Right Variety

Too much attention to civil religion’s integrative function tends to minimize the historical pluralism of the American religious context. Hence a third path to civil religious wisdom is right variety. Critics of the civil religion thesis have rightly argued that it largely fails to integrate heterogeneous societies with high levels of religious and cultural pluralism. That is another reason why working definitions must define civil religion in such a way as to account for America’s history of religious pluralism.
While America has been religiously plural from its colonial era onward, non- Christian and non-Protestant religions or subcultures remained invisible enough to allow a Protestant dominance over American life. While any religious establishment at the federal level was outlawed by the First Amendment, and gradually died out in the states by 1833, Protestantism could remain an unofficial national religion until sometime in the twentieth century. Exactly when is, of course, a matter of debate among historians of American religious history. Nonetheless, as minority religious groups established and enlarged their presence in the United

States, they also gained and amplified their respective voices in public life. Their treatment at the hands of the Protestant majority shaped the notes they sounded in addressing the larger American religious and political cultures. The result was the development of alternative versions of the American civil religion. As Martin E. Marty observed, there are subspecies of civil religion analogous to Christianity and its denominations.
Although in many ways regionalism has been an important and often over- looked factor in understanding religion in American history, it has been anything but ignored by historians of the South. Charles Reagan Wilson was the first to take regional varieties into account in an analysis of civil religion, producing the classic interpretation of the “religion of the Lost Cause” as the southern civil religion. His book Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920, analyzes a different form of the American civil religion, one that healed and unified the white South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Through its theology, rituals, sacred days, and sacred spaces, this civil religion became the South’s theodicy, explaining God’s mysterious ways of bringing the South to triumph despite the defeat of the Confederacy.
The most historically significant expression of regionalism was, of course, the Civil War. Given the importance of evangelicalism to both North and South, to both the abolition of slavery and its defense, it is surprising that it took until 2006 for someone explicitly to interpret the Civil War as a conflict of civil religions. Harry S. Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War advances a larger moral interpretation of the Civil War, but one that claims that by 1863 the language of martyrdom and “political preaching in the North and South had virtually completed the apotheosis of ‘patriotism’ into a full-blown civil religion” (248). A stronger argument could perhaps be made that as the South’s defense of slavery gradually transformed southern sectionalism into Confederate nationalism, its version of evangelicalism helped create a distinctive version of civil religion that, in fact, preceded and propelled the South into the Civil War, rather than emerging from that conflict.

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