Justice, Bin Laden, and American Civil Religion

As I sat on my couch scanning Twitter and listening to the President describe the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I realized that this was a high moment in American civil religion. Thanks to a couple colleagues here at Emory and our writing group, I’ve had civil religion on the brain lately. As the president repeated “justice…justice…justice,” I began to wonder what Robert Bellah would say.

In 1967 Robert Bellah published his famous article “Civil Religion in America.” Bellah argued that there was an American civil religion that stretched from the founding of the nation up to his day and time. It was a religion born in the Revolution, matured through the Civl War, and at work in the midst of Vietnam. It was a transcendent understanding of the American experience that borrowed from biblical sources but existed alongside traditional religious commitments. It was enshrined in national rituals, inauguration speeches, and historic documents. It included the God in whom we trust, the God who blesses America, and the Creator who endowed us with inalienable rights. Its saints are Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy. It’s shrines are Gettysburg and Ground Zero.

Bellah identified three trials in American history that produced our civil religion. The Revolution brought us questions of independence and the rights granted by God. Then the Civil War challenged us to think about sacrifice–most notably the sacrificial death of President Lincoln–in the face of a moral evil like slavery. In 1967, Bellah saw the third crisis as the contemporary problem of “responsible action in a revolutionary war.”

We still live in the third crisis. The Revolution birthed a civil religion of rights and a God who grants them. The Civil War added a God who demands sacrifice for our national sins. Last night added a God of justice to our civil religion. George W. Bush said that America would bring those responsible for 9/11 to justice or bring justice to them. President Obama declared last night that “Justice had been done.” But what kind of justice?

The Creator in the Declaration of Independence is egalitarian and humanistic. The death of Lincoln is sacrificial. But the justice of American civil religion is retributional. Death requires death. Destruction requires destruction. We see it in our country’s domestic drug policy that locks away young minority offenders and sucks them into a prison industrial complex. We see it in a litigious society that demands all harm be ameliorated with a check. We see it on the streets outside the White House where people celebrate the death of a mass murderer like it was a Super Bowl win. An eye for an eye until we’re all blind.

Osama Bin Laden committed immeasurable evil. In the face of such evil, justice becomes confusing. Justice is easy if someone steals your bike or smashes your car. Justice is harder when someone is killed. Justice seems almost impossible when someone’s evil destroys thousands of people and their families. On a day like today, it feels like justice and evil are incommensurable.

But perhaps the civil religion of Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy can produce a justice that isn’t based in retribution.

Bellah concludes:

“[American civil religion] does not make any decision for us. It does not remove us from moral ambiguity, from being in Lincoln’s fine phrase, an ‘almost chosen people.’ But it is a heritage of moral and religious experience from which we still have much to learn as we formulate the decisions that lie ahead.”


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