At the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies Meeting, Dallas, TX

indexI’m excited to be attending the SWCRS conference in Dallas this weekend. I’m especially excited to be on a panel for the Association for the Scientific Study of Religion tomorrow entitled “Anti-Evolution, the Protestant Ethic, Exceptionalism, and Vitalism.” My paper is “Separating Wheat from Chaff in the Concept of American Exceptionalism.”

Here is a taste of what I’ll be saying in the paper:

American exceptionalism is not a monolithic concept. It is not a signpost with only one side. As an aspect of civil religion, exceptionalism is a coin with two sides. Closed exceptionalism, as one side of the coin, must be faced down to avoid idolatry; open exceptionalism must be faced up to encourage human flourishing. Closed exceptionalism is exclusive; open exceptionalism is inclusive. Closed exceptionalism limits freedom to some; open exceptionalism expands it to all. Closed exceptionalism is self-satisfied, because it is based on determinism. Open exceptionalism is never satisfied, because it is reaching for an ideal based on natural law and rights theory. Closed exceptionalism denies America can do wrong; open exceptionalism acknowledges America’s flaws and endeavors toward improvement. The Christian gospel chastens closed exceptionalism, to keep the nation from becoming an object of worship. Open exceptionalism chastens sectarianism, encouraging the growth of the church while simultaneously supporting religious liberty for adherents of all faith systems.

Both closed and open forms of exceptionalism are aspects of American civil religion. Civil religion is a set of theological beliefs and symbols distinct from traditional religion, yet providing a transcendent paradigm around which the citizenry can unite. The notion of a civil religion was introduced to the Western mind by Jean Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century,[1] but Robert Bellah’s 1967 seminal essay, “Civil Religion in America,” provides the paradigmatic understanding of civil religion for my purposes. Bellah looked at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, noting that the President made several references to America’s special relationship and responsibility to God. Bellah also noted that Kennedy’s references were not in conflict with his Catholic Christianity—he made no references to Jesus Christ, the Bible, or to church tradition. Kennedy was appealing to his religiously diverse audience to unify around certain religious affirmations as members of the same political community. Bellah said that when Kennedy spoke, “his only reference was to the concept of God, a word that almost all Americans can accept” and “there are . . . certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share.”[2] In other words, there are definite religious themes that have existed in the American mind that have continuously formed American culture, identity, and engagement with the world since the inception of the nation at its founding in the eighteenth century, and also of the proto-nation at the planting of the colonies in the seventeenth century. Bellah said of these themes, that they “still provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life”[3] and although he wrote over forty years ago, Bellah’s thesis still holds today. Furthermore, Bellah continues to be correct in his assertion that civil religion is so elemental in America that its sources, beliefs, symbols, and practices must be understood as much as those of any traditional religion.

[1] See Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, The Great Books of the Western World, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, no. 38 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).

[2] Robert N. Bellah “Civil Religion in America,” in Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 170–71.

[3] Ibid.


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