Exploring American Sacred Values

Kendal P. Mobley, Th.D., Assistant Professor of Religion, Johnson C. Smith University

G.K. Chesterton famously characterized the United States as “a nation with the soul of a church” and “the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed” (i.e., the Declaration of Independence). This seminar will explore the idea that the central tradition of America nationalism has always incorporated elements of religious discourse, while avoiding the extremes of religious nationalism (“America was founded as a Christian nation!”) and radical secularism (“All reference to religion in public spaces is un-Constitutional!”). We will examine significant rhetorical characterizations of the American Revolution and the Civil War, national holidays, monuments, symbols, and rituals, the ceremonial role of U.S. Presidents, the enshrinement of core texts of the American nation, the sacrificial-salvific language associated with military service and veterans, and the relationship of ethnic and racial minorities to the civil religious discourse.

To facilitate our discussion, we will read sociologist Robert N. Bellah’s 1967 article, “American Civil Religion,” in which he argued that America’s civil religion is embodied in a sacred history, rituals, documents, symbols, observances, and values, which express “the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged.” For more than fifty years, historians and sociologists have built upon and sometimes debated Bellah’s proposal. We will also read a recent monograph by sociologist Philip Gorski, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2017), in which he argues that nonsectarian civil religion, which he calls “Prophetic Republicanism,” has been a key element in the cohesion of American nationalism. Here is a link to Gorski’s introductory chapter.