American Civil Religion: a book review

American Civil Religion is not Christianity, nor is it any of the great world religions. The term ‘civil religion’ describes the way politicians use religious imagery and  myth toward nationalistic ends. It denotes the way national symbols and political rhetoric comes to take on  religious characteristics.  Gary Laderman writes:

Americans live by common myths, or sacred stories that express the ideals and fears, moral imperatives, and shared themes that make sense of the world and orient the American nation in a larger, cosmic sense of providence, destiny, and God’s designs. It is in this combination of myths, rituals, morality, God, and meaning that religious nationalism assumes form and acquires content as a religious culture generally under the public radar, but certainly a prime driver in American politics.(19)

American Civil Religion by Gary Laderman

Laderman is professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University and a deft guide through the pseudo-religious landscape of American civil religion. His new E-Textbook from Fortress Press,  American Civil Religion  examines the intersection of religion, politics and culture. The e-book structure allows him to include images, link to relevant online media sources (i.e. YouTube) to present a text that is as dynamic as it is informative.

Laderman begins each of the three sections of this book with a case study from American history which explores a particular theme. In part one of this book he examines the past and present of civil religion in America. His ‘case study’ is the flag-waving after September 11th.  Citing Robert Bellah, he argues that in times of social crisis Americans ‘find solace in their sacred status (29).’  The flag becomes a sacred symbol because of the ritiuals surrounding it which point to shared identity and transcendence.  The American brand of ‘civil religion’ owes much to its protestant and Puritan heritage which affirmed the absolute transcendence of God and his involve in political affairs.  This heritage, combined with the Deism of the founding of America also left an indelible mark  giving Americans sacred principles to rally around (connecting God and national destiny, self-determination, religious freedom).

In part two Laderman describes how war and violence are sacramentalized by the body politic. The civil war is his case study and a prime example of how ‘sacrifice for the union’ took on a spiritual dimension.  The death of Abraham Lincoln became a symbol of unity for the Union and the ritual surrounding his travelling embalmed body brought cohesion to a nation in need of healing. Certainly the civil war was not the only example of this: wars and rumors of wars abound in American history. Laderman examines a number of moments of crisis in American history where the rhetoric surrounding the death of soliders takes on a religious/transcendent dimension. Presidents from both sides of the aisle use religious imagery to justify wars and honor the dead.

Part three describes how the political leaders make use of sacred symbols in pop culture. Laderman’s case study is Ronald Reagan’s attempt to co-opt Springsteen’s Born in the USA. However  Reagan is not the only president to take hold of cultural images. Other presidents have made use of the media and new technologies to serve their ends  (From FDR’s Fireside chats to Obama’s YouTube channel and beyond). In the last chapter Laderman discusses the plurality of “American Civil Religions” as each religion (Christianity in Protestant and Catholic varieties, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism  etc) is  used to serve national and cultural ends.

This is a meaty little book (93 pages with pictures). It offers an astute analysis of the religious character of American culture and institutions.  Laderman is a historian and the chief value of this book is the way he illustrates ‘civil religion’ with examples from our history.  If you are looking for a book which examines how religious metaphor has been co-opted in the American context, this book provides an insightful analysis. Laderman stops short of telling readers what their response should be to these trends. Clearly sometimes the religious dimension to American public life has served some good. However, sometimes  the trends are somewhat troubling and American civil religion tends to over-promise. Reaching for transcendence will do that to you.

I enjoyed this book and the use of images and video clips enriched the text. I give this four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Fortress Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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