The Problem with Civil Religion


“Civil Religion” was a term first used by the French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to describe the fierce patriotism that one should have for his homeland. 250 years later, and you won’t find many people who can explain the philosophical phenomenon – or really anyone who even cares about it – but the effects of civil religion are still alive and well. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed it in this very country on his trip to America in the beginning of the 19th century, “In the United States they rightly think that love of one’s native country is a kind of worship to which men are attached by its observances.” Nearly 200 years after Tocqueville’s observation, and that “kind of worship” has risen to astronomical levels. And we need to get rid of it.

Now, I’m not saying that we should put a cap on Fourth of July celebrations, or quit swelling with pride when we hear the Star-Spangled Banner – not by any means. Anyone can tell you that I’m the first one with stars in my eyes whenever anyone quotes the Declaration of Independence, and I think a perfect day includes kicking back and reading Washington’s Farewell Address. But the overwhelming notion that a country is something to be revered with a religious kind of devotion is detrimental to society.

Throughout the history of the West, there has been a struggle between two powers: the ruler of the nation, and God. For the most part, these two powers were able to exist simultaneously. But a conflict arises when the citizens’ loyalty lies with their religion instead of their country. What happens then? Further, what happens when you have a country filled with people who aren’t religious? The answer has been, and still is, to conflate religion and country. For those citizens who are religious, you turn your country into the product of their God. For those who don’t subscribe to a particular religion, you give them one. You turn your nation’s birth into an act of divine providence, and make it so that every formal celebration of your country resembles a religious ritual. You chant and sing, and praise the head of your nation in almost god-like adoration.

The result of idolizing your country with a religious zeal, is that you put it first – over everything. When it becomes habitual for people to equate the actions of their nation with the “right” thing to do, they will rarely stop to ask if what they’re doing is actually moral.

The 2016 presidential election is the perfect example. Both primary candidates talk about how they are going to do what is best for “America,” and their supporters fight to the death over who will do the most good for our country. It seems like the natural reaction for a lot of voters is to assume that what is the most advantageous for America is the right thing to do. And maybe it is, but if that conversation isn’t even going to be had, how do we know? Is it really moral to invade foreign countries and topple their regimes in the name of promoting American democracy? Will placing protective tariffs on all American goods really conserve the highest number of jobs? It doesn’t suffice that the answer to these questions be a dogmatic slogan – shouting “Make America Great Again!” or “I’m with Her!” doesn’t get anyone further to what is right.
Those questions, and the conversations that result from them, are stifled when the majority of our populous doesn’t want to stop and consider what is right or what is just. It seems that these days, if you disagree with a viewpoint, or a policy, or really anything that is believed to put America first – you are heckled for hating your country, and given looks that drip accusations of sedition. It is impossible to have a conversation of any depth when the average voter is turned off by anything more than soundbites that invite the cheers of fellow Americans.

The problem with civil religion is not that people love their country – that in itself a virtuous thing – the problem is that revering a nation the way that Americans tend to today, turns men from inquiring souls into mobs driven by emotion colored with fervent nationalism. To put it simply, it turns men from shepherds into sheep.

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