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Democratic Governance Rests on a Shared Civil Religion



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As I write this, I am reflecting on the nation’s successful transfer of power on January 20, despite the cynical and seditious efforts of former president Donald Trump and many Republican Party members of the House and Senate to claim that Trump, and not Joseph Biden, had been freely and fairly elected in November. Trump lied to his party’s faithful for months and many elected GOP federal leaders went along with that Big Lie by claiming that a grand conspiracy involving hundreds of Republican and Democratic Party officials and corporate actors across the nation had “stolen” Trump’s otherwise landslide victory. It was an ugly, baseless and sinister fantasy that persuaded many GOP followers that somehow President Biden’s election, and therefore his administration, was not legitimate. It did so, it must be emphasized, on the basis of no evidence. For some individuals and groups, that belief, with Trump and a share of those same Republican congressional leaders seditiously inciting them, led a mob to desecrate the Capitol on January 6 in a violent attack that resulted in five deaths and sullied the nation, its Constitution and its founding principles. Indeed, millions of Republican Party devotees continue to profess that they believe either that Trump actually won the election or that those carrying Trump flags and wearing Trump regalia who marched from a Trump rally at the White House, at which Trump urged them to go to the Capitol to commit violent infamy, were false stand-ins aiming to make the former President look bad. This nonsense must be labeled for what it is, insanity.[1]

The hard question President Biden now confronts after four years of such senselessness constructed on the basis of countless lies, conspiracy mongering and racist pandering is how to bring those who have believed Trump’s posturing back to reality. Biden has asked GOP officials to support that effort as the country confronts the raging pandemic that Trump dismissed as a hoax and never addressed effectually; a weak and declining economy as a result of that pandemic; and the authoritarianism the GOP’s willingness to embrace a narcissistic would-be autocrat both enabled and revealed. 

President Biden devoted a share of his Inaugural Address to pledge that he would work for all Americans and to share the truth about this difficult moment:  

Few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now. A once-in-a-century virus silently stalks the country. It’s taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II. Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses closed. A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. A cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat. To overcome these challenges—to restore the soul and to secure the future of America—requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.[2]

Unless those Republican officials who committed sedition and endangered their own and many innocent lives soon experience an epiphany, and a large share of the millions now claiming to believe Trump’s lies do the same, President Biden’s call for unity will be extraordinarily difficult to attain. Instead, absent such a change, those embracing the Party’s ongoing anti-democratic theater of the absurd will continue to undermine the nation’s prospects for economic recovery and certainly for social healing and a long-term return to widespread support of Constitutional principles. In short, the Republican Party, and especially its leaders, now must make a choice. They can continue to embrace racism, white supremacy, often empty-minded cruelty, and anti-democratic nationalism devoid of reality that relies on the whims of one individual, and to continue to act as if they and they alone can represent the American people even when the latter collectively choose not to place them in power. Alternatively, they can reject that stance in favor of a reasoned politics that accepts the nation’s pluralism and place in a globalized world. The latter would certainly not prevent the party from offering its own vision for the nation, but it would demand that it do so within the confines created by the Constitution, the realities of the composition of the country’s population and the human and civil rights of all of those who comprise it.    

Put differently, the stark question now confronting the Republican Party’s officials and followers is whether they will continue actively to attack democratic self-governance by reveling in the false claims of a now fully disgraced and sullied “leader,” or will once again act as citizens and assume some responsibility for charting a path forward to address the country’s very deep challenges, including many that they have actively fomented. As Yale University historian Timothy Snyder has commented recently, Trump and his party’s post-truth claims constitute a “pre-fascist” reality and,

Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. [3]

Political scientist Julie Wronski, of the University of Mississippi, has concluded similarly that the Party and its constituency’s embrace of a post-truth cruel fantasy politics has, in fact, made the country ungovernable or very nearly so:

[W]hen Americans are divided on simple facts, and live in two different realities, we are not a governable people. To put it another way, when two people playing a game cannot agree on the basic rules and layout of the game, they cannot play. When groups within American society believe in two different sets of rules on how to play the game of democracy, it cannot be played and we become ungovernable. Biden has a long, uphill road ahead of him coming into the presidency, on one hand, he has put in much work with his transition team on vaccination and stimulus plans. He comes into office as a man of respect and civility, who wants to bring relief to the American people. On the other hand, our country is fundamentally divided and Congressional Republicans may want to continue playing hardball, like they did during Obama’s presidency.[4]

All of this has reminded me of the philosopher and theologian Henry James Sr., the father of the great American novelist and essayist, Henry James Jr. and the distinguished philosopher and psychologist William James, who was himself a deeply learned and thoughtful author. James was profoundly interested in a religion that, although he wrote in the 1870s, prefigured the view later adopted by the Progressives, 

The religion of progressivism … broke with the orthodox Protestant assumption that ‘God's redemptive operation,’ to quote Gronlund, is ‘confined to the isolated individual bosom’ and refused to make religion a private affair between one man and his God. For the progressives, God appeared to man through men and revealed himself in human history and institutions. Men were damned or saved collectively. They entered into communion with God when they shed their selfish personalities and united with one another in a confederation of love. According to this religion, social evil was not confirmed by individual criminal acts but by what the elder Henry James called ‘our organized inclemency of man to man.’ And in turn, social good could not be attained through individual acts of charity but through the organized clemency of man to man.[5]

What this suggests by analogy for the civil religion of our nation moving forward is a compelling need to develop a broad coalition of Americans who not only live in reality, and acknowledge that fact, but who also imagine themselves within that reality as members of a collective and not simply as atomized individuals. More, as James and President Biden alike have emphasized, they will need to understand that effective and equitable social change and social good cannot be obtained by the acts of individuals alone, but must occur through the power only attainable through shared action.

Taken as a whole, this analysis implies that GOP leaders must overcome their cynical willingness to divide and suppress/oppress citizens to secure power, and instead work assiduously to find ways to bring their followers to accept the fact that they have been lied to with impunity concerning the election and pandemic and much else besides. They must also reconsider their long-term ideological tenet that governance itself is somehow illegitimate and the market alone is sufficient to secure social organization and freedom. Events have shown these Manichean assumptions to be gravely mistaken and even tragic in their consequences, as most recently revealed by the attack on the Capitol. Nevertheless, as Wronski noted, it will be very difficult for those who have used these arguments to secure power to overcome their siren call and to work on behalf of the nation instead. Indeed, the evidence of more than 100 House members voting after the Capitol riot to set aside the fairly decided electoral will of the people in two states, is evidence of the craven corruption of this group.

As Robert Bellah, a distinguished sociologist (1927-2013) who examined America’s civil religion with depth and precision, argued some decades ago:

While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of ‘the American Way of Life,’ few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America. … I think it should be clear from the text that I conceive of the central tradition of the American civil religion not as a form of national self-worship, but as the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged (italics in original).[6]

It is to this civil religion and set of ethical imperatives that President Biden appealed, and it is to this reflective tradition that the major share of the Republican Party must return in lieu of its present devotion to a proto-fascist, self-worshipping authoritarian populism. Its leaders must show the way. President Biden has already expressed his desire to work with any and all who wish to address the nation’s deep challenges and some Republicans have demonstrated a willingness to acknowledge reality and to punish Trump for his crimes. This said, the ball is squarely in the GOP’s court concerning whether the nation can be made governable and can rise collectively to address its signal perils. Both the test and the onus are clear. What is less clear is whether elected Republican leaders will see their way to adopting an ethics of the nation, rather than a continuing subversion of that possibility in order to exploit fears and to divide citizens in efforts to secure and maintain power.


[1] Lerer, Lisa and Reid J. Epstein. “Abandon Trump? Deep in the G.O.P. Ranks, the MAGA Mind-Set Prevails,” The New York Times, January 21, 2021, Accessed January 21, 2021. See also Herndon, Astead W. “How Republicans Are Warping Reality Around the Capitol Attack,” The New York Times, January 17, 2021, Accessed January 17, 2021. 

[2] Biden, Joseph R. Jr. “Inaugural Address,” by President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., The White House: Speeches and Remarks, January 20, 2021, Accessed January 20, 2021. 

[3] Snyder, Timothy. “The American Abyss,” The New York Times Magazine, January 9, 2021, Accessed January 9, 2021.

[4] Wronski, Julie, as quoted in Edsall, Thomas. “Is America Ungovernable Now? Joe Biden is About to Find Out,” The New York Times, January 20, 2021, Accessed January 20, 2021.

[5] Aaron, Daniel. Men of Good Hope. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961, p. 133.

[6] Bellah, Robert. Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 168; “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 96(1), (Winter), 1967, pp. 1-21, Accessed January 22, 2021. 

Publication Date

January 25, 2021