The Deeper Florida Drama
The unfolding election saga is really about a new understanding of America's 'civil religion.'
BY: Wade Clark Roof
The point is, rhetoric about religion and politics come together for Americans, expressing who they are and what is most important to them. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in the 1830s, politics is a platform for Americans to affirm their deepest religious impulses. Thus it is that politicians speak of God and country in the same breath, and preachers almost never fail to comment on what is happening morally and spiritually to the nation. America is, as has often been said, "a nation with the soul of a church."
But what happens when a major ritual--a presidential election--breaks down? In both religion and politics, uncertainty breeds worry and often urgent appeals for divine intervention. And in this instance--where religion and politics fuse around civil order--those worries and appeals have mushroomed.
We find plenty of civil religious symbols popping up since Election Day. Some say we are in a "waiting period" (wandering in the "wilderness"?), when God's will is being worked out, and that ours is a time of "struggle" (a time of "testing"?) for the nation. Television broadcasts and websites suggest that fundamentalist and evangelical Christians see the nation in a "desperate situation," on the brink of "warfare," if not the apocalypse. Some pastors and religious leaders call upon people to pray that God's man will be elected. Placards and signs carried by people in the streets ask that we be "delivered" from our plight and that "God help us."
Other voices call for prayers for the nation, asking for that which is in its best interests and for an honest expression of the will of the people. They look for a resolution of this crisis, but not by recourse to partisan politics or jingoistic god-talk. Theirs is a profound religious hope that the nation will do what is right and then, once the dust settles, will come together as a people around its highest ideals and principles.
In all of this, Americans are being jarred into some foundational thinking about themselves. Can we envision a larger, transcendent purpose for the nation? Can we rise above our partisan political and religious views to discern the "God of the nation"? Admittedly, these are big questions, but there are signs of reflection in many quarters. Some people who did not vote in this election are saying they wish they had, not just out of loyalty to Bush or Gore, or that it might have made the outcome more decisive, but because it is their duty to vote. "Duty-talk" is bound up with "god-talk" in civil religion.
The concern with tightening election procedures and improving ballots is more than just pragmatic. Once beyond the vote count in this particular election, all Americans--Democrats, Republicans, and Independents--will say we need an efficient and reliable way of counting ballots. Lying behind the ballot is a belief in the American Way.
And then there are the children, who are getting a good lesson in civics. Schools may be under pressure to steer clear of religious beliefs and values in the classroom, but civil religion can't so easily be contained. There is talk about democracy and the importance of voting, and even more specifically, about how Americans understand their participation in the political process. In this atmosphere, children will draw their own conclusions about God and country.
Writing 35 years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah warned about a civil religion that can be easily used as a "cloak for petty interests and ugly passions." But he also argued that this is a "heritage of moral and religious experience from which we still have much to learn as we formulate the decisions that lie ahead." It is a heritage that has guided us through crises before, including the worst crisis of all, the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln was led to reflect upon the country as "an almost chosen people."
It may take a crisis of the sort we are now experiencing to bring us to this deeper encounter once again. If so, then hopefully Florida's ordeal will lead not to rancor about the political outcome, but to the nation's resolve to honor its most cherished heritage, upon which the nation's unity and sense of purpose rests.