Berger on American Civil Religion and the Boston Marathon Bombing

Peter Berger has a very smart column describing both the shortcomings and the advantages of American civil religion, as expressed and manifested in the rituals and ceremonies after the Boston Marathon bombing.  A bit:

Soon after the bombings a makeshift memorial was spontaneously put up. A Globe article described it as “an eclectic collection of crosses, candles, teddy bears, medals, running shoes, and hundreds of other personalized items that reflect a common sorrow.” I don’t know when or where this practice originated, but it has occurred on other occasions of shared grief, for example following the death of Princess Diana. There were a few overtly religious messages inserted into the display, but the memorial as a whole had a clearly ritual, quasi-sacral character. People were coming and going, stood quietly in an attitude of prayer, wrote messages. A six-year old girl laboriously wrote a message saying “We love you so much!”. That was the major theme—expressions of affection for the victims. Then there were affirmations of resolve against violence, and expressions of the intent to run again in next year’s Marathon. Sacral ritual or not, no denominationally specific religion was visible here . . . .

The opening address at the Cathedral service was delivered by the Reverend Liz Walker, a Presbyterian minister. I was struck by the following passage: “How can God allow bad things to happen? Where was God when evil slithered in and planted the horror that exploded our innocence?” She said that she had no answer, and added, “But this is what I know: God is here, in the midst of this sacred gathering and beyond.”

I would not be misunderstood: I have no problem whatever for a minister not knowing “the answer” to the age-old question of theodicy. After all, I co-authored a book with the title In Praise of Doubt—by definition, I think, faith implies an absence of certainty—I don’t have to believe what I know. But that is not the point here. The point is this: The faith that Walker represents does have an answer, centered on the redemptive process inaugurated by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, culminating on that Day of Judgment when all evil will finally be punished. But what is more: She could not (whether in tones of certainty or not) explicate this answer in the context of this service. Once again, I would not be misunderstood: I have no criticism of Walker’s reticence about the Christian faith she is supposed to represent. It would have been inappropriate here for her to come out with overtly Christian (let alone with Protestant or, if such there are, Presbyterian) references.  But it is useful to reflect about the relation between any specific faith and the civil religion affirmed in this service . . . .

Grace Davie, a British sociologist, has written about the way in which established churches, in moments of collective grief, become the official mourners of the nation, even though only a minority of citizens worship in their services. The Church of England played this role at the funeral of Princess Diana, as did the Lutheran Church of Sweden (it has recently been disestablished) when the cruise ship “Estonia” sank in the Baltic Sea and a large number of Swedish tourists perished. The United States of course has no state church, but all the denominations together serve to legitimate the civil religion that can be embraced by all citizens.

This is a very distinctive American version of the separation of church and state, a quite strict legal separation, yet with diverse religious groups noisily present in public life. I think that, by and large, this has been a very successful arrangement. It presupposes that a religious group, when it enters public space, must translate its commentaries into terms that can be understood and debated by all citizens, most of whom will not be members of the particular group. Put differently, if one wants to persuade fellow-citizens in public space, one must employ a secular discourse. That discourse does have a moral foundation, the value system of the “American Creed”. Adherents of this or that specific faith may find these values more vague, even superficial, than the ones derived directly from faith, and they themselves may understand their allegiance to the Creed in terms specific to their faith. Thus the secular discourse of the public space coexists with the plurality of specific (if you will, “sectarian”) religious discourses.

I wonder about the point about translation, which reminds me a little bit of Rawls’s proviso.  It may be more accurate to say that the specific religious discourses not only coexist with the civil religion, but themselves somehow constitute it.  That could be compatible with believing that the whole of civil religion is greater (and, of course, also less) than the sum of its discrete sectarian parts.  But it would also be compatible with rejecting the metaphor of translation.  Because, as Berger himself suggests, there are deep features of the specific traditions that do not translate (as in, for example, his example of theodicy) but may nevertheless in some way constitute part of the civil religion amalgam.

One response

  1. Civil religious exercises, including moments of silence, anthems, pledges and oaths, exclude atheists. Occam’s razor answers the theodicy problem: there is no god.

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