In Defense of Civil Religion

7 Mar

How we choose to spin things makes all the difference. History, holidays, ceremonies–they’re all part of the academic term “civil religion,” worship of the state. As part of a conscious effort, people are losing their faith in the state, and… is that really a good thing?

There’s an old joke, “Build a man a fire, he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.” The intent is the same, the results… far, far different. Take for example, “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James W. Loewen, which came out in 1995. It’s a great book, exposing a lot of the falsehoods that have been put into American history books, and showing you the origin of those things. I read that as a history teacher and thought, “Wow–that was really in-depth coverage, I should include some of that in my curriculum.” Other teachers thought, “My students need to know all of it, make THAT the textbook!”

Intent is the same, results much different. When you include these errors as part of your instruction, you teach your students to question and analyze what they read. When you make it the textbook, you teach students to reject everything they’ve learned, and question ANY authority from there on in. People stop believing the “American Dream,” that lovely idea anyone from anywhere can do anything in America, because you’re free to pursue it, with enough hard work and sacrifice. No, that’s not precisely true, but probably more true in America than most countries. In the paragon of socialism, the Scandinavian countries, you don’t see many companies moving there, new exciting innovation–mostly because it’s cold, but probably because you have to jump through a lot more hoops and pay more taxes to work there.

On the other hand, if you’re taught that America is the most racist place on Earth, your world view from there changes, and any information comes through that filter. You ignore that Spaniards throw bananas onto the soccer pitch when a black player comes on the field because, “Well, that’s a sports game,” forgetting the amount of anger we had over taking a knee at a football game here. You ignore the fact that in Rwanda, Hutsis were chopping up Tutsis because, “Well, they’re all black. That’s not racism.”

When Howard Zinn wrote “A People’s History of the United States,” raising up the working class and minorities in American history, he did so at a time when all textbooks were written from the spin of “we need to defend godly America from godless Communism.” So for his initial audience, they grew up with the “our side good, their side bad,” so the revelation that our history is not sunshine and rainbows was eye-opening… but didn’t change their world view. But if you make Zinn’s book your textbook, then you’ve created a citizen who believes that America only exists to oppress them.

And you’re seeing a world that’s lost its faith. Americans don’t believe in God, they believe in science. They don’t believe in the system, they believe in their side. The problem is they don’t realize that the new faith they’ve embraced is just as flawed as the one they left, so you have to ignore the bad news about your side, because to do so would ruin the fundamentalism of your faith.

So embrace inconsistency, but hold onto those traditions that keep us together, those beautiful lies that allow us to achieve things as a nation. Salute the flag, serve the country, believe in the equality of every man… but fight to make sure those beautiful lies actually become truth. Because if all we do is fight for our side, it’s only of matter of time before the other side wins, and all your faith turns out to be misplaced.

Do I need to come off my soapbox? Does “civil religion” cause more harm than good? Is it better to start from airing our dirty laundry first to achieve those beautiful lies? Let me know in the comments below!

10 Responses to “In Defense of Civil Religion”

  1. Silk Cords March 7, 2021 at 8:13 am #

    I think you hit the distinction perfectly. It’s all in taking a balanced approach to it. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other in classrooms, news stories and the internet. Now everything is U.S. evil, and much of it is exaggerated and taken out of context. No country is perfect, because they’re all run by imperfect people.

    • albigensia March 7, 2021 at 10:03 am #

      Or to quote James Madison, “If men were angels, governments would not be necessary.”

  2. schingle March 7, 2021 at 9:55 am #

    I believe your overall point (and I could be wrong here) is that we need to teach kids critical thinking skills at a younger age, and I couldn’t agree more. Yes, we can teach them the American History we all learned side-by-side with these (more accurate?) history lessons, if for no other reason than to teach them to compare stories with a critical eye. It would be nice to see today’s youth show a bit more intelligence and creativity, rather than spewing out the expected. One guy’s opinion.

  3. Patti Aliventi March 7, 2021 at 12:22 pm #

    I think there’s a distinction between ignoring the problems (especially if they don’t affect “us”) and acknowledging our faults as a nation. We can’t change the past, but we could (and should) learn from it. It has to be out there for discussion for that to happen, though. People who claim racism isn’t an issue in this country, or hasn’t been, have their eyes closed.

  4. salsaworldtraveler March 7, 2021 at 12:24 pm #

    Well said. I’d add that America is not the most racist country on Earth, but it is certainly in the running for the most brainwashed country on Earth.


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