Home / Articles / Does Donald Trump Believe in American Civil Religion? If So, Which One?
Editor’s Note: The following article is based on a lecture given at the Templeton College Forum at Eastern University on February 17, 2017.
My subject today is American Civil Religion, its problematical relationship to Biblical religion, and especially its sometimes-nefarious influence on U.S. foreign policy. But for this session I thought to describe what we already knew and have recently learned about the faith and practice of Donald Trump. His civil religious rhetoric and theatrics have already proven to be as surprising, indeed unprecedented, as his political campaign and governing style.
Let me begin by reciting a blog I wrote for Yale University Press on the occasion of its publication of my new book in November, just after Trump’s upset victory in the presidential election. That was less than three months ago, but already seems like another age:
Americans [I wrote] are saying good riddance to the ugly 2016 campaign. Many believe Donald Trump, having won, will cease the shock-jock talk and govern as the pragmatic businessman he purports to be. Most experts predict that Trump, like every president before him, will be constrained by the Congress, judiciary, warring bureaucracies, and uncontrollable foreign powers. Thus did Harry Truman famously say of his successor, General Dwight Eisenhower, “Poor Ike. He’ll say do this and do that and nothing at all will happen.” No doubt opponents and supporters alike hope the same will be true of a splenetic, impulsive President Trump.
However, the truth is our long, national nightmare is far from over, regardless of Trump’s performance, because the demographic and economic shifts that caused this year’s political earthquake remain. The widespread resentment of political correctness, open borders, and globalization will only increase as the elites who control the levers of power push back or co-opt the Trump administration. No doubt international banks, multinational corporations, transnational foundations, non-governmental and international organizations, and their intellectual publicity agents in think tanks, universities, and the media have already started to plan how to frustrate dangerous atavistic nationalism in Europe and now America. So what appears now to be a populist victory over globalization may turn out to have been the pathetic yawp of believers in a dying American Civil Religion (ACR) that has morphed since the end of the Cold War into an abortive Global Civil Religion.
This year the Internet has been drenched with speculation about what the Trump campaign means for the ACR that was first described by sociologist Robert Bellah fifty years ago. A Google search for “Trump and American Civil Religion” or “Trump’s civil religious rhetoric” yields a plethora of thoughtful, informed articles and blogs that nevertheless could not disagree more about what that meaning may be. Some are obituaries because their authors suspect Trump has repudiated the idealism characteristic of ACR. Others argue that Trump represents the worst variety of ACR: the chauvinistic Captain America culture that demonizes “the other” and promises only that Americans start winning again. Still others suggest the Trump campaign is the logical outcome of a civil religion that identifies the United States as a new Promised Land inhabited by a new Chosen People blessed by the Almighty with power and prosperity. Now, civil faith is a powerful glue that can help a large, diverse people cohere in good times and bad. But once untethered from the Biblical message that even (or especially) a chosen people come under judgment when they abandon God’s commandments, civil religious solipsism based on vox populi vox dei theology can become destructive, even suicidal.
Is that the case with the worldly, egoistical Trump? He says his favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” the lex talionis which he probably considers a mandate for vengeance (but in fact sternly limits it because “vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord”). Not that Trump was unchurched. His family attended Marble Collegiate in New York City, a Presbyterian congregation presided over by Norman Vincent Peale, the best-selling author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Donald might have learned no theology from Peale or his strong-willed father, but he evidently absorbed a prosperity gospel that, so far as it goes, is very compatible with ACR. But the evidence of Trump’s spiritual life is still thin and the campaign taught us nothing. Rarely do candidates get more specific than “God bless America” lest they sound sectarian, and appeal to specific constituencies only through issues (such as the strong pro-life stand taken by Trump in the third debate). The real proof of his ACR piety will be revealed at his inauguration, for that is the moment when presidents assume the high priestly mantle and usually reassure the whole nation of their ACR orthodoxy. Just view the videos of Barack Obama’s second inauguration, a patriotic liturgy so “high church” it even eclipsed the second George W. Bush inaugural.
What Bellah meant by civil religion was the general belief in a transcendent, spiritual reality guiding the nation through space and time like Jawheh led the Israelites, a cult embodied in myth, ritual and symbol, and a vaguely Unitarian faith ritually invoked by its presidents and other leaders. That transcendent, spiritual reality is what distinguishes civil religion from nationalism and other secular ideologies. Americans never worshiped their government, a fact made palpable by the checks and balances of their Constitution. Rather they worshiped the deity who made them one out of many (e pluribus unum), a new order for the ages (novus ordo seclorum), and blessed their undertakings (annuit coeptis). Consider it a divine right republicanism that replaced divine right of kings.
However, since Bellah did not delve deeply into the phases of American history he missed the fact that at least three ACR’s, or competing orthodoxies, evolved over time as the nation grew into a world power and various sectors came to dominate its economy’s commanding heights. During the nineteenth-century when most white Americans were farmers, merchants, craftsmen, and professionals (in short, proprietors), a Classical ACR preached prudence, frugality, federalism, modest self-government, and a foreign policy focused only on expansion in North America. The Civil War brought wrenching change, but the same list of virtues animated American politics down to the 1890s. By then, however, industrialization, urbanization, mass immigration radically changed American economics, social composition, and dominant cultures. People once self-employed went to the cities and turned into dependent employees of big corporations. Pathologies familiar to us today such as racial and ethnic strife, drug and alcohol addiction, crimes and killings tormented the cities. Political, academic, and clerical elites adjusted to industrialization by presiding over a new “church”, a Progressive ACR in which bureaucratic regulation, public spending, overseas imperialism, and crusades to make the world safe for democracy–forbidden fruit under the old dispensation–became holy sacraments. To be sure, Woodrow Wilson’s utopian project ended in carnage and disillusionment and was followed a decade later by that plague of locusts, the Great Depression. So Americans stumbled through twenty years confused about their ACR, conflicted as to what God intended their sacred nation to do in the twentieth century.
Not even Franklin Roosevelt’s dogged revival of Progressive ACR during World War II sufficed to answer that question. The outbreak of Cold War did. After 1945 the United States exercised a veritable hegemony over much of Eurasia, the Americas, and the oceans between. So when the Soviet Union threatened rather than joined the U.S.-led new world order, the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations rallied a broad consensus behind a militant ACR. God called Americans to lead the Free World and rewarded them for it with unprecedented prosperity. From the late 1940s to the early 1970s even the working classes saw their wages, security, political clout, and dignity soar to unprecedented heights. They in return formed the patriotic base who willingly paid taxes, waved flags, and gave their sons to the military. They believed their elites when they promised nothing less than a united humanity and perfect society, a New Jerusalem and heaven-on-earth sure to arrive on that glorious day the Communist bloc collapsed.
What middle-class and blue-collar Americans did not perceive was the ascent during those decades of the post-industrial financial sector to the commanding heights of the once national, now increasingly global, economy. That sector counted on free flows of capital, goods, ideas, and people across borders and thus had contempt for national sovereignty and messy democracy. Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Trump voters may be distinguished by various, sometimes contradictory traits to be expected of 47% of the electorate. But it is safe to say nearly all are nostalgic or subconscious believers in the Progressive ACR which stipulated American exceptionalism and which used to provide Trump’s constituencies with economic opportunity and affirmation of their traditional values.
Some of Trump’s voters may even be nostalgic or subconscious believers in the old Classical ACR eloquently expressed by President Benjamin Harrison who was elected in 1888. He admonished Americans that riches were not what exalted a people. “It is a pure, clean, high, intellectual, moral, and God-fearing citizenship that is our glory and security as a Nation.” The centerpiece of his moral economy was the tariff because it protected the jobs and elevated the wages of workers. “God forbid,” said Harrison, “that the day should ever come when, in the American mind, the thought of man as a ‘consumer’ shall submerge the old American thought of man as a creature of God, endowed with ‘unalienable rights.’”
The Trump phenomenon burst through this year because the Progressive and financial elites tried to shove extreme agendas down the throats of threatened people whose real wages had stagnated for thirty-five years, and because the “end of history” Global Civil Religion promised after the Cold War was over has failed. But the Trump election does not signal the beginning of some whole new era. It is likely the last hurrah (to quote Ronald Reagan’s prophecy about Marxism) of “a chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”
That was November. What have learned about Trump since? Or what does he want us to think we have learned, because Trump the businessman is a masterful shape-shifting image creator, a genius of marketing whose purpose is to sell a brand through a mixture of illusion and truth. In fact, he is so good that his campaign repeatedly flummoxed the establishment politicians and spin-masters of both political parties. And to judge from his extraordinary inaugural, we have learned – or think we have learned – that an unusually profane candidate has been miraculously transformed into an unusually sacred high priest of American Civil Religion. For the liturgy, symbolism, and rhetoric of President Trump’s inauguration was the most overt, explicit equation of the cross and the flag in American history.
Did you watch the inauguration? Not just Trump’s speech, but the whole thing? It was simply unprecedented, and not only because Trump is the first person elected president with no military or governmental experience, plus the oldest person to assume the presidency, plus the wealthiest man. The inaugural ceremony did not begin with the usual invocation, but rather three prayers of invocation by various clergy. The first, by Cardinal Dolan, the Catholic Archbishop of New York, was typical of presidential inaugurations in that it was non-sectarian. He crossed himself, but otherwise did not use the J-word which some non-Christians find offensive, and chose as his text a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon. The second, by Dr. Samuel Rodriguez, broke with precedent by quoting at length from the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew with its civil religious tropes about “ye shall be as a city upon a hill” and “shall not hide your lamp under a basket.” He concluded, “respectfully in Jesus’ name. Amen.” The third, by pastor Paul White, explicitly called the United States a blessed nation, a gift from God, one nation under God, and a beacon of hope for all men, asked for God to bestow on the nation and its new president wisdom, justice, righteousness, and compassion, and concluded, “Glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
I tell you, not even George W. Bush dared such sectarian language. In fact, Bush was the first president to welcome Muslims into the American church lest the world conclude his Global War on Terror was a religious crusade.
After Trump took the oath of office with his hand on the Lincoln Bible and his family Bible, the new high priest delivered his inaugural address, which he also swore that he wrote himself (though subsequent reports attribute it to his advisers Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon). It was unusually short – just 16 minutes long – but stuffed with unusually many rhetorical echoes. His assurance that he meant to transfer power from Washington, D.C., back to the American people was an echo of Ronald Reagan’s statement that government is not the solution to America’s problems, government is the problem. Trump then promised the “forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” which echoed Franklin Roosevelt’s appeal to the common man and Richard Nixon’s appeal to the Silent Majority. Trump then ticked off a litany of woes that had left many Americans without jobs, without security, without good education, without hope while the rich and powerful exploited globalization. But from now on, he promised, “it’s going to be America First.” Needless to say, much of the establishment media howled in protest against that resurrection of an isolationist phrase from 1940-41, even insinuating that Trump might be a Nazi sympathizer. What they don’t tell you is that the America First Committee was a reputable organization whose membership included future-President Gerald Ford, future Vice Presidential candidate Sargent Shriver, and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and received donations from the future President John F. Kennedy, not to mention all manner of leaders from American business and academics.
Next, Trump promised America will start winning again, winning like never before, which certainly expresses the Power of Positive Thinking that he learned as a boy from his father as well as his pastor Norman Vincent Peale. Next, Trump promised the United States would seek “friendship and good will with the nations of the world,” a direct quote from Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address. Next, Trump promised “we will not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example,” a virtual quote from John Quincy Adams’s famous speech of 1821. Trump then quoted from Psalm 133 to admonish Americans to live in unity, and asserted that “when America is united, America is totally unstoppable” – an echo of Truman’s and Kennedy’s over-the-top rhetoric. Trump echoed nearly all previous presidents-slash-high priests of the civil religion when he declared us “protected by God” and “infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.” Finally, Trump quoted his own stump speech in concluding “We will make American strong again … wealthy again … proud again … safe again … and, yes, great again. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America.”
The benedictions followed, again, not one, but three! The first clergyman to speak was a rabbi, but he was followed by Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, who quoted from 1 Timothy to the effect that we worship “one God and one Mediator, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all” and concluded, “In Jesus’ name. Amen.” Finally, the African-American Bishop Wayne T. Jackson combined Old and New Testament scriptures, concluding “May the Lord bless America … in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.”
No president in American history – not one – has ever sanctioned such public displays of sectarian faith. Civil religion does not draw attention to itself. Civil religion is meant to be unspoken, taken for granted, merely accepted. Civil religious rhetoric has traditionally been communicated through what Aristotle called enthymemes: incomplete, implied syllogisms that invite the audience to supply the missing premise and complete the argument themselves. What made the Trump inauguration unique was the fact that he broke all the rules by allowing (encouraging?) explicit confessions of Christian faith and explicit statements about God’s partisanship.
What are we to make of that and what might it mean for America and the world? The hints offered by Trump’s travel ban from selected Muslim nations and his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2, suggest he champions what The Atlantic magazine has called, “an agenda of religious nationalism.” He even emphasized that religious freedom is under assault abroad, from Islamic terrorists, and at home, from runaway political correctness. Hence, his promise to seek repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits clergy and churches from endorsing political candidates. Interestingly, that provision dates from 1954, the very era when President Eisenhower was drenching Cold War America with ecumenical civil religion, including the National Prayer Breakfast and the addition of “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. The civil religion of that era preached that all Protestants, Catholics, and Jews should worship at the altar of the American Way of Life, but not assert their sectarian differences in any disturbing way. Perhaps Trump, a neophyte to our politics, does not understand that subtlety. Or perhaps he was trying to solidify the surprising support he received from evangelical voters. Or perhaps the inauguration as a whole reflected the influence of Trump’s éminence grise Steve Bannon, who might have inspired Trump’s religious nationalism and now hopes it will impact U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
If so, then the pretense of global civil religion as defined by globalization, open borders, multi-culturalism, political correctness, and too often apostasy may well be challenged by some form of resurgent American Civil Religion, with unpredictable consequences for church and state.