A case for civil religion

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA TODAY (February 23, 2009)

Upon first impression, you’d think it was another patriotic country song and video: A man in a cowboy hat sits on the stairs of the Jefferson Memorial, singing earnestly about hard times. Guitars twang in the background. The refrain swells with lyrics about liberty and the Bible. But the scenes shift, and suddenly there’s an Asian-American woman playing a cello in front of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Then: an all-black gospel choir belting out the song with New York’s skyline for a backdrop, and then a man in a Muslim robe with Mount Rushmore just behind him and a woman in the prayer shawl of a Jewish cantor right beside him. Together they sing, “I’m a born-again American.”

It’s Garth Brooks-meets-We Are the World, and it’s not the product of Nashville, but straight out of Hollywood and the imagination of Norman Lear. That’s right — the TV-mogul-turned-activist Norman Lear who brought you All in the Family, The Jeffersons and the separation-of-church-and-state advocacy group People for the American Way.

The Born Again American song (composed by Keith Carradine) and the campaign around it are big hits on the Internet; the website says at least 4.3 million have viewed the video in the month since its release. More important than its sing-along qualities, it declares clearly what many of us have been trying in vain to say over the din of the polarized shouting matches of the era: That liberal/progressive Americans are not enemies of the state, but patriotic Americans with a love of country and a commitment to American ideals.

That a secular Jewish liberal like Lear would put himself on the line with a song extolling “my Bible and the Bill of Rights” signals a growing openness to religion on the part of progressive America. But more than that, Lear and his Born Again American initiative point the way to an inclusive, unifying form of public faith that will serve the country better than the divide-and-conquer religiosity of the old evangelical politics, and the no-religion-allowed excesses of modern liberalism.

It might seem odd that Lear, of all people, would be urging progressive Americans past their inhibitions about patriotism and faith. This is the man once dubbed the No. 1 enemy of the American family by Jerry Falwell, the late Christian right leader, and castigated as “anti-American” and “anti-patriotic” by right-wing groups such as the National Prayer Network.

But those acquainted with the creator of Archie and Edith Bunker know that Lear has always had a spiritual side. At last year’s Take Back America conference — a gathering of progressive leaders and activists — Lear spoke unabashedly of God and gratitude, of religion and reverence; and he called on the assembled to stop ceding the faith territory to outspoken conservatives.

‘I want in’
As the 86-year-old Lear often puts it, religion and the larger search for meaning “are the greatest conversation going — and I want in.” He doesn’t mean a “conversation” like the one we’ve been having, in which one side acts repulsed by any mention of the divine in the public square, while the other claims God as its mascot and wields religion like a political weapon. As progressive evangelical spokesman Jim Wallis of Sojourners puts it, the solution to “bad religion” is not secularism, but “better religion.”

Asked about his vision of constructively applied faith in public life, Lear gets downright lyrical. “I love the metaphor of a 1,500-mile-long river,” he says. “The weather changes along the way. The trees and plants continually change. But it’s the same water, nourishing all the trees, all the vegetation, in all its variations. That’s the way I think about religion. I think of it as reverence. It transcends any dogma. Whether it’s Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or anything else, it’s all that same river of reverence.”

In his work to bring forward religion’s nourishing and inclusive qualities, Lear has an ally in the loftiest of “pulpits” now. At the prayer-filled festivities around Barack Obama’s inauguration, the 44th president made sure that respects were paid to a wide array of faith traditions. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus,” Obama said, “and non-believers.”

What, then, unites us?

Belief in the USA, answers Lear — belief in a Constitution that has brilliantly stood the test of time; belief in shared history, holidays and rituals; belief in the Founding Fathers and the founding documents.

Lear is describing what academics call “civil religion” — a national creed of sorts that unites people across sectarian, ethnic and other divides, and calls them to revere the nation’s ideals with something approaching “religious” intensity.

Like many decent things, civil religion can have a downside. Some of the past century’s ugliest chapters of history had civil religion underpinnings, from Hitler’s and Pol Pot’s genocides to Mussolini’s fascism. Worship of the state can be disastrous theologically as well as politically, a clear violation of the admonition against false gods emblazoned in the Ten Commandments.

Is Lear dipping our toes into troublesome waters with his Born Again American campaign? At least a few think so.

A blogger from the liberal side of Christianity has gone on the record with qualms about Lear’s linking of the Bible and Bill of Rights. Michael Westmoreland-White, the proprietor of the Levellers blog, praises Lear’s interfaith vision but adds, “I don’t want the basis of such dialogue to be a common loyalty to the nation-state that transcends individual faith loyalties. That would make the nation-state our real god (an idol by any other name). … This born-again liberal Christian remains uncomfortable with being a ‘born-again American.’ ”

One conservative Christian publisher expresses doubts about Lear’s campaign for different reasons. “Given the fact that Mr. Lear founded one of the most anti-Christian organizations in America, I somehow doubt that he knows the true meaning of being ‘born again,’ ” St. Louis MetroVoice publisher Jim Day told me. He adds that it would be hard for him to elaborate “without knowing whether or not (Lear) has accepted Christ Jesus of Nazareth as his personal lord and savior … and has cast aside his old life for a new life in Jesus.”

So much for inter-religious respect. Day’s response reminds us of what has been wrong with our approach to religious and other disagreements, and of what is so promising about Lear’s inclusive vision. After decades of culture wars fueled by religious differences, we could be entering a new era in which Americans place more emphasis on what unites us and the rest of the world, and on ways that religion can serve more consistently as a source of unity and uplift.

Allegiance to ethics
The cautions about civil religion are worth heeding, of course. Even so, humility goes a long way toward curbing the potential for abuse and excess. Lear clearly gets this. Being a born-again American, he says, is not about national self-worship but about allegiance to the ethical principles upon which the nation was founded and a commitment to acting on those principles in pursuit of the common good.

As part of his campaign, Lear and his Declare Yourself organization are asking Americans to sign a pledge to become their “country’s keeper” and recommit themselves to active and thoughtful citizenship.

If that’s what it means to be a born-again American, start handing out the pens. And let the conversions begin.

Tom Krattenmaker, who lives in Portland, Ore., specializes in religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. His book on Christianity in professional sports will be published in the spring.

Comments are closed.