Skip to main content

Is America losing its civil religion?

ASU Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict scholars weigh in on the religious nationalism at the Jan. 6 insurrection and what it means about the state of civil religion

illustration of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
January 22, 2021

A number of factors contributed to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, but perhaps none were more salient or telling of the time in which we live than the overt religious nationalism on display that day, from nuns in traditional, pre-Vatican II habits to one man dressed as someone from the Book of Mormon. 

The phenomenon — characterized by an excessive and exclusive allegiance to one nation, often expressed through recognizable symbols from religious traditions — isn’t new to America.

“Puritan colonists identified their New World settlement as God’s new Israel and found justification for their decimations of Native peoples in the notion that they were the land’s divinely chosen inhabitants — a justification that would shape the seizure of Native lands over centuries,” said Tracy Fessenden, Steve and Margaret Forster Professor in Arizona State University’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and director of strategic initiatives in the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

She and John Carlson, the center’s interim director and an associate professor of religious studies, are co-directors of “Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism and Democracy in a Post-Truth Era,” an interdisciplinary research project that encourages scholars, journalists and students to deliberate on and create new platforms for thinking and communicating about the pursuit, meaning, discovery and recovery of truth in democratic life.

Both agree that the religious nationalism present at the insurrection in Washington stands in stark contrast to the American tradition of civil religion, which places sanctity in the symbols (such as the Capitol building) and ceremonies (such as the electoral vote count) that represent such guiding principles as unity and dignity for all.

“As Biden reminded us in his inaugural,” Carlson said, “democracy is fragile. We came very close to losing it when Trump and many of his supporters sought to overturn the election. We need a common language or framework within which we can engage our disagreements. Civil religion provides a shared moral framework within which we can disagree, and an account of why democracy is worth pursuing and preserving.”

Below, he and Fessenden delve deeper into the subject and its myriad nuances.

Question: As we look back on the insurrection at the Capitol, how did we see religion on display?

Fessenden: We saw a lot of religious symbols and identifiers (both at the rally and at the Capitol): Catholic nuns in traditional, pre-Vatican II habits; the Jewish shofar, or ram’s horn trumpet; a rioter dressed as Captain Moroni from the Book of Mormon; a self-described QAnon shaman in a horned fur headdress and war paint. Overwhelmingly, however, the symbols were those of evangelical Christianity. The rioters carried crosses, Bibles and signs that read “Jesus saves,” “In God we trust,” “Jesus 2020” and “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president.” Some wore military gear emblazoned with the words “God’s armor.” Demonstrators offered Christian prayers and invoked the blood of Jesus. Christians who blew the shofar saw themselves as reenacting the righteous siege of the city of Jericho by the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. Some pastors in the crowd identified themselves as the “black robe regiment,” a reference to American clergy who were active in the American Revolution. And countless shofars, crosses, Bibles and demonstrators themselves were draped in the American flag.

Carlson: We also saw ways that the vaunted religion of the insurrectionists was not on display. For example, in the book of Romans, the Christian apostle Paul warns that resisting civil authorities is tantamount to resisting God. I’d say storming the Capitol and threatening to hang the vice president come up pretty short on this count.

Q: Religious nationalism is not a new feature of American life. Where have we seen it before in our history?

Carlson: First, let’s define our terms. As an ideology we’ve observed in history and on the rise today, nationalism involves excessive and exclusive allegiance to a nation at the expense of other nations, peoples, interests, loyalties, concerns or forms of identity. Religious nationalism adds a layer by expressing this ideology through recognizable symbols, tropes, events and figures from a religious tradition. Like many nations, the United States has not been immune to religious nationalism.

Fessenden: When deadly riots broke out over Catholic (and some Jewish) protests against the compulsory reading of the Protestant King James Bible in 19th-century public schools, Protestant rioters carried American flags and Bibles along with their guns. The former Confederacy’s heritage of white supremacy was made sacred in the religion of the Lost Cause, whose monuments and symbols found a stalwart defender in Donald Trump. The epic 1915 film “Birth of a Nation,” screened at the White House, depicted the terrorist Ku Klux Klan as Christian patriots and heroes and led to a national revival of the Klan as a millions-strong movement for white Protestant dominance. The so-called Red Scares of the 1920s and 1950s gave rise to religious nationalism in hot and cold wars against “godless communism” — and pushback on interracial labor movements at home. Anti-communism resulted in the words “under God” being added to the Pledge of Allegiance, giving the credence of a quotidian national ritual to the notion that the United States is divinely blessed.

Q: What does the attack on the Capitol teach us about religious nationalism?

Fessenden: White Protestant Christians, long the most visible religious and racial demographic in the United States, are losing their majority status. And the conviction that they are an embattled minority, surrounded by enemies to be vanquished as God commands, runs deep in the thinking of the powerful segment of American Christianity that took part in or cheered the Capitol siege, or that supported the falsehoods that gave rise to it. We have strong evidence that white evangelical Christians are more likely than other Americans to accept the lies that have been told to them by some of their leaders and by the former president: that Barack Obama is neither American nor Christian, that the fearsome “elite” are an immoral cabal, that movements for racial justice are intent on destroying America and that Joe Biden stole the election from Donald Trump.

Religious nationalism requires an enemy. In its American iterations, religious nationalism has taken aim at Native Americans, African Americans, abolitionists, immigrants, Jews, unions, Catholics, feminists, secular humanists and movements for civil rights, most recently Black Lives Matter. Unchecked, religious nationalism has taken apocalyptic form in violent rituals of righteous vengeance. Jan. 6 showed us what those rituals look like.

Q: Another term we sometimes hear about is “civil religion.” What is civil religion, and how is it similar to or different from religious nationalism?

Carlson: I’m glad you asked that, because civil religion was on full display during the inauguration. Civil religion can be described in a number of ways. The sociologist Robert Bellah, who coined the idea of American civil religion, viewed it as an enduring and evolving heritage of ideals, narratives, symbols and events that describe the American experience of democracy in light of higher truths. Pretty academic-sounding. It’s basically our civic creed. When American politicians and citizens appeal to “our values” or identity — we often hear “that’s not who we are as a nation” — that’s civil religion talking.

Civil religion has a prophetic dimension that calls the nation to its highest ideals and criticizes it when we fail to live up to them. Doing so requires appealing to loyalties and norms beyond the nation — ideals such as justice, dignity and truth. It is not only bipartisan, it’s remarkably inclusive. Catholics, Jews, African Americans, Muslims and secular Americans have all served as powerful voices. Finally, American civil religion is distinct from individual religious belief and respectful of its boundaries. In that sense, where religious faith or tradition is “thick,” civil religion is “thin.”

Q: Civil religion is a way for diverse Americans to strive for unity. However, there have been calls from the public over the past week that unity cannot be achieved without accountability. A second impeachment occurred just before the inauguration. What are your thoughts on that?

Carlson: Great point. Both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King — two eminent voices of American civil religion — invoked themes of divine judgment and even punishment for our failures to live up to national ideals.

In order that democracy would not perish from the Earth, Lincoln was willing to go to war, which he later described as a form of divine punishment for the sins of slavery. And of course, King rejected an unjust order based on segregation. His campaign to disrupt that order through nonviolent direct action wasn’t intended to foster harmony among Americans.

Yet King’s visions of a beloved community — glimpses of which appear in his famous “Dream” speech — persist as stirring images of the unity we still aspire to. Unity always presumes a reference point: Around what are we unifying? For Lincoln and King, justice was that point of reference. Biden’s invocation of St. Augustine — asking what are the things or pursuits we love in common — was a similar way of making this point.

Q: Do you think America’s tradition of civil religion has been irreparably harmed? If you believe it can be repaired, what will that take?

Carlson: Civil religion can be an instrument of repair. Many great social movements in our country have relied on civil religious motifs. In movements for abolition, civil rights and the rights of workers, civil religious language prophetically called the nation’s failures to live up to its democratic principles by extending them to all Americans. In so doing, these movements saved democracy.

Q: In light of this discussion, what did you make of Biden’s inaugural address?

Fessenden: President Biden revived the practice of all his predecessors, save Donald Trump, of appealing to the principles of democracy, justice, dignity and truth as binding on all of us. He condemned the violence at the Capitol in the language of religion, asserting the sacredness of American democratic traditions. “On this hallowed ground where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation,” he said, “we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.” In civil religious language, President Biden made his speech the occasion for reconsecrating what the Jan. 6 riots had profaned.

Carlson: What Biden did so well was to lay out why unity matters. It’s a defining feature of who we are as the United States of America. When Biden said “History, faith and reason show the way, the way of unity,” these were three central features of American civil religion from which he was drawing.

Q: Is there anything else you have to add on the subject?

Fessenden: Civil religion is no panacea. Nor are religious nationalism and civil religion always so cleanly divided. Many of the symbols, celebrations and sacred texts of one — the American flag, the Fourth of July, the shining city on a hill, one nation under God — are also those of the other. For some, the idea that civil religion embraces all faiths rings as hollow as the evangelical Christian embrace of the Jewish shofar.

Calling for unity, Biden’s inaugural speech unflinchingly addressed what divides us: the “constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear and demonization have long torn us apart.” No fantasy of American exceptionalism can deliver us from our past. As the new president said the night before the inauguration, honoring the 400,000 American lives lost to COVID-19, “To heal, we must remember.”

But consider the difference between the COVID memorial — the very first national observance of mourning and remembrance in the year of the pandemic — and the angry protests against masks and other public health measures we’ve seen waged in the name of American freedoms. Both invoked American symbols and ideals as sacred. But only one did so in the name of unity and healing.

Carlson: In the end, I’m hopeful about civil religion. It’s a work in progress — like our democracy. Think about these stirring words from Amanda Gorman’s glorious inaugural poem: “Being American is more than a pride we inherit; it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” “The Hill We Climb” was brimming with civil religion — scriptural references; prophetic calls to keep faith with democracy; talk of America’s special blessings and the burdens of its history; warnings about our collective sins as well as hopeful possibilities for redemption. If we view civil religion as some brittle or stale set of precepts, we close ourselves off to new and creative forms it can take.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

More Law, journalism and politics


A gavel sits on top of a laptop.

ASU Law launches AI focus across multiple degree programs

The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University — ranked the nation’s most innovative university since U.S. News and World Report created the category in 2015 — has embraced…

People seated at a conference table smiling.

Business journalists continue to earn premium salaries; 70% report salary increases

Business journalists continue to earn an impressive premium over their general-news peers, while demographic data indicate a strong cohort of female business journalists is making its way up the…

A group of students deliberate in a classroom

ASU hosts first student-led Model Constitutional Convention

Imagine a congressional floor debate between varying political parties that not only puts personal attacks aside, but is civil, respectful and productive. That’s what took place over the weekend at…