Civil Religion?

Naturalization CeremonyLast week, for the fifth straight year, we hosted a naturalization ceremony at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School, welcoming 30 new US citizens representing 28 different countries of origin.  My heart is still filled with joy because of that experience, which I believe epitomized the best of our human- and American- values.  That, in turn, put me in the mind of the term civil religion, first coined by the French philosopher Rousseau.  I became familiar with the more recent use of that language studying at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley in the 1970s at a time when sociologist Robert Bellah of the University of California had developed a compelling theory of civil religion’s role in American society.  His thesis was that there is a unifying non-denominational set of core values that epitomize the essence of the American character.  (He further asserted that every society has its own brand of civil religion).  Bellah also cautioned against the tendency of some to equate this notion of civil religion too closely with a specific explicit religious tradition.

I have reflected on Bellah’s work and the naturalization ceremony within the context of contemporary society.  Many have (rightfully) lamented the decline of civility in our society.  And one could also assert some activities presented in the name of religion are neither civil nor religious.  One of the reasons that this year’s naturalization ceremony was so inspiring and consoling is that it was both Civil and civil- a specific civic commitment conducted within an atmosphere of civility, hospitality, and acceptance.  Similarly, the ceremony was both Religious and religious- hosted by an Episcopal school with multiple references to an inclusive God.  As such it served as antidote and encouragement as we in the United States struggle to find a path back to the lofty notion of civil religion so eloquently articulated by Robert Bellah 50 or so years ago.

We prayed for our US citizens that morning that their embrace of the American Dream will strengthen our country in the ways that immigrants who preceded them have done for so many years.  May all of us who are US citizens embrace that Dream with renewed commitment and conviction.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo