil- religious conventions of the Super Bowl. I do think that Super Bowl is becoming part of the American civil religion. After all, civil religion, at least in part, is all about finding what America is, or at least what America holds sacred. Increasingly, I think the Super Bowl and football are becoming part of how we define America. Of course, I had to remind Melissa that football is already the state religion in the State of Texas. She should have known that; she spent four years as a Baylor student. But increasingly, I think that football is perhaps almost becoming the national religion, as well.
I’ve never seen such a demonstration of civil religion as during the pre-game events of the Super Bowl. First there was an hour and a half of singing and recitations about the sacred dimension of America, singing God Bless America and all kinds of songs about freedom. You saw the entire Declaration of Independence read, which of course invokes the name of God four times. I think all this is not accidental. I think some of it is intentional. And certainly the events of September 11th had a lot to do with that, in terms of the recent invocation of a new emphasis on civil religion.
Civil religion goes back a long way, as Father Neuhaus was saying. It goes back, in terms of scholarly description of the phenomenon, at least as far back as Plato. But there have been philosophers through the ages who have opined about the various aspects of civil religion. You find that Cicero wrote a lot about this.
More recently, of course, Bob Neuhaus mentioned Rousseau in the 18th Century, who actually was the first one, as far as we know, to use the term “civil religion.” Prior to that it had usually been “civic religion” or something similar to that. Emile Durkheim is a well known figure, a French sociologist of roughly 100 years ago, whose basic thesis was, in his examination of these societies and political entities throughout history, that every nation essentially is religious at the bottom. Social existence and religion are virtually one and the same, they’re synonymous. So every country basically throughout history has had some form of civil religion. And it’s not always necessarily a bad thing.
I’m a Baptist, and sometimes I think some of my Baptist friends go too far in suggesting to us that civil religion is always idolatry. I don’t think it’s idolatry in most cases. As Durkheim has told us, and as Robert Bellah has elucidated quite eloquently, civil religion for the most part is all about meaning, it’s about societies of people reaching for the transcendent and trying to find a nexus, a linkage between the divine reality and the political order. It’s all about assigning a religious dimension to the political order, and putting sort of a religious face, if you will, on nationhood.
Of course, we’ve always had a civil religion here in the United States, we have certainly contributions from the Puritan tradition, we have also contributions from the Enlightenment tradition, which Father Neuhaus has already mentioned. I think our civil religion is very much a combination of both. It’s an outgrowth of a growing pluralism, in that sense it becomes very broad, very generic in its expression, the symbols, the rituals, the sacred meanings that surface in the American civil religion are things that are familiar to all of us.
In the national motto, “In God We Trust,” which we’ve had since 1954, we invoke the name of God. “One nation under God” is invoked in the Pledge of Allegiance, which we have done since 1953. All that happened, by the way, in the Eisenhower administration in the middle of the McCarthy era when our concern was with the spread of global communism. But there are other expressions. We have a national day of prayer. We have chaplains, paid chaplains in our Congress that give regular expression to religion. When the Supreme Court comes out, the crier yells, “God save America.”
Expressions like this are aspects of the American civil religion. Now, I should say that in the American context, it becomes difficult sometimes to go too far with our civil religion. I mean, the Supreme Court, for example, has tried to examine civil religion as a religion under the establishment clause, trying to determine whether or not this is a religion that government is prohibited from advancing, just as it’s prohibited from advancing other more traditional kinds of religion. If you go back and you read a 1992 case that dealt with school prayer in Providence, Rhode Island, I think it was the solicitor general who had made the argument before the Court that this prayer is nothing but an expression of civil religion, and you should sanction this. The Court, Justice Kennedy, writing the report, appropriately said, noted that well, this may be civil religion, but it’s religion nonetheless, and government is prohibited under the Constitution from advancing it. So it was a decision that I was essentially in favor of. But it certainly does not eliminate the reality of civil religion. It does not eliminate, I think, the need and the appropriateness of civil religion under some circumstances.
I do think that you can carry civil religion too far sometimes, and I will give you an example. The elder Mr. Bush in a January 1992 speech at the National Religious Broadcasters Association called for government aid to private schools and prayer in the public schools, and mingled his religious program with this statement. “In the Persian Gulf we fought for good versus evil,” – he sounds reminiscent of his offspring, the younger Mr. Bush – “It was that clear to me, and America stood fast so that liberty could stand tall. Today I want to thank you for helping, America, as Christ ordained, to be a light unto the world.”
Well, there are several interesting things about this. First of all, I have never read the Bible to suggest that America is the light unto the world. I thought it was Christ who was the light unto the world, and not the United States of America. The other thing about this is, this sort of language, this sort of rhetoric is very, very popular with most people, particularly in times of stress, such as the Persian Gulf War, such as the post-September 11th events. And the use of civil religious rhetoric is a way by which politicians can justify particular forms of political action. And certainly in this case former President Bush was justifying the Persian Gulf War by invoking the name of God, and sort of giving sanction to the war that we had prosecuted based on the divine approval.
Well, that’s a little dangerous, because it can border on idolatry, because it’s almost as if we’re saying that we know for certain that this was God’s will, God was our God, that God was on the side of good, he was not on the side of evil. But, this is sort of a claim to an exclusive God who honors us over other particular nations. So when you begin to sort of attach yourself to the transcendent in this way it almost becomes idolatry, in the sense that it’s a substitute for more traditional kinds of religion that are not nearly so generic as civil religion must be, by virtue of the fact that we are so pluralistic. So it can become a form of idolatry.
Let me just quote Mark Hatfield, who in this sense I think got it right. At a 1973 national prayer breakfast, he criticized civil religion as a small and very exclusive deity, a loyal spiritual advisor to American power and prestige, an exclusive defender of the American nation, and the object of a national folk religion that is devoid of moral content. With reference to the post-September 11th events, we’ve seen a lot of civil religion. As I said, civil religion kind of crops up in times of stress, but also in times of celebration. Certainly, after we have won wars in the past we’ve seen considerable expressions of civil religion. But since September 11th, obviously we have seen lots of civil religious expression. And a lot of this comes across in the form of putting a decal of the American flag on the back of your automobile, or in front of your home or something like that. It can be just patriotism, nationalism, both of which I think are expressions of loyalty and even adoration of our nation.
But when we begin to take this form of patriotism and draw into it the need for more prayer in the public schools, the need to post the Ten Commandments in the public schools, in courthouses, in city halls. There’s a movement afoot to post not just the Ten Commandments but the Declaration of Independence, which, of course, as I said, invokes the name of God four times. It’s interesting that there’s no movement afoot to post the Constitution, which does not mention God at all, but the Declaration of Independence. It seems to me that the more important of the two documents is the Constitution, because it is the framework for the laws and the policy in America, whereas the Declaration of Independence was really the expression to the world that we saw to break from the mother country. In any case, civil religion can be good, but it can also be a little dangerous at times.
AMBER KHAN: Thank you. I wanted to thank Melissa and the Pew Forum for creating the opportunity to have this discussion, which I believe is important. One of the challenges of being the third slated for introductory remarks is you find yourself crossing out many things that other speakers touched upon. So forgive me. I’m going to try and edit the introductory remarks, because many of the points I made actually have already been touched upon.
I’m going to focus on a couple of reflections on the notion of civil religion. I think that the debate about what civil religion is in an academic environment is challenging, interesting, and intriguing, but as someone who has spent a lot of time meeting with local communities, and activists, and individuals who are putting into practice, and frankly trying to fulfill what they believe civil religion to be, I find somewhat of an interesting disparity.
I’ve had the opportunity for the last seven years to work with community groups, faith communities, from a cross section of religious organizations and entities, to address various problems and issues, and attempt to find a shared religious language to address communities within their society. In a sense, that’s civil application, trying to find from the various religious traditions an approach and a formula for addressing societal problems, and those challenges.
And prior to September 11th, and here’s for me where I find some of the greatest insight in looking at where we are today, prior to September 11th there were what I’d call two very distinct camps, that interpreted and understood civil religion differently. In one camp we had religious organizations and individuals, lay leaders, clergy leaders, whether they be from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim communities, Sikh communities, who would decide collectively that they wanted to work on a particular problem or address a particular issue. And they would work together to struggle to find a generic language that would appropriately define their moral conviction for working on that particular issue, and then they would proceed to do so in a manner attempting to really try to respect the differences while affirming those values. But there were challenges.
Many individuals within those communities – and I can say even within the Muslim community – debated whether there was an inherent danger in participating in interfaith activities, whether by joining in into interfaith activities for larger civil purposes they were somehow denying or diluting the uniqueness of their message, their belief system. And many, pre-September 11th, were reticent, frankly, to taking a very, I think, proactive and visible role, very conscious of the debate that was going on in the community. That’s not to say that we didn’t see the Muslim-American community participating, we absolutely did. But the leadership wasn’t participating in the degree that they’re participating now. Oftentimes there were individuals within the community who had a vested interest for a variety of reasons of working on those issues collectively.
The other group that we would see, or that I would see, working on civil religious issues, attempting to address the issue of public institutions like public expressions of prayer in the public schools, expressions of faith in the workplace, or in municipal buildings during holiday seasons, what type of religious displays can we post. The other groups that we would see emerge were those who actually believed that civic religion in America was an expression based in very Christian themes, and that to deny that was to essentially deny the presence, the role, and the majority of Christians that are a part of our nation and country, and that to suppress or not to express, out of respect, was somehow to deny and discriminate against Christian America, the Christian community.
And this tension that I would see would manifest itself in very uncivil ways and, in fact, would often be one of the most divisive issues in communities, tearing at the religious community, challenging community leaders to take positions and really question, what are they doing, and for what reason. Debates around the Ten Commandments, desires to post the Ten Commandments in front of municipal buildings, would often bring out incredibly heated and uncivil debates into the public forum. The attempts to promote a very specific religious tradition within the public schools, similarly, would create tension, create conflict, and it sometimes would lead to outbreaks of violence in communities.
There are other issues. But I think for the purposes of what we’re talking about when we think of public institutions, the public schools, and municipal buildings, and places and ways in which we express our faith are two spheres, frankly, where I think that the debate has really raised many questions about how do people, lay folks, outside of the ivory tower, think about civil religion. What are the questions that it poses for them?
Well, post-September 11th, there has been a dramatic shift in the number of communities, particularly within the Muslim-American community who have now chosen to participate and to work proactively in reaching out to members of faith communities outside of the Muslim community. And it’s been referenced before, but it was tremendous to see Muzammil Saddiqi participating in the National Cathedral service. As a Muslim, I know that Dr. Saddiqi is the head of the Islamic Society of North America, an organization that serves as an umbrella for thousands of organizations, mosques, community centers around the country where this debate about whether or not it’s even Islamic to participate in an interfaith service was still going on prior to September 11th.
But, post-September 11th, I think there was an awakening, a realization that in the process of needing to understand, needing to heal, and needing to reach out, that as Muslims there is a shared religious language that can be found when we were addressing a need to heal as a country, and to address, frankly, the backlash of hate crimes that swept across the country in the week following September 11th. It was documented that over 645 hate crimes, or bias motivated attacks were logged. And those were only those that were reported in the week immediately following September 11th. Now, 81 percent of those 645 were committed against South Asians, out of which 50 percent were committed against Sikhs, which I’m sure Manjit will talk about. But it was a wake-up call, and a realization that the Muslim community needed to reach out and to build stronger ties, and stronger relationships, to get to know their neighbors, and also so their neighbors could get to know them.
And here we see something interesting, again, I think occurring in the Muslim community, which is this tension, participating in the civil religion, in these rituals doesn’t mute the voice or the ability to also dissent. And that is a challenge that I think many communities are now facing, that we want to absolutely affirm the rule of law, justice, democracy, liberty, respect for human dignity. But at the same time as government actions are taken that raise serious questions, and where there is a sense that there isn’t necessarily a critical debate occurring, within the religious community there is a struggle now about how exactly can we participate, and in that role of participating are we able to dissent, which is also a strong part of the American tradition.
How do these expressions fit within the American history of civil religion? I think we’ve absolutely heard already some of those, but I think that one point that I think we’re challenged to recognize, you know, the demographics and the changing face of American communities is phenomenal. And when we talk about even the language that we use, the word “God” does that in any way become exclusionary? Is our language, are the words that we use to describe this collective sense of faith in civil religion, the civil religious rhetoric or terminology rather, is it inclusive enough for non-Western religions, and what are the implications of that as we move forward?
MANJIT SINGH: Good morning. Thank you to the Pew Forum for inviting me to today’s event, and especially thanks to Melissa Rogers.
I would like to share some of the perspectives of the Sikh community, and some of the concerns that we have when we talk about civil religion. Interpreted critically, civil religion is nothing more than the invasion of civil society by religious groups, that’s the interpretation that we have. If you look at it this way, anyone who believes that in the spirit of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would be opposed to it.
If you were to look at it in a more neutral way, then you could think of it simply as the blending of patriotism with religious imagery and values. But, when you think of it in a more legal sense, it becomes troublesome because there is a tendency to encourage emotional rather than a critical and reflective response.
So, for example, when President Bush stated in his State of the Union that Iran, Iraq and North Korea are evil, he’s talking about religious morality rather than politics, and this is a very dangerous way to define foreign policy.
“God Bless America” sounds great, but what does it really mean? There are three concerns that I would like to share of the Sikh community on how we believe that the use of religious expression in the public place has affected the Sikh-American community.
It is fair to say that many people after September 11th have turned towards finding and reconnecting to the spiritual side, and that has definitely helped people cope with the tragedy of September 11th. Unfortunately, in doing this, the spirit of acceptance is not always one that takes away from such an act, and this is certainly true and reflected in the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who do not have or do not necessarily believe in creating a public space which is inclusive of all Americans, and that tends to marginalize minorities or people of faith, especially those who do not belong to the majority Judeo-Christian traditions.
Also, we have noticed that being American is once again taking on the image of being white, and in other words that image is something that is also being reflected in the media. So, it does not necessarily project the Muslim, or being South-Asian, or having a thick accent, or a moderate accent, and you can see this, for example, in the images that have been projected by the media. You see the people at Ground Zero, surrounded by mostly white people, there are sometimes scattered black Americans. You see images of people talking about losing their loved ones, you see people with stickers on the cars, or flags hanging from windows, it’s all white Americans for the most part. As if this tragedy has affected only white Americans, and not the other religious groups and minorities and ethnicities that have been largely affected, especially in a city like New York.
So what does this mean for minorities? This essentially means that minorities now have to publicly display their allegiance to the United States, and this transforms into different ways of expressing itself. In the Sikh community, following the few days after the attack, there was a rush to go out and buy bumper stickers of the American flag, or to put up American flags outside their places of worship, people were distributing those freely, people were putting them up outside their houses, and this is not something that is to be discouraged or that it is bad, but the motivation was fear. And the motivation was of being less acceptable. It was as if you had no choice, you had to do it otherwise you will be looked upon as not being American.
Just last night, I had a call from a friend from New York who recently came back from India, and said that he brought back 4,000 turbans in the American flag colors, red, blue and white, and he says, okay, so can you tell me how we can distribute this to the community across the nation? We would have never thought of this before. He was wondering about asking Sikh Americans to participate in the July 4th parade, for example, wearing these turbans. There are all sorts of things that we are doing just to feel more accepted. And so don’t feel surprised if you see a group of Sikhs in a parade somewhere wearing the U.S. flag as a turban, or some other dress as part of his religious garb.
And, lastly, you know, when people say “God bless America,” it brings up two thoughts. First, whose God? Whose God are we referring to? Is this referenced to a Christian God or to a universal God that is the creator of all the creation? Most Americans, I think it’s fair to say, assume that it reflects and refers to a Judeo-Christian God.
Secondly, it is also, again, fair and safe to assume that most Americans seem to think that God has some special investment in them when they hear God bless America. And this is easily interpreted as, God bless us, all of the people. Professor Davis referred to that. That is also troublesome, and it’s troublesome to me not just because I’m from a minority faith community, but it’s also troublesome being a person of faith, that I would like to use an expression that is more inclusive of everyone that is part of this pluralistic society. And a better expression, we believe, would be something like, God bless everyone, or similar to the phrase that is said at the conclusion of the Sikh prayer, and it means we wish everyone well. Obviously, the sound bite is not so striking. I would say God bless everyone. So those are some things we would work at for the media to be able for them to buy that.
But I believe in general that religious patriotism, which is unwise, is dangerous if it has too much of an element of religion which is not inclusive. And, furthermore, it pushes the minorities in America to the periphery and casts them aside as Americans.
So for Sikh Americans, certainly this makes us less acceptable as Americans, and it becomes harder and a much uphill battle for us to regain that same kind of acceptance that normally other Americans are so used to and find it very normal.
PETER BERKOWITZ: My remarks this morning grow out of a conversation that I had with Melissa Rogers to which she’s already alluded. They also grow out of my training as a political theorist and a lawyer, both disciplines train you to be on the lookout for ambiguities in ideas.
To try and make myself useful, I want to say something about a certain ambiguity that inheres in the idea of civil religion, particularly when it comes to toleration. For, if we have a civil religion, toleration is central to it, and toleration was put under special pressure by 9-11.
So the question is this, is civil religion a sort of faith, a faith in the founding tenets of the political order? For us, Americans, liberals in the broad sense, democrats in the broad sense, that means a faith, or an ultimate devotion to individual freedom and human equality. For civil religion is the civic exercise of one’s religious beliefs, that is what Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and men and women of other religions are obliged by the doctrines and imperatives of their particular faiths to do when they enter the public sphere.
Two understandings of civil religion may overlap. This is in part because the founding tenets of the American Constitution seem bound up with or dependent upon religion. As others have quoted, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” The question is also complicated because many of our religious beliefs have political implications.
If, for example, the Bible teaches all men and women are created in God’s image, then all human life in all its extraordinary variety is precious and commands respect. But these are fundamental considerations, but it’s been said that September 11th changed everything, including perhaps the question of civil religion in America. I don’t think that’s correct that September 11th made a fundamental rupture with our past. We’re not fundamentally different. But September 11th has caused us to reassess our fundamental principles.
In the immediate aftermath of the terrible attacks, vast numbers of Americans and non-Americans around the world rallied to America’s defense. At home, the hijackers’ blows shocked us out of the complacency produced by a fabulous stretch of peace and prosperity. Heroes were made, tears were shed, flags were flown, money and blood and labor were generously donated in the daunting relief efforts. And God’s name and blessing was repeatedly invoked. Abroad, people found ways simple and elaborate to express their sympathy for the massive loss of life suffered in our commercial and political capitals.
But the response to September 11th has not just been a matter of working through grief, or showing solidarity with the victims and their families, of caring for the wounded, of waging war against the Taliban, the al-Qaeda terrorist network. At home and abroad we’ve been compelled to recall, think through with a new seriousness just why it is that the experiment more than two centuries long now of liberal democracy in America is so very worthy of defense. The short answer is that for all of our foibles and foolishnesses and flaws, we have stood as effectively as any nation ever has on the bedrock moral principle of a liberal democracy, which is individual freedom and human equality. And this principle is one whose claim on us cuts to the core.
Now, the natural freedom and equality of all may not be a self-evident truth, but it’s one that we hold as self-evident, that grips as self-evident. Perhaps this is our faith, perhaps natural freedom and equality is the place to us where reason and faith merge.
Now, the effort to give political life to this core principle, or core faith maybe you want to call it, is actually not readily separable from our foibles and foolishnesses and flaws. Why is that? Well, what happens if you would attempt to extend freedom and equality to all? That is to say, what happens if you attempt to extend freedom equally to all in a society like ours, actually a society like all we have ever known or heard about, a society that’s composed of imperfect beings who not only seek pleasure and honor and riches and love, but who are also subject to fear and jealousy and envy and resentment? Imperfect beings, creatures of pride and passion, who are capable of using their intelligence for good ends and for bad, and for endlessly obscuring the differences between them? What happens if you attempt to extend freedom equally to all in such a society of imperfect beings?
Along with all the excitement and color, and invention, and decency of a free society, you’ll also witness much conduct to make your heart shudder, and blood boil, and to cause you to wonder whether in Hamilton’s words from Federalist #1, “Societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for the political constitutions on accident and force.”
But then you take a step back and look at America’s many achievements, the production of goods and services in unprecedented abundance, the absorption of large number of immigrants from every corner of the globe, the continuing process of incorporating the previously excluded in the nation’s social and economic and political life, the spearheading of international humanitarian relief efforts around the world. Then you compare our foibles and foolishnesses and flaws to the shortcomings of our neighbors, our allies, our enemies, indeed to those of all the other states and forms of political organization that have come and gone since humanity learned to walk and talk and organize its collective life around claims and counterclaims about justice, and then you find it hard to resist the conclusion that one of the chief reasons that America is worth defending is because of our achievement in producing and sustaining a way of life that embodies this moral principle, or is it core faith in individual freedom and human equality.
Toleration is inseparable from this principle of faith in freedom and equality. In its original meaning, toleration contains the ambiguity I have already alerted to in connection to civil religion. As originally understood, toleration both reflected a secular claim to limit the reach of both government and religion, and a religious imperative to limit both the reach of government and religion. According to one of our great founding documents in our political tradition, Locke’s letter concerning toleration, both religion and reason teach toleration. The key idea is that religion is sovereign in its sphere; government is sovereign in its; and each must be confined to its sphere. The sphere of religion is public worship of God and the acquisition of eternal life. The sphere of government is the care of the things of this world, the protection of life, liberty and property. The rule of thumb is what is lawful outside a place of worship is lawful within; what is unlawful outside is unlawful inside.
It’s been said that Locke’s understanding of toleration grew out of a Protestant understanding of religion. There’s some truth in this. Not all religions divide the world so easily between what belongs to the religious sphere and what belongs to the secular. But wherever the line is drawn between religious authority and secular authority, civil authority, however uncertain and shifting it may become concerning some issues — school curriculum, faith-based initiatives, abortion — the obligation to draw some such line between church and state stems from the demands for individual freedom and human equality.
Toleration so understood is a right, a duty and a virtue. It’s a right in the sense that the liberty that we share is not just physical. The ability to move around freely, an essential part of the liberty that we share, involves the moral, intellectual and spiritual room to maneuver. Toleration is a duty in the sense that we are bound not to infringe the rights of others, to think and worship as their conscience requires so long as that worship does not interfere with the life, liberty and property of others.
And toleration is a virtue because it does not come automatically or easily to us to leave others alone, to let them pursue their lives on their own terms and in their own way. We must be educated into a life of toleration. In fact, toleration can be hard. The root meaning of toleration means to bear or to endure, as in he has a low tolerance for noise, for smoke, or for that medication. Toleration involves learning to live with someone or something that you find unpleasant or discordant, or even painfully wrong.
We were right to celebrate pluralism and diversity in our world, but this celebration of pluralism and difference is not toleration. Toleration becomes necessary when the celebration ends, but before the enmities erupt. Toleration can involve a fair amount of holding your nose and averting your gaze and grinding your teeth, and all the while maintaining civility. It also involves knowing where to draw the line, because not everything deserves toleration. Toleration can be hard, very hard, that’s why it’s called a virtue.
So toleration in America is an imperative derived from the individual freedom and human equality, that individual freedom and human equality that we’ve come to see as our birthright, and throughout our history it’s been nourished by a variety of religious faiths. So our toleration is many sided and complex. We have good religious reasons for limiting the scope of religion in public life, and we have good secular reasons for not excluding the expression of religion in public life.
So ambiguity remains as to whether toleration is properly called part of our civil religion. However, as to whether toleration, which continues to be nourished by both reason and faith, is compatible with our nation’s growing pluralism and consistent with the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion, the answer is a most emphatic and unambiguous yes.
MELISSA ROGERS: Thank you so much for the excellent presentations. I would like to turn to questions in just a moment. Of course, I loved hearing from Father Neuhaus first that civil religion is not religion, which was a very helpful clarifying point on his perspective. And then Derek’s point about this sort of need for expressions of civil religion and trying to reconcile that conflict. And then Amber’s question about can there be a shared language of faith in a diverse society that we have now. And Manjit’s similar concern and his concern about the notion of God as specially protecting our country. And that feeds into Peter’s very helpful explication of the notion of freedom and individuals as being of great worth in and of themselves, and a calling on us, perhaps, to recognize that not only the people in our nation are especially valuable as individuals but every individual in the world is especially valuable. And whether lifting up our country as a specially protected country cuts against that wider notion of respect for all individuals.
I would first like to ask Father Neuhaus a quick question. You referenced your concern with this danger of idolatry through civil religion. If you were advising President Bush or any of the others who were hit with having to speak to the public in the wake of the tragedy of 9-11 and on continuing as the country moves through a period of war, what would you advise our officials to do in the nature of any religious remarks to the nation?
RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS: To be careful, and at the same time to recognize that in the passions that are engaged and the legitimate concerns that are engaged will inevitably give rise to excesses. And at the National Cathedral, it was certainly a gaffe for President Bush to say that we were going to eliminate evil from the world. He meant to say this evil one, or this evil force. But as he said on a number of occasions, including the State of the Union message, it is an extraordinary thing, and a true thing, is it not, and a good thing to have a president say one thing we’ve discovered is that there is evil in the world. In other words, that we have to make some judgments.
It’s very easy for us, at least for me, and people like me who do not bear direct government responsibility to kind of snicker condescendingly at the rhetorical excesses that sometimes happen. But what if, in fact, there are actually tens of thousands of ticking time bombs – to use another phrase – and there is a very real chance that chemical, biological, nuclear or whatever catastrophes could be inflicted upon this country or others? What if that turned out to be the case and our president had not heightened the level of rhetoric to the point of drawing some very unambiguous, albeit nuanced, distinctions? In that case, I think we would be much more critical than some people are inclined to be of this president because of his rhetorical excesses.
We are at a time in which inevitably the question, if I may say, Manjit and Amber, has been forced upon America by, unfortunately, forces that claim, legitimately or otherwise, we all have to hope illegitimately, claim the sanction of a religious force, that is clearly distinct from the socio-historical religious cultural experience of America. And so there is an “us” and a “them.” All things considered in the light of human history and our foibles and flaws and capacity for wickedness, so far America has been doing very well in trying to sort this through in a civil way and trying to work out the ways in which we are going to determine all kinds of questions about the definition of the society, who belongs to the society, what are the criteria, morally, culturally, religious. And these are inevitable questions for any society.
And I think we have to view the excesses of national, ethnic, religious chauvinism, et cetera, as being more or less inevitable. We all have to be mature enough, that these things are going to happen, because people have their fundamental identity, and sense of safety, and who they are, they believe, under challenge. And that within that context, that this can lead to one of the most glorious, and magnificent unfolding of the capacity of the American experiment to truly be the kind of bearer of the universal truths that Peter Berkowitz was talking about.
MELISSA ROGERS: Thank you.
E.J. you wanted to get off the first question, or the second.
E.J. DIONNE: I wanted to ask two questions. Thank you, by the way, for wonderful presentations. The first question is about the problem for Americans who are trying to rationalize, and I mean that in the best sense of the word, a set of truths that they hold, and that some of this problem that we’re talking about is inevitable, if on the one hand you hold to a set of religious convictions that you believe are true, and at the same time you also believe that it is true, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that a system of constitutional democracy, or ordered liberty is, in fact, the best system we have devised to govern people, or a better system than others. These are truths one holds simultaneously.
Then it’s a natural human desire to reconcile one set of truths, a religious set of truths, with the other set of truths about the polity. Therefore, it’s inevitable that we would say, “God bless America,” because what we are asserting is that we believe this system is, in fact, a preferred system for all the reasons Manjit and Amber describe, one of them being religious toleration, or religious liberty. So my question is, is it not inevitable that when people are trying to reconcile these sets of convictions they will face up to a problem, even the problem of idolatry, that Father Neuhaus mentioned?
The second question is perhaps explicitly to Amber and Manjit. I have argued for a long time that all Americans are in one way or another Protestant. Whether you’re Catholic, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, atheist, because the American experiment itself would not have, as Peter pointed out, in some ways, I don’t think it would have been possible, or certainly wouldn’t have been possible at the time it happened without the Protestant Reformation, and that the very liberties that we rely on — and I say this as a Catholic– are liberties rooted in that tradition. Should it be so difficult for all of us to acknowledge our debt to that tradition?
One can say that as a Catholic I know of the history in the country of anti-Catholicism, especially in the earliest waves of immigration. And yet if you take the Catholic tradition, there was acknowledgment of our debt to the reformation in the Second Vatican Council. I mean, the Catholic Church fundamentally altered, I think, Father Neuhaus might object to the word fundamentally, but I think substantially altered its posture towards religious liberty and toleration. So should it not be possible for all of us immigrants, or the children and grandchildren of immigrants, simply to acknowledge that debt, and struggle with what that debt means to us.
MANJIT SINGH: There’s no doubt about that. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love this country, and didn’t want to be here. But, the fact remains, as Professor Berkowitz mentioned, is that expression does not always come with that virtue of tolerance. And that’s what leads to the hate crimes that we saw after 9-11. People are not very willing to accept others who are different from them. That’s the point that I was trying to make, not that it’s wrong, but that that underlying tolerance is many times, or sometimes maybe, lacking.
Does that answer?
E.J. DIONNE: I guess there will always be expressions of intolerance, and they should be fought. But I think there’s a sort of intellectual problem, a problem of kind of intellectual honesty and our collective intellectual debt to this particular tradition, whatever tradition we come out of, because I think without this tradition the very liberty that we rely on, and the very sense of toleration that we rely on, would not have been established in our country.
MANJIT SINGH: Absolutely, no doubt about it. There is absolutely no doubt about it. I can’t say anything other than, we all wouldn’t be here unless we acknowledge and recognize that debt that we owe. So there’s no doubt about that.
AMBER KHAN: When I hear that, I absolutely agree. I absolutely agree that I think that it’s important. It’s a historical question in my mind. It’s like, how many of us who are here really know our history and know the evolution of the democratic societies and how we ended up where we are today, with the rule of law and the governing institutions that we have? How did we end up here?
I think, in one sense, the answer to that question is do we have ourselves, as a society, an adequate sense of history from where we’ve come from. But I have to say that, as a Muslim, I have no problem acknowledging and thanking and recognizing the contributions of different traditions. I think this is coming out a lot more, the contributions that Islam actually made and the belief system within the religion embodied and codified in the Koran about respect for rule of law, respect for liberty, religious liberty. And I think that the contributions of the Islamic world made through history that led to, and had an impact on the evolution of various political movements, is something that also would be worthwhile, because I think in the vein of when we talk about tolerance and understanding, I think understanding Islam and Islamic civilization’s contribution to the evolution of Western society, and particularly civil society as we experience it here in the United States, is important.
E.J. DIONNE: It is partly acknowledging an intellectual debt. I guess I’m saying in a way that perhaps to struggle with why did this particular tradition, which is not my own — I ask the question because it’s not my own tradition — why did this particular tradition produce this thing of great value on which we from other traditions rely? And therefore, should we struggle both morally and intellectually with that debt? It’s not just saying, thanks a lot, guys, founders, a few hundred years ago. It’s also, how do we absorb this set of ideas into our own traditions? What is our obligation to do that? So that’s why I think it’s more than just thanks.
AMBER KHAN: I think the obligation is to have an increased understanding and an understanding of the history of this contribution. To be very honest, I don’t think there is a pervasive understanding of those contributions, or even the works that were referenced when we talked about civil religion and law. So I don’t think that there is a collective, full understanding of how those pieces, and how those works contributed to where we are today.
MANJIT SINGH: If I may add quickly to address that particular question, the Sikh holy scripture contains the teachings of the founders of the faith, but it also includes the teachings of non-Sikhs whose teachings were in consonance with our founders. And that fundamentally acknowledges Sikhs to realize that you don’t have to be of a particular faith tradition to have a certain belief. And so to me it’s a moot question. I don’t know if you still follow this, it’s like, yes, so you are different and we acknowledge the debt that is owed. But, that just comes automatically to me, being a Sikh. So I don’t know if I made much progress.
MELISSA ROGERS: I think Derek and Peter Berkowitz want to get in on the first part of E.J.’s question, or perhaps the last part, either one.
DEREK DAVIS: Well, the first part I thought was an excellent question, because I think in many ways it sort of gets to some of the complexity of all this. All this is very complex, as we realize. But it is a question about American’s need to give expression of their beliefs in the civil realm and, on the other side of that, some of the problems associated with it.
I would begin by saying that I think it’s natural for all of us to seek out a common repository for our values, for our common values. I mean we’re all Americans, we share something as Americans. It’s a certain kind of brotherhood that we share. And so we seek this common repository. It can’t be our individual faiths, our own religious traditions, because they’re too diverse. It’s sort of natural that it gravitates toward what we share in common, which is not nationhood. But there’s a fundamental anomaly here, and it’s this.
On the one hand, civil religion is all about being generic. It is about trying to find a way that everyone can tap into these civil religious expressions. I think that’s why we’ve adopted “In God We Trust” as a national motto. It’s because it’s intended to be generic, something that everybody, except for those who are not religious at all, can buy into and express and use on occasion. The same with invoking the name of God in the Pledge of Allegiance, “One nation under God.” It’s something that, hopefully, everybody can buy into. So it’s intentionally something that is broad, it’s across the board, it’s a way to try to find opportunities for religious expression in a common repository of values.
But on the other hand, it’s complicated by the fact that as we find need for civil religious expression, most of us, frankly, as Americans are not sophisticated enough to appreciate the diversity that exists here. Most of us understand religion in a very sort of particularistic way, and it’s our own tradition. So it’s natural that when we want to come to the civic realm, the public square, call it what you will, and make these kinds of religious expressions, that they come out in a framework that is consistent with our own understanding of what religion is.
This is why, for example, you see lots of Christians, Jews too, but mainly Christians, upset about the Supreme Court putting the brakes on the posting of the Ten Commandments in the public space. They don’t understand this. They see this as a very general expression of basic, common values that all of humanity should share. Well, they don’t appreciate the fact that there are diverse traditions within America that really don’t examine and appreciate and value the Ten Commandments in the way that Christians and Jews do. And they fail to appreciate that. So in a large sense, I think it’s a matter of us not being sophisticated enough, maybe not being good enough about educating one another about this thing called civil religion. I suspect if you asked the average man on the street, what is civil religion, he wouldn’t have a clue what you’re talking about.
MELISSA ROGERS: Peter, a quick comment, and then I want to get to all the hands that are up.
PETER BERKOWITZ: Quickly, about idolatry. E.J. asked is it not inevitable that a sort of idolatry arises in liberal democracy. And the answer is yes. But that’s not because I think of a defect in the design, because idolatry is a permanent feature of the human condition, a constant temptation to treat what’s finite as with infinite value. Liberal democracy poses special challenges, which we’ve been discussing. But, again, I don’t think those special challenges that we face, that we have to negotiate and navigate would go away if we just devised the system a little better.
Concerning the Protestant origins of toleration, I would say it’s important to distinguish here between what’s been called the logic of discovery and the logic of justification, or the origins and the current status. Undoubtedly, the Protestant Reformation gave a tremendous impetus to the formulation of the conception of toleration. But the challenge for us today, people of different faiths and people of no faith at all, is to see whether within the resources today that we bring to the question, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Sikh, whatever, if you can find within your own tradition reasons for affirming our cardinal tenants, the cardinal tenants of liberal democracy in America. And many traditions are finding themselves, many members of diverse traditions are finding themselves successful in discovering those resources or imperatives within their traditions.
MELISSA ROGERS: Thank you. We’ll go ahead. We’ll run over just a little bit so we can get some questions in. If you could stay, we’d like you to do so.
DANIEL CONSOLATORE: Thanks, I’m Daniel Consolatore. I’m with local community organizations, today with the Council for Secular Humanists in upstate New York. And I hope that by that phrase I just added to the tension that Amber focused on quite rightly, I think. And it refers really to Dr. Davis’s comments, and Mr. Berkowitz, that, clearly, there is quite literally not a place at the table, it seems, for the 14 percent — I’m sorry to disagree with Father Neuhaus. But a recent study pointed out that 14 percent of Americans, growing at a faster rate than any other group, have no religion, most of whom do not believe in God in any way that you would recognize.
Clearly, in the very first moments after September 11th, the very first days at the National Cathedral, 14 percent of the population was completely excluded from sort of civil religion, civil unity, or the brotherhood that Mr. Davis referred to. To be honest, I don’t really expect to have these remarks taken very seriously today. But I would like to say that in order to have a serious discussion about the place of faith in America, it has to be recognized that there is a significant portion of the population who, I’ll say it again, simply is not at the table and would like to be.
MELISSA ROGERS: Well, we very much do take your concerns seriously, and we’ll treat them in that fashion. And I appreciate you having voiced them today so we can put them on the table and talk about them. We always strive to build in the greatest diversity and there are only several spots at each time to do so. But we appreciate you putting that on the table. And I think, Professor Berkowitz would like to respond.
PETER BERKOWITZ: I hope I didn’t imply that you don’t have a place at the table. What I meant to say, actually, is that as I understand it, at least, it’s actually part of our core faith that one of the ways at arriving at our principles and elaborating them is through reason, it was the founder’s view, I think it exists today. I think it is right to say that a kind of faith still does animate many secular humanists. It’s a faith in these core principles. And part of the teaching that reason is available for both the discovery and elaboration.
MELISSA ROGERS: Yes. Go ahead, yes, please.
JIM ATWOOD: My name is Jim Atwood. I’m a retired Presbyterian minister. I came because I expected to hear at least a few comments about the real, real dangers of civil religion, and I don’t believe I heard it. I heard Mr. Davis say, when Mr. Bush said that our nation was ordained by Christ for this thing, you said this is almost on the border of idolatry. I think it is idolatry, pure and simple. But it seems to me that with all the good things that we have said about the possibility that civil religion would fill in a nation, we overlooked something.
Mr. Berkowitz talked about our foibles, foolishness, flaws, mistakes, et cetera. It reminded me of Carl Muhlner’s (sp) book in the ’70s, when he talked about whatever became of sin. The United States has not confessed any foolishness, frauds, mistakes, et cetera. Whatever became of that? If this is a religion, where is the part of humility in this? We talk about America having all these great principles and values, and I subscribe to that 100 percent, but we make some big assumptions here that we not only have our system, which is worth fighting for, but we have the system in the world. And I haven’t heard that addressed here, and I’m a little disappointed in that.
MELISSA ROGERS: Well, we’ll give everybody a chance to address it.
DEREK DAVIS: In some of the literature there’s a breakdown between kind of a priestly form of civil religious expression versus a prophetic form. The priestly form would be that administered usually by the high priest of the civil religious body, that being the president. There’s a notion that we can almost do no wrong. It elevates the nation almost to idolatrous status, the nation actually becomes almost a substitute for the object of worship.
On the other hand, something that we haven’t really, as you correctly have pointed out, haven’t talked too much about, would be the other side of this, the prophetic expression. And that is the kind of expression, hopefully expressed by our high priest, that calls America to account, that calls America to examine itself, to think about its role in the world, to look at itself not always as a chosen nation, elevated above other nations, but as simply one nation among a community of nations, that has duties and responsibilities to others.
It’s the sort of thing that I have to say after September 11th I can’t say that I saw a lot of critical examination about the nation in this prophetic tradition. For example, when the Saudi, I forget his name, brought over to New York City and presented to Mayor Giuliani a $10 million gift to assist in the aid and recovery effort, very generous, he made some very sort of quiet, subtle suggestions that maybe there were some reasons in terms of American foreign policy as to why this all happened. Well, Mayor Giuliani didn’t want to hear it. None of us really wanted to hear it.
We were so narrow in our vision about what had happened we didn’t want to have anyone suggest to us that there were reasons as to why this happened. From our standpoint there was no justification whatsoever for this ever happening. So Mayor Giuliani’s response was he gave the check back, he didn’t want to listen to it. So it’s this kind of a lack of an ability for self-critical examination that we are really lacking, and that we have to recapture and restore.
RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS: I want to simply put in the transcript that the intervention by our Presbyterian retired pastor, and Derek most of what you’re saying, is, I think, just fundamentally wrong, fundamentally, and an inaccurate description of where we are as a society. As a matter of judgment, Giuliani was quite right, to use your phrase, that there is no justification whatsoever for what happened on September 11th. Are you suggesting that there is some justification?
DEREK DAVIS: No.
RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS: There is none whatsoever, none, zero, zip, period. Now, if you want to discuss something else, maybe what’s wrong with America, and our failings as a society and so forth, we can discuss that endlessly. In fact, Americans are given to discussing it endlessly, contra my dear friend’s analysis, before September 11th, and still to a large degree today in our religious ?? especially our religious mainline communities that like to pose as prophetic, and in our academy with multicultural fashions and endless, endless integration of Western civilization, particularly any moral or religious connotations to Western civilization.
It is exactly the opposite. We are a society that has developed an, in many ways, admirable, in other ways pathological enthusiasm for self-criticism. That’s what we’re really good at. That’s one of the things that, of course, is distinctive about Western, and yes if you will Western Judeo-Christian civilization, is that it has always welcomed the perspective of others, been curious about other cultures, has always been trying to draw from them a better way of understanding themselves, et cetera. So the new thing that’s happened since September 11th is that in the conventional, intellectual swamps, meaning the academy, in the media for the most part, where in the backwaters of America it has been de rigueur for a long, long time, if not to be anti-American, at least to make very, very clear that you are not tainted by any belief in the singular virtues of the civilization of which you are part.
The new thing since September 11th is that we have seen some, for the most part modest, sometimes clumsy – nobody said George W. Bush is a political philosopher of the stature of Peter Berkowitz, we don’t expect that – clumsy expressions. But we are seeing a return, also in the academy, also in the media, I think, and while I’m very, very glad for our friends at the Wall Street Journal, and Andrew Sullivan with his little thing, whacking all the time the anti-American, and giving out the awards and all that type of thing. In fact, I have to kind of disagree with some of my conservative friends. I think Americans, for the most part since September 11th, in the media, and for the most part in the academy and in the religious establishments, have been evidencing a very salutary moment of rediscovered sobriety, both about what is distinctive in the political-cultural circumstance of which we are part, and why it needs to be defended, and in terms of maintaining a critical edge with regard to protecting against the dangers of self-idolization.
MELISSA ROGERS: We’re glad we can live up to our name the forum today, for a good forum for discussion.
Yes, Dean Ahmad, and then Kelly Hanson.
IMAD-AD-DEAN AHMAD: I’m Dean Ahmad with the Minaret Freedom Institute. There’s been a stress laid here on the importance of tolerance, and finding a shared language. And I think the ensuing discussion shows that the intent should be that the shared language should be as inclusive as possible. So therefore it’s interesting to note that we have a situation in which the phrase Judeo-Christian tradition, which comes up over and over again, emphasizes that the Jewish and Christian traditions are included. We see that the secular humanist tradition, and the Sikh tradition, and a number of others are not included in the civil religion at the moment, and also I think we see that the Muslims right now are sort of at the frontier between being included and not being included.
For example, saying Judeo-Christian instead of Abrahamic, it’s an Abrahamic tradition, that would include therefore the Muslims. We had some statistics given about the demographics that ignored a demographic reality, there are so many Christians, there are so many Jews, nobody mentioned how many Muslims there are. In fact, Muslims are now the second largest religion, not Judaism, and even those who disagree with that, they’re still on the same order of magnitude, very close. So I think that that shared language is the emphasis we should put on, and I found it interesting that the phrase suggested by Mr. Singh it seems to me appeals to a lowest common denominator, to say we wish everyone well.
I must say one other thing, with regard to what was just said. Of course, there’s no way you can justify September 11th, the problem is by excluding a discussion of American foreign policy you’re saying that you can justify the American aid to the apartheid Israeli state, to what Mr. Sharon is doing right now in the occupied territories, which are illegally occupied, to say that you can exclude a discussion of whether there should have been a discussion of whether the Geneva convention applies to Israel, and so on, and so forth, all these different things that are a source of great pain to a lot of people. And why people concerned with American foreign policy, and concerned with interfaith, and concerned with the lowest common denominator of civil religion don’t want to discuss that, but that’s excluded from discussion, is a source of great concern that has to be recognized. So we don’t look for justification for what happened, but there are reasons for what happened.
MELISSA ROGERS: Kelly, if you want to fire off your question, and then we’ll have each of the panelists make a final remark.
KELLY HANSON: I’m Kelly Hanson. I’m a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I’m working with the Pew Forum. In the recent displays of civil religion and the revisiting of our identity and the characteristics which make an American, obviously we’ve seen some have been left out. In this realm where faith mixes with patriotism, can there by nature be more than one expression? Can there be a pluralism of different identities? Or is what’s happening in the civil religion we’ve seen recently kind of a reality check, kind of what is accepted and what’s not accepted, and a re-centering of kind of the center and the powerful, and a reminder to those on the periphery that they’re still on the periphery?
MELISSA ROGERS: Thank you. Okay. I’d like to ask each of the panelists starting with Peter Berkowitz just to respond to either Dean Ahmad’s or the last question, and just very briefly.
PETER BERKOWITZ: On the question of inclusion, it seems to me very important to distinguish between historical fact and contemporary realities. As a matter of historical fact, I think it’s true that Christianity and Judaism play a critical monumental roles in the formation of our ideas on toleration. We can separate that from the situation today whether those principles that have been formed in that way are capable of including people from diverse religious backgrounds and diverse points of view, and I guess I side with Father Neuhaus on this one, that we’ve done and continue to do an imperfect but pretty good job.
MANJIT SINGH: I wanted to basically address Dean’s comments, and also I agree with what he just said. And also to say that I don’t think the American people are ready to discuss such an issue as we’ve heard comments from the other panelists here. And that’s the reason why there’s no discussion about it. It’s shoved under the carpet, and nobody is willing to touch it. And if you do touch it, you’re out the door.
But overall, I think the importance or the stress that we need to lean on is the notion of tolerance, of acceptance, and tolerance for everybody and for everything, but as Peter mentioned there are limits. Within limits, tolerance, live and let live is the phrase that I would put to that.
AMBER KHAN: I think it’s interesting because listening to the discussion sometimes I ask myself, are we talking about patriotism, are we talking about religion, are we talking about a civil culture that we seek to create in a society that allows for differences and allows for the kind of robust discussion about American foreign policy, or American domestic policy, or American budget priorities, there needs to be a whole host of issues.
I guess I think about the issue of civil religion, and specifically on answering the question that was posed about is there humility, is there mercy, is there forgiveness, is there self-reflection. I guess I disagree a little bit about the overemphasis on self-reflection because I don’t think it’s necessarily done in a format or in a medium that really provokes up to the next level of not simply critiquing, but evolving as a society, and as individuals, and as institutions. I think that we frankly lack the structures and the communities that create or give rise to them. What we look at and see as the institutions of civil religion haven’t really created some of the structures that will sustain a critical discourse, that sustain an ability for us to evolve as individuals and as institutions that participate in that. I think that the debate and the discourse that we hear often remains on a very superficial level, doesn’t really move us, we don’t identify opportunities to engage our minds, frankly, but are more emotional in our reaction. And if anything, I think it deepens the divide and it moves us further into whatever side we’re in before we even hear the discourse, before we even hear the rantings or the emotional reflections in the media or by commentators.
So I think that one of the challenges that we have and one of the things I’m curious to see and anxious to see when I look at America and as someone who is very invested in the notion that we can find values to create for people of faith and of no faith is whether we are going to move to the next step and begin the process of finding a way to effectively work together and talk about the issues beyond simply reaffirming each other. Because I think one of the things that has happened, especially in all the interfaith services and the public displays recently, is an affirmation of each other, but not necessarily the next step.
And so one of the things that I think I’m anxious to see is will we do that, will the leaders find the courage, because I think that’s also one of the pieces given the climate that we’re in today, with leaders, both individual leaders and local communities find the courage to be able to raise some of those questions and move in a way that doesn’t necessarily further divide, but moves us along.
MELISSA ROGERS: Derek?
DEREK DAVIS: I think civil religion is real, and I think it’s important, but I think sometimes we try to make it too important. I think sometimes we ask it to do things that it’s really not equipped to do. Sometimes we try to make it really the backbone of our country, we try to make it the framework for our public philosophy. And it’s really not quite equipped to do that. This is a country that is, in some ways, amazingly strong. In other ways it’s put together in kind of a fragile way. It has lots of interlocking pieces that are interdependent upon one another. And when it comes to religion as being sort of a sinker of America and its history, and I think it is that, I ascribe the success of America largely to the fact that religion has been at the center. But I think the religious expression that has created the kind of nation that we have, where religious values are important, is a result of not the sort of advancement of civil religion, not this creation of a civil religion, not this manufacturer of a civil religion, especially by governmental entities, but the more private expression that comes from the various places.
And I think within the plan and design of the founding fathers, they were looking to the private sector, not the public sector, to provide the sort of religious values, as well as other values, that would be contributive to the common will to provide for and enable a successful nation. So I think we’re trying to make too much of it sometimes, and we make a mistake of carrying it too far and making it more powerful than it is. It becomes the justification for doing virtually anything. It’s very powerful in its force, in its effect and its appeal to people. That’s why I wanted to read the statement from former President Bush. It has such powerful appeal. It’s almost reaching to the transcendent, and nobody can argue with the transcendent. So the discussion is over, the discussion is closed, and that’s not democracy. And this is part of the reason why we have the separation of church and state, so that there cannot be this sort of public engendering, this public assertion of the theology that closes off the discussion.
So we’re a diverse people of different religious traditions, different intellectual traditions, and so we have to come together and not ask the government to do too much, particularly not ask the government to do too much in promulgating a civil religion that is inevitable. It’s going to be there, it’s never going to go away. But we have to be careful that we don’t let government take over and use it to the detriment of our democratic order.
RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS: What we need is a public philosophy to sustain a free and democratic society, and a public philosophy in the American context that can do that has to be explicitly, morally and religiously informed. And that religiously and morally informed public philosophy to sustain a free and democratic society is what some people mean by civil religion. And these discussions are valuable, they’re perennial, they’re inevitable. We’ll all meet, our paths will cross on these lines.
The new thing that has happened since September 11th, it seems to me, is that very suddenly and brutally and unexpectedly, there was an attack that claimed a religious inspiration and motivation, that claimed to speak, indeed, for Islam. The great question, all of a sudden the great majority of Americans for whom Islam and Muslims were something, who knows somewhere, they had very little contact, very little, all of a sudden realized that there are a billion plus people in the world who, a good number of them, hundreds of thousands of them, maybe even a few in this country, who are portrayed, and frequently portray themselves, as being profoundly hostile, seething with resentment and, yes, hatred. And this, of course, created an enormous and understandable culture shock.
The great question having to do with civil religion, both globally and in terms of the interaction of these streams in the American context, it seems to me, is this. As Peter said, we’re making a distinction between discovery of certain political values and systems as distinct from the moral justification. Can Islam from within its own resources articulate from the very heart and practice of Islam, which means it’s not articulated by secularized Westerners who would reconstruct Islam in their Western image, but can people who speak from the heart of Islamic faith and practice and history and sensibility and community solidarity provide a contribution to that morally informed public philosophy which sustains a free and democratic society?
We have to hope, we have to pray that the answer to that question is yes, but the answer is by no means in, at this point.
MELISSA ROGERS: I would like to thank everyone for their comments. As a number of you recognized, there’s a lot to unpack here today. The conversation must continue, and we will hope to find ways to channel that discussion and pick up on the many themes that have been raised today.
Thank you for your participation, and we hope to see you the next time at our Pew Forum events. Thank you very much.
(Applause and end of event.)