Democrats can win elections and bring Americans together by preaching our civil religion. As someone who has spent a career in politics, I have two concerns about President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE. The first concern is about policies he is pursuing, such as the recent tax bill and the ongoing efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act, for example. Such policy disagreements are normal and healthy. If there isn’t disagreement over policy, either the policy doesn’t matter or someone isn’t doing their job.
My deeper concern is over the assault on democratic norms promoted directly and indirectly by this administration. Attacks on the press, bogus claims about voter fraud, publicly questioning the integrity of the courts, and more threaten the very system that allows meaningful policy disagreement to begin with.
A way to conceive of this specialness is through civil religion. First articulated by Rousseau in 1762 and popularized by Robert Bellah in 1967, civil religion is the idea that America is the “understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” For Bellah, our system can be described as a “secular government for a religious people.” This American civil religion provides an origin story, makes sense of our world, and assures citizens that we have a special place in history.
As Bellah wrote, “What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity.” This “religion” has its sacred texts including the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, its sacred places such as the White House, the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, its sacred holidays such as Memorial Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving, its rituals including presidential inaugurations, and its martyrs, President Lincoln, President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
In his 2017 book American Covenant, Philip Gorski wrote that at its best civil religion speaks to the vast numbers of Americans who “know that the American project has a moral and spiritual core.” This tradition recognizes that America has done some profoundly awful things and has a long way to go to achieve the “more perfect union,” but that progress is possible. It is a belief, as President Clinton said in his first inaugural address, that “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” Our civil religion says that America is an exceptional place because it is not a place at all. America is exceptional because it is an idea in which its citizens participate and an ideal toward which our leaders have a moral obligation to strive.
To turn this idea into electoral wins Democrats can learn from the conservative 20th Century scholar Richard Weaver. In Language Is Sermonic, Weaver wrote that the most successful persuasion appeals to fundamental values and locates those values in the current historical moment. Democrats can win by promoting candidates and policies grounded in our shared civil faith. Most recently, Doug Jones’s strategists Joe Trippi and Paul Maslin wrote that one reason Jones won in Alabama was because he was an example of the New South that believes more in working for unity than it wants to wallow in division. In 2004, U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama told an interviewer, “Alongside my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion.” He articulated that faith when he reminded us that “in no other country on earth is my story even possible.” He won his next three elections.
America isn’t a map or a flag. Our country isn’t a president or a party. We are an articulation of a faith in what we are at our best. President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhite House debates vaccines for air travel Five questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward MORE and President Reagan both spoke to the ideals of civil religion. President Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. died for these ideals. Americans usually respond when called upon to rise to these ideals. Democrats should preach the sermon of America to a flock that is being told the best we can get is a good deal on a bad wall. The sermon will likely work, and what’s more, it’s the right thing to do.
Peter Loge is an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He spent 25 years working in Washington as a consultant, lobbyist, and senior staffer in Congress and the Obama administration.