On September 24, 1789, the Conference Committee of the United States Congress, chaired by James Madison, concluded that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Just nine days later, President George Washington’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation recommended and assigned to the people “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer…to Almighty God,” so that “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations” might “promote the knowledge and practice of true religion.”
This tension between the Constitution, which resolutely avoids entanglements with religion, and the civil religion of political speeches has been with us from the founding of the country. But are these vague, anodyne, somewhat but not specifically Christian references that we call “civil religion” appropriate for a pluralistic democracy? It’s all in the details: the choice of theological vocabulary, the occasion, the social context.
Most Americans are comfortable with—and comforted by—eloquent, understated, and timely expressions of religious sentiment on the lips of political leaders. These happen regularly in small or medium-sized gatherings: campaign stops at houses of worship, prayer breakfasts, smaller acts of Congress. And sometimes civil religion has taken center stage, usually during times of national thanksgiving, preparation for war, or consolation after a tragedy.
At its best, civil religion appeals to the better angels of our nature. It inspires hope in a universal providence that transcends us all. It foregrounds compassion and helps to forge the hard-won unum out of our factionalized pluribus.
Lincoln charted the course in his Second Inaugural Address by his humility before God’s will: “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer was as explicitly religious as any presidential speech in our history, but it suited the occasion and offered a necessary balm to existential fears. He spoke of faith, sacrifice, the struggle for liberation, and the strength “to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies.” Like Lincoln before him, he concluded with submission to God’s will.
In response to national tragedies, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush invoked Scripture to console the American people. After the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton drew from the Psalms to remind us of the mystery that “the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness.” In a gripping speech shortly after 9/11, Bush summoned Paul’s letter to the Romans to reassure us that no power on earth or beyond “can separate us from God’s love.”
American civil religion has been traditionally rooted in humility and submission to God’s will, the sense that God is not aligned with any party or faction in this passing world. Speechwriters alluded to texts of near universal resonance, with special fondness for themes of liberation. Both the descendants of voluntary immigrants and the descendants of former slaves could read themselves into the story of Exodus and make it their own. Our greatest civil-rights leader had himself “been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land” on April 3, 1968.