Our Civil Religion

In his correspondence, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, most well known for being the first doctor to test the smallpox vaccine in the United States, that, “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.,” going on to profess it as the most natural and reasonable religious stance one could have.  Jefferson, despite our claims to him otherwise, was not a Unitarian.  He was, rather, a deist — that brand of faith held in such high common esteem by almost all of our founders and characteristic of the high enlightenment from which our nation was born.  Deists believed not in the personal God of the Bible, but in the impersonal deity of ‘natural law’.  A God who had set in motion the wheels of the universe but left it up to human endeavor to complete.  Far from the endorsement we might want to claim of Jefferson, his statement was more a reflection of what he and all the founding fathers believed to be the natural conclusion of the grand experiment of the American Republic: That of a people endowed with certain inalienable rights, as all people everywhere should be everywhere.  The Unitarian faith in a God for all people, subject to the dictate of reason, seemed a natural conclusion for Jefferson and many others.

Thomas Jefferson is a good place to begin my thoughts on “Civil Religion” because, like our religion, Jefferson is a study in paradox.  The author of our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson spoke boldly of the need for free discourse in the service of liberty.  The freedom of speech, assembly and religion is at the heart of our nation.  But Jefferson had a shadow side as well.  He was a racist despite his hopes for “eventual” emancipation, a keeper of slaves, even those his own offspring born to his slave Sally Hemmings.  Apparently his claim that all men are created equal had a footnote.

So it is also with our freedoms.  We are both free and enslaved.  Free to speak out for what we believe, but limited in what we say.  This week is the anniversary of the so-called USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act of 2001, a knee-jerk reaction to limit the civil liberties of many in hopes of catching terrorists.  It exists as a shadow to our national identity.  Likewise, we are free to practice religion – a freedom earned through such brave men as Roger Williams, who, in the early days of our colonial expansion, broke away from the theocratic Puritanism of New England and founded the colony of Rhode Island, the first free religious community in America.  But our freedom to practice religion is limited in fact by the overwhelming Judeo-Christian character of our country.  We here, who celebrate the freedom of belief, have to be circumspect about our promotion of freedom.  The fact that we welcome theists as much as pagans is not well known, nor, perhaps, should it be – yet.

I don’t defend our faith, because it is defended by our principles as a nation.  I remind our detractors that we are all bound by our “civil religion”, by which I mean not only the principles (deist that they are) which we live by, but also by the fact that we are all religious.  America, observed the Frenchman, Alex de Tocqueville, is the most religious nation in the world.  The forgotten premise to that is that we are religious in different ways and that is the very foundation of our democracy.

As a religious nation we are bound together by what Forrest Church and others have called the American Creed.  While each of us has our own “religion” it is not the same religion.  “America is faithful just not of the same faith,” wrote Forrest Church.  Our creed, based as it is in the rights of all to basic necessities (what Jefferson called ‘the pursuit of happiness’) and the freedom to believe and act on that belief, are the true heart of this great country, not Christian values.  The mistake that the “religious right” makes here is assuming that our core American values are necessarily Christian.  Our values are informed by Judeo-Christianity, we are a majority Christian nation, but that does not make the American Creed or our Civil Religion Christian.  Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, all agreed on this point.  A natural law, even a higher law, but not a Christian law, binds America. The same higher law that informed Martin Luther King, Jr. to civilly disobey the laws of the land.

Just what is that law?  In short it is the belief that in order to be faithful to our belief in the goodness of all, the extension of compassion and the pursuit of happiness that is our Republic we must have the freedom to follow the faith we hold most dear.  Echoing Roger Williams a century before, Jefferson proclaimed the paradox that in order to live up to the principles of good that the creator has endowed us with we must have the freedom to choose the good.  In other words, any faith, whether it is in the principles of our nation or a faith in Jesus, must be freely chosen to be real.  A coerced faith is no faith at all.

This then is the heart of our civil religion.  We are bound together, each with our own beliefs under One God, E Pluribus Unum, not because there is one true faith but because there is a freedom to have a faith.

This is why such legislation as the “Patriot” Act flies in the face of our civil foundations.  By limiting our expression of belief in the fear of finding “terrorists” we are undermining the very faith in freedom that makes us great. In many ways, this is a sort of “official terrorism”.  We have become afraid ourselves to speak out against the government and in so doing we are being terrorized by our government.

Walt Whitman, the great American poet and Unitarian once wrote, “religion in America, knows not the bibles of the old way but in new ways, the soul freed.”  Why is our civil religion so vital to life?  Because, my dear people, without the very faith in freedom, there would be no freedom of faith.  Without the freedom of expression, there would be no freedom of service.  What makes our nation, just like this church, so spiritually possible is that we couple our freedom of expression with a call to serve.  Look at any totalitarian regime of history and what do you notice?  They don’t last.  Why?  Because without the rights of freedom, there is no responsibility to serve.  And you can only pay or coerce people to serve a dictator for only so long.  True service, the very civility that makes our country, indeed this Church, run from day to day, is the result of the freedom accorded those of us who do serve.  Without it America would fall.  No one to serve the food to the hungry, to drive the sick to doctors, to clean up the cities.  Our freedom of expression naturally entails a freedom to serve, and volunteers make this and any democracy possible.  This is what Whitman meant, by not the old ways of bibles, important as they are to some of us, but the power of the freed soul.  In the freed soul rests the possibility of change.

Jefferson believed that democracy could instill greatness, not because it was rooted in religion, but because its freedom allowed us to choose the possibility of religion as one among many guiding forces in our lives.  Freedom gives us the potential to choose greatness.  And even when we fail – and we have failed often, witness our destruction of Native Americans, slavery and the subjugation of minorities – we are at least called to higher principles by the very fact that we can choose.

This is the heart of how we do religion here as well.  People ask me what we believe, and, when I tell them that we believe in the freedom to believe, they shake their heads and say, “why, that is no belief at all”.  But I say, “look again”.

The very process of democracy keeps us true to a moral pathway.  In choosing to do good over evil, we help to define what is possible.  Is this not Holy?  Is not the power to choose at the heart of every religion?  Choose we must, for without that we already slaves to another truth.  As long as there is a spark of life within us, implied Jefferson, there will be a God calling us to choose and in the choosing we grow.  Amen.

Sources used and recommended:

“The American Creed” by Dr. Forrest Church, 2003

“The American Soul” by Jacob Needleman, 2001

The United States Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights.


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