Welcome to RelPol, a student peer reviewed online magazine. This magazine is part of the assessment for the module "In God We Trust" @ the University of Hull.
The questions of what it means to be an American, and whether the US is a Christian nation have become seemingly intertwined. From inaugural Presidential speeches to the Pledge of Allegiance, Christianity has permeated the public sphere, and as this becomes more evident atheists have begun to defy it and the implications of this faith embodied within US civil functions. The question of civil religion in the US is not a new one, and there are occasions that indicate its perseverance in the US public sphere as an overtly Christian concept. A recent article by Kimberly Winston announced that the (RNS) Air Force Academy cadets will no longer have to include the words “so help me God” when taking their annual Honor Oath. This decision has become part of a wider campaign against the military to make it a more secular institution. Whether this is part of a new intrinsic appreciation of allowing US citizens to practice their religious preference in government institutions remains to be seen however. The whole oath reads: “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God”. The addition of the ‘God’ phrase can serve to exemplify an overall religious thought; it is not enough that cadets are already sworn in, it holds more significance if God is invoked. This invocation can also be connected to a wider historical code of an American civil religion.
Robert N. Bellah used the term ‘civil religion’ to essentially describe a set of sacred symbols easily recognisable to the public from the USA’s national history. As the US was first conceived of as a place of unhindered religious freedom by the pilgrims that arrived to the New World, the nation itself does have religious connotations. It is well known that Christianity is the main religion in the US, and has indelibly put its mark across many different facets of political life. These concepts have intertwined and can arguably be given refuge in the abstract concept of ‘civil religion’ in regards to the separation of church and state. The Pledge of Allegiance in schools proves that you dedicate yourself to the nation, and in doing so, are in danger of rescinding your right to free speech and conforming to religious expectations. While it is sometimes the case that allowances are made for those with an atheist perspective as there is no compulsory aspect to the Pledge, students like Chelsea Stanton have been punished for not reciting it, and even had to educate her school on her right to sit out of the daily ritual that had been declared by the United States Court of Appeals in 1978. Incidents like these propagate the idea inherent within the US that “good patriots are God believers” and moreover, reveal a lack of legal understanding surrounding this aspect of civil religion. Christianity is given a preferred status in American public life and this enforced allegiance to ‘God’ can be seen as a form of proselytization into American civil religion; to be a ‘true’ American is to be a Christian.
As the US has a very individualistic society, it holds that each citizen does have religious freedom, but when they are confronted with a nationalistic event or speech like a Presidential inaugural speech, many of the symbols are connected with a singular religious tradition- Christianity. Patriotism for America has become intertwined with a belief that it is “under God”, and creates a relationship between the two that can be indistinguishable for many. Civil religion and the imposition of God in institutions has come under attack similarly in schools regarding their obligatory Pledge of Allegiance. One couple in Massachusetts has argued that this Pledge “defines patriotism according to a particular religious belief.” Merely having the Pledge of Allegiance creates a quasi-religious feeling towards the country and despite its notion of freedom, it requires citizens to say this Pledge to be enrolled into its specific brand of conformity by accepting ‘God’. In a way it exemplifies the repetition and standardisation of education, and the attempt to create homogeneity among American citizens. As the phrase “so help me God” was added to reinforce the morality of the oath in the Air Force Academy, “under God” was added to the Pledge in the late 1954 as fears grew about the threat of a godless Communism. Again, this serves to highlight American exceptionalism and God as an integral component of American public life, demonstrating that the US still sees itself as a ‘City upon a Hill’; an almighty being will hold it steadfast. Recently proposed legislation in Arizona that would require students to use the expression “so help me God” has also been criticised for violating the constitution and did not include any exemptions for those who are atheist, or hold other beliefs. This singular belief system imposed onto students creates a pressure to conform, and also questions one’s allegiance to the nation if they decline. While there may be a strong argument that civil religion in the form of ceremonial deism is vague and therefore cultivates no ill feelings, to challenge the Pledge still takes courage when it could entail social exclusion.
The religious stipulations that have been included in the patriotic symbolism of American civil religion have made it somewhat exclusive, and if you defy these traditions it is “un-American”. From my time in America, I understand that despite disliking many aspects of the country, people always hold a sense of patriotism for its idiosyncrasies; simply stating a creed does not inspire love of a country in its citizens. While many of the codes and symbols in American civil religion like the Pledge can stir patriotic feelings, this could be done just as well without the obligatory nod to God.