Gimme That Ole Time Civil Religion

This is really a follow up to Whither Fundamentalism.

More from Wood’s book on O’Connor. The history of the thing is what gets me. Sometimes we can look back at the 1950s with nostalgia, nearly all of America went to church. Surely those were better times. Family values reigned on TV: Ricky and Lucy, though married, slept in separate beds. One wonders where Little Ricky came from. But what was really going on?

The other weekend, I heard Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday play some tapes of his father. His dad was a DJ and Scott often came to the studio with him. Someone sent Scott some tapes of his father’s broadcasts and Scott shared them with us. While Scott spoke of his father’s struggles, one thing I heard really began to form my way of thinking about the 1950s. Communism was the big bad guy we faced. They were Communist and we were Capitalist. And Capitalism was good. They were Atheist and we were Religious. So Scott Simon’s dad at one point reminded people to go to the church or synagogue of their choice this weekend because “America has always been a religious nation.” Wow, think of that. People went to church or synagogue because it was the American, unCommunist thing to do. I mean, that makes a lot of sense in light of the relative victory of liberalism over fundamentalism in the 1930s. Churches would preach good, harmless messages about doing good to your neighbor. No one was offended with the gospel but were encourage do be good citizens. At the same time you were fighting Communism.

Now consider this quote from Wood:

O’Connor’s critical independence–her unwillingness to equate Christianity with any scheme or program–led her to reject another consensus that she regarded as far more noxious than bourgeois prosperity and anti-Communist hysteria: the newly emerging American civil religion. Its intentions were no doubt good. As sociologist Will Herberg argued in his influential 1955 book Protestant-Catholic-Jew, various representatives from the nation’s historic faiths joined in an effort to combat ethnic and racial discrimination. United in their opposition to bigotry in all forms, they agreed to ignore their fundamental theological differences for the sake of a common need. The cause of social justice came to be defined, however, as a larger good than the historic traditions themselves. Thus was the old civil religion of Washington and Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers reshaped into a new Americanism that could suffice quite well without any confessional particularities at all…

Not only did the civil religion of the 1950s melt particularized historic faiths into a thin religious gruel; it also made even the most secular Americans into allegedly religious people. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower once declared, “Our government makes no sense…unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith–and I don’t care what it is.” (Wood, 17, 19)

Isn’t that what O’Connor is reacting against? The liberal, tolerant church of the 1950s was American religion. It wasn’t Christianity, it wasn’t Judaism, it was something in between. And all the while, Fundamentalism was marginalized and thought of as backward.

So today there are scholars scratching their heads wondering what happened to the Mainline liberal churches. They are shedding members at an enormous rate. What happened is that the Communism that stood so tall in the 1950s began to lose its threat by the 1960s and when we won the space race in the 1970s they didn’t seem so dangerous after all. I mean there was still the threat of nuclear attack, but as a society, we’d demonstrated our superiority. We just needed to win the cold war and all was right. So a civil religion wasn’t so important any more. It would be more acceptable to be an atheist or agnostic and you probably wouldn’t be called a Communist any more.

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