Who is America’s God?Posted: July 30, 2010
Stanely Hauerwas claims that America’s god is dying. The Duke theologian argues that the god of America is unique to American Protestantism:
That is why it has been possible for Americans to synthesize three seemingly antithetical traditions: evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning. For Americans, faith in God is indistinguishable from loyalty to their country.American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce an interesting atheist in America. The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny. Thus the only kind of atheism that counts in America is to call into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Hauerwas goes on to argue that this “belief in belief” has had grave consequences for the church and is leading to the death of American Protestantism as we know it. Hauerwas ends pointing out that America’s god is not the God that Christians worship. The full piece is worth your attention.
What jumped out to me, though, was the connection between Hauewas’ argument and this passage from Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life:
[The totem] expresses and symbolizes two different kinds of things. From one point of view, it is the outward and visible form of what I have called the toemic principle or god; and from another, it is also the symbol of a particular society that is called the clan. It is the flag of the clan, the sign by which each clan is distinguished from the others, the visible mark of its distinctiveness, and a mark that is borne by everything that in any way belongs to the clan: men, animals, and things. Thus if the totem is the symbol of both the god and the society, is this not because the god and the society are one and the same?
Durkheim was describing the religious life of aboriginal Australians but re-read that quote and substitute “nation” or “state” or “country” for “clan.” This is the same phenomenon Hauewas is pointing out. As Hauerwas points out in the opening of his article, American Protestantism grew up in a new country that did no have to identify itself over and against at Catholic past (the Catholic was always an interloping immigrant to the American Protestant, not a historical precursor). Protestantism, then, became part and parcel of American society along with the Enlightenment values of republicanism, and common sense philosophy. As such, the God of America functions–at least as Durkheim and Hauerwas would see it–as the god of the aboriginal clan; flags and all. American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, Spreading Democracy, freedom, equality, the city on a hill, capitalism, In God We Trust, separation of church and state, and all the other ideas, rituals, and myths of the Right and Left in this country carry “the visible mark of its distinctiveness.” They are “everything that in any way belongs to the clan.” They all make up the totem of America’s god. A god placated, promoted, relied upon, and upheld by the religious and the secular, the poor and the rich, the Right and the Left.
Somehow “civil religion” is to shallow a name for the cult of America’s god. It captures everything considered sacred and powerful in the American imagination. It truly is America’s god.