The Left Wing of America’s Civil Religion

In a few of my past columns I focused attention on the right wing of America’s civil religion. Now it … Continued

In a few of my past columns I focused attention on the right wing of America’s civil religion. Now it is time for the left wing. In a recent column for The Washington Post and On Faith, co-moderator Sally Quinn gives perfect-pitch expression to what I have in mind.

Ms. Quinn urges Barack and Michelle Obama to choose the Washington National Cathedral as their church when they move to Washington in January. Why does she think the Obama family should become part of the cathedral? Because, she says, compared with “all of the other sacred spaces in Washington,” the cathedral “is the most pluralistic of the places of worship I’ve been to.” By pluralistic she means that although the cathedral is “nominally an Episcopal church, it welcomes everyone. It is at once deeply Christian and deeply interfaith.” Quinn quotes Sam Lloyd, the current dean of the cathedral, as saying, “We are a place that welcomes people of all faiths and no faith.” In fact, the cathedral is so pluralistic that in welcoming “people to have the experience of being part of a faith community,” it offers itself, in Lloyd’s words, as a “space for people to come on their own terms.”

This, however, does not sound like a faith community but like a gathering place of many faiths where everyone agrees (“believes”) that each person may gather on his or her own terms. Pluralism in this sense secures an all-inclusive gathering by vacating or minimizing what is shared in common by those who have gathered.

Why should the Obamas want to attend the cathedral? Quinn thinks it is because two years ago Obama said in a speech that the United States is “no longer just a Christian nation. At least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation and a Buddhist nation and a Hindu nation and a nation of nonbelievers.” But what Obama was saying is that the United States is a very pluralistic political community, a community of citizens that is not qualified by a single faith. One’s faith is not a qualification for membership in the political community.

But Quinn does not think of America as a political community alone. She presents it as a civil-religious community whose diversity needs to be held together (even trumped) by an overarching unity. That unity is characterized, in part, by a common faith that transcends all parochial and sectarian communities of faith. Quinn is drawing here on an idea that is as old as America.

The politically dominant White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), who worshipped in a variety of churches, welcomed immigrants from many countries but wanted all of them to become good Americans, that is, the kind of citizens who would share the WASP view of the nation and the American way of life. WASPs were especially suspicious of, and at times strongly antagonistic toward, Roman Catholics throughout most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So much so that they structured the education systems to make sure that only the “nonsectarian” Protestant schools received public funding and Catholic “sectarian” schools had to survive (if they could) with private funding.

Today, of course, the government-run schools no longer privilege the WASP point of view and try to be as all-inclusive as the Washington National Cathedral wants to be. Quinn would undoubtedly approve this development as truly progressive. But while she may have relinquished the WASP version of America’s civil religion, she has by no means given up on an American civil religion–one she hopes can be all-inclusive.

Those Americans who might be uncomfortable (or perhaps even deeply offended) with membership in the cathedral would be those who believe that the Jewish or Muslim or Christian faith community does not coincide with the national political community. If one goes to the heart of the Christian faith, or of most faiths for that matter, one will discover that members of the Christian faith community do not “come on their own terms” but on God’s terms. In fact, Episcopalians who believe that the church cannot be both “deeply Christian” and “deeply interfaith” at the same time and who would contend vigorously for an exclusively Christian membership in the cathedral would surely be seen by Quinn and Lloyd as exclusivists who do not share the all-inclusive faith of the cathedral’s community. Rigorous all-inclusiveness must exclude someone, namely those who do not agree with the terms of all-inclusiveness.

Quinn’s confusion comes from having ignored the most important basis of pluralism that the United States offers. Precisely by distinguishing the political community from many faith communities, the U.S. Constitution opens the public arena to diverse faith communities, all of which are free to be exclusive in their membership while being included on equal terms in American society. Quinn, by contrast, wants to hold onto an American community of faith. And to do that she needs to find a “church” that is so all-inclusive that it can serve as the “sacred space for the nation,” as “a place the nation looks to in critical times.” But such a “church” can, by definition, no longer be an institution of Christian faith, for it has to serve the whole nation. Therefore, it has to be a place where the American civil religion can be celebrated, a religion distinct from all other religions even if it claims to include and encompass them all.

In essence, Quinn implies that other “sacred spaces” in Washington are not adequate for the Obamas. Why? Because she is thinking of the Obamas as the nation’s first family, not as a Christian family. Yet what if the Obamas want to join a community of Christian faith rather than a community of civil-religious faith? What if President-elect Obama views the office of the president as an office of the political community and not as an office of America’s civil religion? Will Quinn think less of the Obamas both as Christians and as the first family if they decide not to join the Washington National Cathedral?

James W. Skillen is president of the Center for Public Justice in Annapolis, Maryland. He is author of several books, including “With or Against the World: America’s Role Among the Nations,” and “In Pursuit of Justice: Christian-Democratic Explorations.

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  • Robert_B1

    Leaving aside the strangeness of a religiously pluralistic nation having a “National Cathedral”, I’ve never been comfortable with this house of worship. True, it’s Gothic-style facade makes it far more interesting that most Washington buildings (as a medievalist, I’ve never been fond of neo-classical architecture), the imagery used in the interior always struck me as being far more focused on national pride than the worship of God. Maybe it’s just me…

  • worldviewpr

    Skillen’s premise also can instruct the other side of the street where Conservatives talk about U.S. as “Christian Nation.” Unfortunately, both sides of the aisle appropriate this language about “chosen nation” or “city on a hill” that is used to justify “American Exceptionalism,” that is beyond critique.Perhaps Republicans in California can rebuild along these lines and challenge the biggest obstacle of all to education reform, the Blaine Amendments created in Western States to ban “parochial schools” from “public” squareSee GOP in the Land of Oz

  • sparrow4

    I get a certain dissatisfaction on Mr. Skillen’s part that there be a pluralistic sacred space. I highly doubt Sally Quinn takes issue with where the Obamas ultimately decide to worship. I think she is more concerned that the President of the United States send a clear message to the country that this is a pluralistic nation and that pluralism does not take anything away from Christianity, or any other religion. To a country already battered by the religious wars, its the right message to send by the President we elected to represent us.If Mr. Skillen is so misguided or conservative he feels pluralism undermines his Christianity he can go to a monastery. I’m sick of this “we’re a Christian nation” garbage. Sick of it.

  • bcwearne

    What I find missing in Skillen’s reply is any diagnosis of the Quinn article as an “in yer face” attempt to manoeuvre public discussion about the President’s faith onto one side in a denominational dispute. Just yesterday the headlines were full of news from Wheaton Illinois of a new episcopal denomination, in dissent from the Washington Cathedral’s denomination. Skillen’s reply to Quinn brilliantly exposes the inner weakness of her inclusivist ideology by showing her support for a denomination mind that repeatedly aspires to change churches with their own religious beliefs into religious communities with the soul of the state.

  • sparrow4

    I have no sympathy for denominations that don’t believe in equal rights under the law for all Americans. If the Washington cathedral denomination does, more power to them. Like it or not this is a pluralistic society and I have no idea what the religious right is so frightened of? that people will think for themselves? That their religion will be destroyed? Do they not have enough confidence in their religion that they have to attack every difference of opinion?

  • bcwearne

    To identify inner weaknesses in a religious argument put forward by an advocate of the “inclusive religious left”, does not have to mean a rejection of equal rights for all citizens under the law. Nor does it make one an exponent of the “religious right”. To take Skillen’s argument one step further would mean clarifying what is meant by the confusing tendency of assigning POLITICAL labels of left and right to religious beliefs put forward by CHURCHES (chapels, synagogues, mosques, temples). I’m not suggesting that this only happens in a “theoretical” sense; the confusion is obvious within churches – Anglican churches in particular. If CHURCHES want to transform their church’s beliefs by imposing a political stand that is derived from current political debate well how can they be prevented by law from doing so? It’s an internal church matter. After all, free exercise means that churches and church members should be free to develop their beliefs without State imposition and political interference. Right. But likewise members of those churches can quite legitimately dissent from efforts to convert the soul of their church into a colony that takes its (politically correct) orders from the leading voices in the polity.

  • sparrow4

    “But likewise members of those churches can quite legitimately dissent from efforts to convert the soul of their church into a colony that takes its (politically correct) orders from the leading voices in the polity.”Yes they can dissent but what does it say for faith when it acts inhumanely. And equality is about being humane. If the soul of the church is so weak it cannot withstand a little compassion and understanding, it’s not worth very much. And don’t forget, the church has no problem forcing itself into the political arena, so they really don’t have much to complain about. turnabout is fair play.

  • worldviewpr

    Sparrow4, you may be misreading Skillen. I understand him to say that the public space ought not discriminate against any worldview whether secular or some other revelation; left-or-right. His critique certainly applies to the religious right, not just the left. Like you, he in fact argues for true pluralism. He simply warns that even civil religion is just as exclusionary as any other and tempts establishment under the guise of some fictitious neutrality.

  • sparrow4

    worldviewpr- you’re right. I might be. I just looked at his sentence “This, however, does not sound like a faith community but like a gathering place of many faiths where everyone agrees (“believes”) that each person may gather on his or her own terms. Pluralism in this sense secures an all-inclusive gathering by vacating or minimizing what is shared in common by those who have gathered.” I find the last sentence disturbing because he seems to be saying that being inclusive diminishes our commonality, whereas I think it enhances it. I don’t see how it is vacated or minimized.

  • sparrow4

    Actually, on further consideration, Mr. Skillen is guilty of exactly what he is accusing Ms. Quinn of- politicizing the church. He is one who uses the term “left-wing.”

  • worldviewpr

    Skillen dropped the L-word, eh. Fear not.Actually, most Christian commentators, from Wallis to Dobson—and apparently Skillen in the middle somewhere—honestly admit to a left-right spectrum within Christian thought as far back to at least the Reformation. It’s just an honest acknowledgement that no one takes personally except perhaps for our sensitive secular friends who may mistakenly see it perhaps as some sort of red-baiting.Which itself points out the tendency of secularists to believe they are spiritually “neutral” to questions concerning the “good life;” by crying “foul” when some religious nut calls them on their own prejudice.

  • sparrow4

    Be that as it may, I think in context he is using it in the political sense. You do have to admit though, the religious right always assumes secularists, agnostics and atheists are bad, no matter how much crime is committed by religious people. Can’t blame them for getting a little touchy 🙂

  • FulltiltLtd

    Sparrow,I’m coming late to this discussion but chill a bit…Mr. Skillen is neither misguided not conservative, nor is he saying that pluralism undermined his Christianity. He is saying that a politically pluralistic/diverse culture which must uphold certain values for all of its constituents, is very different from a faith community which is only a faith community to the extent that adherents have mutually agreed to certain distinctives. Would you force Jewish religious communities, be they consevative, reform or other to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus or the efficacy of the supposed revelation to Mohammed? A pluralistic political community has nothing to say about such distinctives and can and must include Jews and Christians and Muslims and those with no cultic relgion at all with equal treatment. But religious communites have plenty to say about their own distinctives, and their adherents should be free to do so without having their place at the political table removed or their voices silenced because their religious distinctives do not bow at the alter of political pluralsim. By the by, as a Christian myself (politically liberal, theologically conservative) I concur with your being sick of the Christian nation cant…you rightly perceive that disingenuous politicos have injected “God Bless America” in ways and places that it does not belong…but Mr. Skillen is very right to be dubious about a secularly approved “pluralistic sacred space”…which would be no sacred space at all, but rather more like a Rotary club with insipid civics lessons in place of any truths.

  • PeterAttwood

    I don’t know what right- and left-wing mean, and I don’t think anyone else does until they give a coherent definition. I certainly don’t see how Skillen’s objection to Sally Quinn’s recommendation that the Obamas join the Washington Cathedral has anything to do with being right wing.Being a Christian has to do with being a disciple of Jesus, not belonging to some group that includes everybody. Jesus accepted anybody that wanted to come to him; he is as inclusive as it gets. But coming to Jesus entails taking up our cross and following him, a tight and narrow way that few find, and that’s pretty exclusive. Sally Quinn, or John Hagee, or Joel Osteen can come up with other ideas if they want, but for no Christian can improve upon what Jesus said about it. Go ahead if you want, but whatever it is, it’s not Christian so far as that has anything to do with Jesus, who remains a most significant figure in the faith.Obama’s job is to be President of the United States. You can read about that in the US Constitution; there’s nothing there about being religious includer-in-chief. Skillen objects to drafting him into such a role, which no President is hired for or is competent to perform, even if such a thing ought to be done. What does that have to do with being right- or left-wing, whatever those are? And what does it do for constitutional government to even allow the President into such a role, much less encourage it? Isn’t it better for him and us to remember that he is a hired hand and manager, and do everything to hold him to that limited role?Skillen has pointed out that those that have adored Bush as a Christian leader and those that want to make Obama a mushy religious universalist Pontifex Maximus are all one thing. How right he is!