September 24, 2013

Is there Civil Religion in European nations to the same degree as in the United States?

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                        

I asked my students today whether civil religion was common to all societies, and in particular whether Denmark had a civil religion. For those not familiar with the term, the idea of civil religion can be traced back to at least the eighteenth century, but it came to prominence because of an essay written by Robert Bellah in the late 1960s. Bellah argued through many excellent examples that the United States, lacking the social glue provided to many societies by a shared religion, had developed a patriotic civil religion instead. 

Singing the National anthem at a baseball game
The Constitution specifically prohibits establishment of a national church, and the Bill of Rights makes illegal the creation of any law restricting religious freedom, including any attempts to establish religious requirements in order to hold or be elected to an office. Such restrictions were not unusual in the eighteenth century, where Protestants were often excluded from certain positions in Catholic countries, and Catholics excluded from some offices in Protestant states. 

As Bellah pointed out, in the United States in major speeches the President frequently refers to the Deity, but it is always a generalized God, not one tied to a particular religion. The Constitution makes no reference to Christ, for example, and this was quite intentional. The new United States made a point of the separation of church and state.  In contrast, most European nations did have a state church, and many also had a royal family that was baptised, confirmed, married, and buried in that national church. The royal families and their churches staged rituals that ensured continuity of society, in most cases playing a role that became less overtly political over time, as the monarchies tended to become symbolic points of unity rather than wielding power in government itself.

The United States, with no royals, no national church, and also without a long historical tradition, had to create alternative rallying points, and gradually did so, by inventing holidays (Thanksgiving, President's Day, Memorial Day. the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Columbus Day, etc.) by establishing patriotic sites (such as Arlington Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, Bunker Hill, or Mt. Rushmore), and through the repetition of certain rituals, not least the ritual of swearing in the president every four years.  The US also has "sacred" documents in shrine-like locations, notably the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, displayed at the National Archives in Washington.  

Indeed, Americans have also consecrated some natural sites as national symbols, notably the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Niagara Falls. The sublime in America often became a patriotic emotion, and was also linked to technological achievements that seemed to represent the greatness of the nation, embodied in great railroad lines, skyscrapers, enormous factories, and NASA's space program.

My students had read Bellah and discussed these matters, but most of them concluded that Denmark, had no real equivalent to American civil religion. They thought their country far less patriotic than the US, but I wonder if that is entirely correct. Lacking a civil religion (if indeed this is the case) is not the same thing as not being patriotic. However, several of the students said they were not interested in the Danish royal family or the Danish Lutheran Church. Point taken. But it does seem to me that Denmark is bound together rather tightly by a long history and a great many traditions. Alternately, several students spoke of the intense nationalism that erupted after the Danish football team won the national championship in 1992. Huge crowds spontaneously filled the city centers in a general euphoria.

Two British students in the class thought that their society did embrace the monarchy more than in Denmark, and that there was a Civil Religion there. Just think of the last night of the Proms when a delirious crowd sings "Land of Hope and Glory", while millions of their countrymen watch on the telly.  

The discussion is not over, for this was only the first of three seminar sessions on civil religion.