Civil Religion or Christian Nationalism?

Image from Jeep commercial, of cross and map of America on the wall of a small chapel

How scholars use categories to name things, and thereby identify those things that deserve our critical attention, has long interested me. And among the things that have caught my attention over the years is the once prominent category “civil religion” — one made famous by the late U.S. sociologist Robert Bellah, drawing on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s much earlier use of the term in his 1762 book, The Social Contract (for e.g., see book 4, chpt. 8; read Bellah’s influential 1967 essay.) I first came to the term in the light of my studies of commentaries on Mircea Eliade’s early political activities in Romania, as a young man between the world wars. I was curious about the lengths to which his contemporary defenders went to protect him from any criticism — such as claiming that Eliade had exhibited what one scholar characterized as mere “patriotic fervor” or even “non-political nationalism” (see Carol Olson’s The Theology and Philosophy of Mircea Eliade [1992], 44-45 — something I discussed in Manufacturing Religion [1997], 90).

Now, those familiar with how “we” are patriots while “they” are nationalists shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, of course, knowing that national alignments and actions with which “we” agree are easily represented as positive and desirable. This suggests that the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is all in the eye of the self-interested beholder.

None of this is new, of course.

But with recent events in the U.S. in mind — most recently, crosses and flags among the items paraded and wielded at January 6’s insurrection at the Capitol — the category “Christian nationalism” has gained considerable prominence among scholars and portions of the general public alike.

Case in point, just last night, in Jeep’s new ad featuring Bruce Springsteen, the narrative and imagery (a sample of which is above) caught some viewers’ attention.

Not seen the commercial?

That no one seems to be calling all of this civil religion is, to me, the interesting thing.

It either indicates that some remain convinced that there can be a benign or even beneficial alignment of (largely) Christian symbols and the interests of the nation-state (and only that would be called civil religion) or, perhaps, that some now see that all along the category of civil religion was doing some heavy lifting to protect something that many now can’t help but see as problematic. At least that’s what I argued a while back:

[I]t never dawns on those who employ this category that classifying overt political practice as merely a civil religion is itself the height of “nationalist pretension.” (see The Discipline of Religion [2003], 282)

So I guess what I’m asking is whether “civil religion” does any work for scholars anymore — and why or why not. And if the rhetoric of religion has long been attached to authorizing national interests, here and elsewhere, then what work “Christian nationalism” now does for us as scholars. For, as Bellah himself acknowledged in the close to that essay, civil religion “has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions.” No doubt — but the only trouble is that such judgments are inevitably relative to the interests of those who make them, suggesting that the slippage or transition between these two categories provides scholars with an ideal moment to examine further what’s going on when we call something one or the other.

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