In a piece written for the Los Angeles Times, Joseph Margulies warns of the potential dangers of civil religion. I first learned about civil religion in college in the early 1980s, when the concept was still relatively young. The idea is as deceptively simple as it is accurate: when nationalism reaches its natural limits, the divine is invoked. Civic ceremonies become religious ceremonies—presidents lay hands on Bibles, whether or not they believe. Civil religion dictates that all presidents be portrayed as believers, but that is something we have to take on faith. Civil religion leads to sculptures of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns and the flying of United States flags in churches. The danger with this innocent-looking triumphalism is that some people take it too seriously. It is not limited to Christianity, either. Civil religion is a disguised, albeit thinly, form of nationalism.
The vast majority of people in the world hold religious beliefs without deep reflection. That is not to suggest that they don’t believe deeply, but simply that they don’t lift the edges to peer under the surface much. We are taught what to believe by religious specialists. To question them is to question the deity they represent. Since fear is easily ingrained in the human psyche, the angry god is among the most effective of weapons ever devised. We fear for our eternal peril, and it is easier to believe the clergy have the answers than to divine the truth for ourselves. Those who think profoundly about religion, outside the confines of the professional clergy, are always a suspect lot. What business do we have, poking around the beliefs of others?
Civil religion shocked me when I first learned of it. Like the majority of my peers, I had assumed that public displays of piety were to be taken literally. As I began to hang out with clergy and to see how they often transformed outside the church with a fellow “insider” beside them, I started to understand. The cynical asides whispered outside the hearing of the faithful, the double lifestyles, the on-stage personae. This may not have been civil religion, but it was not always what it seemed. Teaching in an Anglo-Catholic seminary, I saw high mass as carefully choreographed as an off-Broadway production of A Chorus Line. Civil religion relies on its partnership with the unquestioned belief of the Saturday-night and Sunday-morning crowd. It all fits easily together and runs as smoothly as a pink Cadillac. Just don’t look under the hood.