Photo by Kutay Tanir
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In America we trust

The best and worst of America’s civil religion displayed in the wake of 9/11

As a child I was present during a very unique cultural moment: the USA circa 2001, united in anger and mourning over the September 11th terrorist attacks. Any country would have reacted strongly to such a large-scale and devastating attack on some of its greatest symbols, with explosive-laden trucks ramming into the Pentagon and planes smashing into the World Trade Centre. But what I want to consider is what that reaction can tell us about America, then and now. I want to look again at the civilisation revealed in that bright and terrible moment, like a landscape illuminated by a lightning flash. Although the terrible logic of partisan division was already beginning to take shape, at that time America’s civil religion was still dominant and still shaped the ways Americans and their leaders mourned, threatened and exulted.

A “civil religion” is a set of beliefs, practices and rituals centred not around a traditional religion, but rather around the power of the state and the aspirational ideals of national identity. In America there has always been a strong civil religion, based upon its glorification of individual freedom, a sense of continual material and moral progress, and a belief in American exceptionalism: of America and the American state as the final, perfected form of human politics. 

America was reimagined as a system of oppression

The best and worst aspects of that civil religion were on full display in the wake of 9/11. The best aspects were a sense of public service and communal solidarity, witnessed in the courage of New York policemen and firefighters rushing fearlessly into the raging inferno of the Twin Towers to rescue whomever they could. A surge of ordinary young people signed up to serve in the US armed forces, rushing to defend a culture suddenly under attack by overseas enemies. At its best US optimism was a shining hope in the potential of individuals to act together to better their country and the world. I still recall the sense of near-religious awe produced by school field trips to see vessels that carried men into space, and the atmosphere of a culture that seemed to offer adventure and opportunity. Teachers would tell school students that they could “be whatever they wanted to be” and “achieve anything”. 

But the worst aspects of America were also integral to the civil religion. The fear and hysteria which saw America’s already vast security state expand and begin mass surveillance of the population. That same irrational fear was visible everywhere, from the panic of teachers whenever a playground fight broke out, to the nervous swaggering of local cops who always seemed on the brink of violence or confrontation. If Americans are liberated individuals, free to become whatever they choose, they’re also by the same token cursed never to know where they stand, or what the intentions of others may be. Freedom is perpetually imperilled, and every other person is a potential threat. 

Though for a while the vast American state and its military industrial complex united the anger of a nation, soon the flood of suspicion expanded beyond Islamic terrorists to encompass the government itself, and rival factions within the American Republic. America’s civil religion, caught in this storm of fear and anger, split apart: it schismed. The US left fell out of love with the old model of civil religion, entirely denouncing US exceptionalism. America was reimagined as a system of oppression, founded to uphold the supremacy of white, heterosexual men. Instead of seeking to identify US history as progressive, progress was seen as an unravelling of the original American project. 

The 1619 project, organised by the New York Times, sought to locate America’s “true” founding not in the Declaration of Independence, or even the founding of the first British colony, but rather in the year the first black slave landed in North America. This approach has been much criticised, including by many historians, but like the Gnostic gospels, the retelling of the American mythos has tremendous power. Just like the Gnostics, contemporary progressives promise to reveal a concealed, esoteric truth, the “real story”. 

The civil theology was always inadequate

The right carries on the old civil religion, at least superficially, but it has not survived unchanged. The religious right, always sceptical of the secularity of the old civil theology, have become increasingly assertive about America’s Christian identity. They (rightly) say the American system was once far less secular, but (wrongly) locate America’s Christian identity with its founding and the founding fathers. Meanwhile they are in a sometimes uneasy alliance with a new generation of US nationalists far less concerned with the niceties of the democratic process, and committed to a vision of individual libertarianism enforced by a strong executive. Power rather than principle is the order of the day. 

The mythic logic that used to unite right and left in America has been shattered, and each side believes the other is going to use the power of the US’s massive federal government to destroy the values of the other. Friends, relatives, lovers, even husbands and wives, parents and children, have become estranged by essentially theological differences.  

Out of the tragedy of America’s civil religious wars, we also see the emergence of the hope for something better. The civil theology was always inadequate, always premised on a Pelagian vision of individual perfectibility and empowerment that was destructive to the common good. More and more Americans are becoming disillusioned with it. Many religious people in particular, on both left and right, are questioning the prior devotion to capitalism, and lamenting the society that unrestrained capitalism has created in America. You’ll find American conservative praising labour unions, liberals demanding federal support for family life and many other once unthinkable transgressions of the old boundaries. Away from the shouting and the daily hysteria of news and social media, a quiet exodus from an unsustainable vision of America is underway. As the US is forced to unlearn its most seductive myths, I hope it can find a way to recapture its optimism and its unity, but without forgetting human fragility. May it commit to acting collectively, and not just for the sake of the individual.

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