Civil Religion for a Diverse Nation

By John T. McGreevyAugust 25, 2016

Civil Religion for a Diverse Nation

The Origins of American Religious Nationalism by Sam Haselby

EXACTLY 50 YEARS AGO, in the summer of 1966, sociologist Robert Bellah composed what would become one of the most cited scholarly essays of the postwar era. The title, “Civil Religion in America,” was unprepossessing, but the timing was superb. Bellah’s avowed task was to better understand how a particular national community, the United States, articulated its deepest values.

The controversy provoked by the essay stemmed chiefly from the deepening American military presence in Vietnam. Bellah’s tone was affectionate, but critical. He scanned the writings of the American founders, moved to Abraham Lincoln, and then concluded with John F. Kennedy. What, for example, did it mean for Kennedy to claim, in his inaugural address, “God’s work” as “our own”? The phrase had nothing to do with Kennedy’s Catholicism, Bellah reassured his readers, or, for that matter, with any particular church. But such Messianic attempts to define a national community as marked by providence and entrusted with a particular religious mission, had led Americans astray. Bellah invoked Henry David Thoreau’s reflections on civil disobedience, and lamented the “stumbling” of the United States into a “military confrontation where we have come to feel that our honor is at stake.”

Sam Haselby’s The Origins of American Religious Nationalism is also well timed. Haselby completed his study before the current presidential campaign, but his stress on a populist, white nationalism developing in the first decades after the American Revolution will now be read in the context of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump. If Bellah directed American nationalism away from Cold War hubris, Trump’s insistence on negotiating better trade deals for the United States and building a wall protecting us from Mexican immigrants taps into a vein of economic and cultural anxiety once thought diminished by post–World War II prosperity. Trump’s brilliant, if blunt slogan — “Make America Great Again” — evokes the United States of the 1950s and 1960s, absent the idealism of the struggle against Soviet communism.

Haselby’s argument is crisply stated. The revolutionary war, he asserts, “posed rather than answered the question of American nationality.” Only the settling of the Western frontier in the decades after independence, and the staggering growth in the population of the United States, from roughly three million in 1780 to almost 13 million in 1830, determined the character of American nationalism. This nationalism emerged only after an extended struggle between two Protestant groups.

Haselby terms the first group “frontier revivalists.” Evangelical Christians, they swarmed across the territory acquired in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, and established thousands of churches in the country’s most remote hamlets. Their frame of reference — and for Haselby this point is crucial — was less a distant concept such as the “nation,” and more the here and now of a particular congregation. In, say, 1828, churches may have been the only institutions regularly encountered by Euro-American settlers on the frontier.

The most prominent chronicler of these churches and congregations, historian Nathan Hatch, once described frontier Christians, and their untutored, but energetic ministers, as part of the “democratization” of American Christianity. Especially Methodists enjoyed a spectacular growth in the early 19th century because of their ability to recruit and motivate itinerant ministers and use new print technologies. The missionary zeal of these revivalists had strong populist overtones, with disdain for those Protestants who valued educational credentials from divinity schools in preference for a direct conversion to Christ. The revivalists smashed the deference and respect for hierarchy characteristic of 18th-century religion, even as they created a more self-consciously Christian nation.

Haselby terms his second group “nationalist missionaries.” Federalist in their politics, well-educated and literate, and based in New England and New York, these Protestant organization men had become concerned about unbelief, disorder, and violence on the frontier. James Madison was too detached from religious institutions to become one of their number, and too much of a Virginian with a Southern suspicion of the federal state, but the nationalist missionaries shared his concern about “wild savages” pouring into the West with little knowledge of either traditional religion or democratic politics.

The nationalist missionaries responded with some of the first national organizations in the United States: the American Tract Society, The American Bible Society, and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Such organizations might seem unlikely carriers of national identity today, but Haselby shrewdly assesses the thousands of lecturers they deployed and the millions of pages they printed and distributed. No institutions in the new United States had more geographical reach. The willingness of these national evangelicals to set aside once rigid denominational boundaries — Congregationalists worked closely with Presbyterians, for example — signaled an emerging nationalist and cross-Protestant consciousness.

The two Protestant groups did not always work at cross purposes. The evangelization of the North American continent, for example, among slaves as well as free whites and free blacks, depended upon their cumulative efforts. They overlapped in their anti-Catholicism, in ascendance by the 1830s and 1840s as Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany began forcing Americans to grapple for the first time with religious pluralism. (Perhaps Haselby might have done more with how the sheer presence of Catholicism in nations defined by Protestantism on both sides of the North Atlantic dissolved denominational boundaries.)

The two groups clashed, however, in their diagnosis of nationalism and the sacred. Haselby’s contribution is to see Andrew Jackson as the symbolic representative of the frontier revivalists, as well as the avatar of a new kind of religious nationalism. If the first six presidents of the United States, all Virginia planters and gentlemen with the exception of John and John Quincy Adams, were more or less chairmen of the board, Andrew Jackson, born into poverty, a survivor of several duels, and disdainful of elite pretensions, exemplified a new political style. And so did the crowds — “mobs,” in the eyes of his detractors — who famously surged through the White House on his inauguration day.

This populist sensibility linked financial and religious issues. The same Jackson supporters agitated about plans for a National Bank, a plan in their mind hatched by Northeastern financiers and politicians, pivoted to attack the national evangelicals for their constant fundraising in support of missions and, again, their elite pretensions. And in fact, supporters of the Bank and supporters of the American Bible Society, as Haselby demonstrates, were often one and the same.

Similarly, the nationalist missionaries began their work as champions of the incorporation of Native Americans into the United States. They stressed “early education” and “civility” for Indians, in language close to what they used when describing, or criticizing, frontier revivalists. These frontier revivalists had a different view. Jackson, in particular, had battled (and slaughtered) Indians during the Creek Wars, and saw them as a population less in need of civilization than elimination. He thought obstinate Indians would “disappear from the face of the Earth.” And in his 1830 State of the Union address he pointedly asked how the “wandering savage” could have a “stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian?”

Here lay religious nationalism with a vengeance. Haselby posits that this State of the Union Address by Jackson was as important for religious nationalism as Lincoln at Gettysburg. And he is surely right that in relationship to Indians, especially, the religious impulse to claim the land for those (Euro-American) settlers desiring it overwhelmed, even for nationalist missionaries, efforts to integrate Indians into a Christian civilization. In fact, although Haselby only alludes to this in the notes, the story of migration, settlement, Protestant evangelization and displacement and destruction for aboriginal peoples is not uniquely American; it also characterized South Africa, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand during the same period. In this sense, the global expansion of Christianity in the 19th century cannot be separated from the expansion of the British Empire.

Bellah did not touch on Jackson, which Haselby surely, and rightly, would see as an unacceptable omission. Bellah wrote just as the collapse of the (largely Protestant) establishment became evident, accelerated by dismay with a Vietnam war conducted and led by the successors, in a sense, of Haselby’s nationalist missionaries. Bellah’s critical scrutiny of civil religion nestles alongside renewed interest in just-war theory, human rights, and conscientious objection, all scholarly literatures prompted by the crisis in Vietnam and all determined to unsettle the pieties of Cold War nationalism.

This opposition to the American involvement in Vietnam jumpstarted a suspicion of elites and institutions in American society, one without end five decades on, and now fueled in new ways by Donald Trump and his supporters. Bellah hoped to rehabilitate an inclusive American nationalism, not demolish it. He fended off critics from the left, convinced that the United States was a failed imperialist project, and from the communitarian religious right, dismayed that any religious person (Bellah would eventually be ordained an Episcopalian priest) worried about the health of the nation instead of the church.

Certainly Bellah’s projected path for civil religion as evidenced in the last lines of his essay — “the incorporation of vital international symbolism” as a step toward “transnational sovereignty” — is even more improbable now than in 1966. And Bellah’s attempt to sketch the whole of American religious nationalism distinguishes him from Haselby, who ends his illuminating and convincing study abruptly, with little consideration of its significance beyond the antebellum era or beyond the United States. That Haselby allows Andrew Jackson the last word, including his grim prognostication that Indians will “disappear,” makes the reader wonder how Haselby would understand more sympathetic figures in the arc of American religious nationalism, from Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr.

As I write I am anticipating the Democratic convention address of Hilary Clinton, an earnest Methodist now charged with narrating her own version of civil religion for a diverse audience and nation. Among Haselby’s accomplishments is to alert us to the complexities of this project, and to remind us, perhaps, that it is less a naïve than a necessary task.


John T. McGreevy is I. A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

LARB Contributor

John T. McGreevy is I. A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global (Princeton University Press, 2016).


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