American civil religion is the moral backbone of our body politic. From John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream,” this heritage of shared beliefs, stories, ideas, symbols and events explains the American experience of self-government with reference to a moral order that transcends it.
Every president, no matter the party, taps into this civil religion when taking the oath and delivering his inaugural, a ceremony sociologist Robert Bellah called the “religious legitimation of the highest political authority.”
Donald Trump’s inaugural and presidency have taken aim at Americans’ shared civic faith by ignoring moral standards and bedrock principles that ground the nation. He presumes the people, having elected him, must be right. There is no higher appeal.
Appeals to “freedom” or “liberty” appear 21 times in Barack Obama’s inaugurals, 32 times in Reagan’s, and 57 times in George W. Bush’s. Obama invoked “dignity” three times, George W. Bush five times and Reagan seven times. Jimmy Carter thrice extolled “human rights,” and every president since has extolled “democracy.”
In contrast, Trump made but one meager mention of Americans’ “freedoms.”
In pledging “to make America great again,” Trump has not said what makes America worthy of greatness. His inaugural demands for “total allegiance” and patriotism anticipated demands for personal loyalty from justice officials and for athletes to stand for the national anthem.
Many presidents use inaugurals to channel humility or contemplate their weighty duties. Theodore Roosevelt renounced boastfulness and warned that, if America fails, “the cause of free self-government throughout the world will rock to its foundations.”
Adopting a “spirit of equity, caution and compromise,” Andrew Jackson meditated at length on the duties and limits of his office in the U.S. Constitution. Where Trump overconfidently proclaimed “we will be protected by God,” Jackson (and other presidents) offered up “ardent supplications” that God may bless America.
Civil religion narrates a story of the nation, including the violation of its ideals. Jackson’s forced removal of Native Americans on the “Trail of Tears” contravened the Supreme Court and his own inaugural pledge to establish a “just and liberal policy” for the “rights and wants” of American Indians.
But Trump’s failure to affirm higher principles erodes trust even in noble efforts. For example, is Trump’s opposition to human trafficking in support of human dignity or his restrictive immigration policy?
Was Trump really motivated to strike Syria because “beautiful babies were cruelly murdered” by chemical weapons? He never expressed such outrage for the thousands killed in hospitals and bread lines by Assad’s barrel bombs and Russian warplanes.
Trump’s inaugural and presidency have deepened fissures over what it means to be, as our national motto affirms, one nation made up of many diverse peoples.
Do we embrace “American Exceptionalism” or “America First”? Should we lead the international order, or compete with Russia to be a craven superpower? Will we open our doors to the world’s “tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to be free,” or send them back to the “s***hole countries” they come from? Put starkly, are we a nation “under God” or under Trump? We must choose.
Civil religion, grounded in “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” provides strength for resisting Trump’s noxious cult of personality. As high priests of civil religion, presidents usually use the authority of their bully pulpit to summon the nation to noble purposes. But without the sermon, a president no longer commands a pulpit. And all that is left is the bully.
We now must look to other leaders and citizens to restore the civil religion that Trump has renounced.
— John D. Carlson is an associate professor of religious studies at Arizona State University, where he also directs the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.