A civic religion is more than just a system of beliefs that we might consider “religious,” as in, supernatural. A civic religion is a set of beliefs, customs, and symbols that a population might share. The United States has a national civic religion, and then there are some faiths more localized to different areas, such as states or regions. We might think of these civic religions as “culture.” In the United States, the Black civic religion is as old as the country but sorely misunderstood. Those misunderstandings lead to strife, disinformation, and anger. They lead to culture wars. Understanding this quintessentially American religion helps to clarify far-flung ideas such as kneeling during the national anthem, the “defund the police” slogan, and the voting rights battle.
A civic religion operates much like a supernatural religion. There are saints, religious gatherings, symbols, and sacred texts.
Veneration of the Saints
Any religion needs saints or prophets. In the broader American civic religion, the Founders serve as some of the early saints. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson hold a position something like Abraham and Moses. They’re known mostly from stories about their greatness. The negative aspects of their character are documented, but it’s almost apostasy to talk much about them. Think about it: when’s the last time you heard something bad about George Washington? Jefferson was a slave owner who had a questionable marriage to Sally Hemmings; however, he wrote one of America’s sacred texts, The Declaration of Independence. So, he largely gets a pass because his contribution to the American spirit outweighs the negative. As Brother Baines says in the Malcolm X biopic: Solomon had 700 wives but a man’s great deeds far outweigh the bad. So let it be with Jefferson.
In the Black civic religion, Martin Luther King holds the position of preeminent saint. You know of him, you know about him, you have an opinion about him. But, when was the last time you actually read a word he wrote? When was the last time you even heard someone mention his books? Because of his sainted position, he is often co-opted by forces hostile to the Black civic religion. When opponents of voting rights quote Martin Luther King (always out of context), it feels to the believers like Satan quoting scripture for his own ends. This is especially true of voting rights opponents because voting rights are fundamental ideas to the Black civic religion.
The Divine Struggle
A body of believers requires a struggle. In the Old Testament, the Israelites struggle against slavery in Egypt, Babylonian captivity, and countless other hardships. In the New Testament, the Christians struggle against the Sanhedrin, the Roman Empire, and their own base desire to sin. In the broad American civic religion, the believers struggled against King George, against slavery, against the Nazis, against the Soviet Union, and so on.
Many of the broad American struggles also play into the Black civic religion; the struggle against the Confederacy comes to mind. However, chief among the struggles is the one against the American civic religion itself. The religion that venerates slave owners and segregationists will always be, at least partially, in opposition to the descendents of the slaves and the segregated.
The ability to vote is central to the struggle from the moment the last cannon fired in the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to today. That struggle made martyrs and heroes. John Lewis (D-GA) nearly died in that struggle, turning himself into a saintly figure.
So, any restriction to voting rights, no matter how well-intentioned, will be viewed as an attack on the believers. The Israelites wouldn’t have believed a word about indentured servitude coming from Pharaoh’s successors. So, why should Black Americans believe a single nice-sounding statement from the benefactors of Jim Crow? America went to war against Great Britain not even thirty years after the Revolutionary War; there can be no compromises between the believers and the opposers.
Symbols hold immense weight. So much weight, in fact, that they can essentially slip into idolatry. That’s why they earn a spot in the Ten Commandments. That’s why Muslims don’t even depict Muhammad. A symbol, more concrete than a nebulous idea, can quickly supplant the idea itself. In the American civic religion, the US flag is a holy symbol. That’s why the reaction to Colin Kaepernick and other athletes kneeling during the anthem has been so vitriolic and intense. The opponents are not angered by the actual action or the meaning behind it. To refuse to genuflect properly before a holy symbol is heresy. Imagine stepping on a cross, even a rudimentary cross made of plastic. The symbol, regardless of material, is beyond reproach. To disrespect it is to declare yourself an apostate.
The American flag does not hold the same place in the Black American civic religion. It’s a symbol of a nation that has made several promises (liberty and justice for all) and failed to deliver on them. In some cases, refused to deliver on them. What might be a political and social statement for a Black athlete is a religious statement for devout believers of the American faith.
The Roots of a “Culture War”
These two faiths, the Black American civic faith and the broader American one, have developed next to each other, often in conjunction and often in opposition.
However, if you think in terms of religious belief, it becomes easier to see how something debatable to you might be an article of faith to someone else. Debating Jesus’ divinity, Muhammad’s revelations, or Isaac’s near-sacrifice, are not interesting academic exercises to a believer; they’re an attack. The same is true of the competing American civic religions.