Former White House senior advisor Ron Klain recently argued that Democrats should echo “Ronald Reagan’s invocation of the ‘shining city upon a hill’” and “claim…the concept of American exceptionalism — for their own.” I would take Klain’s argument a step further. Democrats should embrace the premise of American exceptionalism – civil religion – as a strategy for both winning elections and for making the case for democracy itself. Rather than look back three decades to Reagan, Democrats should look back four centuries to Jonathan Winthrop’s use of the phrase in a sermon while still en route to what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Rev. Winthrop was drawing on a much older text, Matthew 5:14).
As someone who has spent a career working in politics, most recently as an Obama appointee at the FDA, I have two concerns about the Trump administration. The first concern is about policy – whether tax incentives or mandates are the best approach to paying for health care reform for example. These policy disagreements are a normal and healthy part of our democratic system. If there isn’t disagreement over policy, either the policy doesn’t matter or someone isn’t doing their job.
My deeper concern is over the assault on democratic norms promoted directly and indirectly by this administration. Attacks on the press, bogus claims about voter fraud, attempts to criminalize political protest, and more threaten the very system that allows the policy disagreements to take place at all.
One response to these threats is to urge Republicans to set aside politics and do the right thing – and some are. But asking politicians to stop acting politically is both daft and misses the broader point that if we can’t make a popular political case for our own democracy, we’re toast. The best argument for our democracy cannot be “we’re smarter than you, let us run your government.” The argument needs to be “America is a unique and special idea, and we’re in it together.”
Enter civil religion. Popularized Robert Bellah in a 1967 essay, civil religion is the idea that America is the “understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” For Bellah, ours can be described as a “secular government for a religious people” with the religion being the idea of our government itself. This American civil religion provides an origin story, makes sense of our world, and assures citizens that we have a special place in history. As Bellah wrote, “what we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity.” This religion (“there seems no other word for it” – Bellah) has its sacred texts (the Constitution, the Bill of Rights), its sacred places (the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial), its sacred holidays (Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving), rituals (Presidential inaugurations), and martyrs (Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, Dr. King).
American exceptionalism is an articulation of this faith. America is an exceptional place because it is not a place at all; America is an idea in which its citizens participate and an ideal toward which our leaders have a moral obligation to strive.
Here Democrats can learn from the conservative scholar Richard Weaver, who wrote that the most successful persuasion appeals to fundamental values and locates those values in the current moment. Democrats can win by speaking to civil religion – literally preaching to the converted – and by promoting policies rooted in this religion. By first sharing our shared faith, articulating transcendent American values, and then attaching policies to those values, Democrats can both win votes and strengthen the system that makes those votes meaningful.
The idea of an American civil religion, combined with Weaver’s observations about arguing from definition and speaking to “historical man” also provides a roadmap for those who do not share the policy preferences of Democrats, but who do share a concern with assaults on our democratic norms (it is worth noting that Weaver makes his case in a work called Language is Sermonic).
The idea of America is a compelling one. The ideals toward which we work give a broader meaning to our nation. America isn’t a map or a flag or a song. We aren’t a person or president or party. We are an articulation of faith in what we are at our best. Not only do I deeply believe this (to the extent I have a faith, civil religion is it) I also think it sells politically. Presidents Obama and Reagan both spoke to the ideals of civil religion, President Lincoln and Dr. King died for them, and Americans usually respond when called upon to rise to them. Democrats should preach the sermon of America to a flock that is being told the best they can get is a good deal on a wall. It will probably work, and it’s the right thing to do.