Celebrating Hamburgers, Interfaith Voices on Civil Religion, and It's Time To Go "Beyond Bellah"

Time Spent on book: 1 hour
What I did: not enough
Grade for the day: D
"Celebrate the hamburger," I tell my students.

I instruct them to avoid cynicism. No negative commentaries on the declining quality of the "American" "diet"; obesity; feedlots; or the horrifying environmental cost of meat.

Nope. I want a celebration. Of charred cow flesh.

It doesn't take a minute before someone says "America!" And it doesn't take much longer for someone to associate the hamburger with the cookout. And the cookout with the 4th of July. Usually we imagine the hippie-liberal cousin who shows up to the cookout and asks for a black bean burger. What do you tell him? How about....

"Go back to Canada, Osama!"

Then cue the Lee Greenwood for good measure.

It all gets tongue-in-cheek in a hurry. But amid the hyperbole, students also get an introduction to the idea of civil religion. These seemingly ordinary things that we eat might just connect to broader ideas about what it means to be an "American."

Indeed, the 4th of July is perfectly suited to prompt such discussions, as evidenced by this weekend's installment of Interfaith Voices. Host Maureen Fiedler and company even devote an entire segment to "American Civil Religion." From their website:
For the past 50 years or so, there’s been a fascinating idea floating around: that in the absence of a state religion, we need a civil religion to bind us together. We may not have a Notre Dame Cathedral, but we have a set of beliefs, symbols, holidays and rituals that help define who we are as a nation, while tapping into the deep human longing for myths, stories and traditions.
The segment very much follows the lead of this description. In other words, the guests explain how monuments and parades give "Us" a sense of who "We" are. As my hamburger thought experiment would demonstrate, I believe that this is a useful place to begin any conversation on civil religion. I fully intend to assign this the next time I teach my American religious history course.


I also like to take the conversation one step further. Specifically, I prefer to think about civil religions. Ira Chernus has been pivotal in getting me to think this way. As he put it:
We need studies of civil religion that claim no supposed consensus but allow ‘us’ to speak in all our diversity. Perhaps we must study only civil religions, in the plural. Or, if in the singular, we need to see civil religion as a broad, dynamic field of contending forces rather than an imagined unified tradition. We need studies of civil religion(s), and myths Americans live by, that invoke no sub rosa theological agenda or summons to a higher, more moral Americanism.
Chernus is no fan of civil religion, that much is true. But as I asserted in my afterword in Southern Civil Religions (what, you haven't bought it yet?), I still find value in the category. And here is where I quote myself...
What if we discarded the pesky yet persistent definitions of civil religion that assume that American society shares a set of values around which all agree? What if we accepted that concepts like freedom, equality, and justice as enshrined in America's sacred documents have dynamic definitions and applications? What if we accepted that civil religion is a valuable concept that refers to a particular vision of the good society, tied to a specific time and place and deployed for the purpose of legitimizing one set of values over another? And what if we applied this methodology not only to the entire New South era--a time when people of varying races, creeds, regions, and backgrounds engaged in redefining themselves and their social situation in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction--but also to America as a whole? I expect that the result would be a new wave of scholarship that would integrate new voices and new perspectives into new narratives.
This fall I will be giving a talk on civil religion and writing what I expect will be my final essay on the topic. At least, I don't have plans to continue writing about my justification for using the term.

Irrespective, I intend the essay to, first, establish a new point of departure for civil religion. Think about it... How many fields of study still use as their methodological anchor something written in the 1960s? It doesn't happen. I guess that it's noteworthy that the essay has had such a lasting influence. But we ask new questions now. And we should have new points of departure. What's more, there has been plenty of good scholarship on civil religion theory since the 1960s.

But it seems that we just can't move Beyond Bellah (somewhere, someone gets that...and she or he cannot stop laughing...because it is that damn funny).

After that, I want my essay to put forth a new way of approaching the topic. Sure the 4th of July is a logical place to seek out civil religious substance. But a careful eye can detect civil religious discourses in everything from bricks and maps, to highways and handguns.

OK, I need to wrap this up. Someone has to reheat those burgers for dinner.

Listen to Interfaith Voices. And keep an eye out for my essay. Not to oversell it, but it will change your life.