IN an address at Michigan State University on May 5, 1995, President Bill Clinton warned right-wing militias not to attempt to "appropriate our sacred symbols for paranoid purposes." The President was speaking in the aftermath of the destruction, apparently by American right-wing fanatics, of the federal building in Oklahoma City and its occupants on April 19. The aftermath of that ghastly act had brought media reports of widespread paramilitary conspiracies in several states -- notably the militias in Michigan -- for the organization of armed resistance to the federal government. The President was seeking to exclude such conspirators from what is called the American civil religion.
There is quite a copious literature about the American civil religion, and although there are differences over the exact nature of this powerful but nebulous concept, there is also a broad consensus about its general nature.
The term "civil religion" was first used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and refers to "the religious dimension of the polity." American civil religion has been summed up by one scholar as "an institutionalized collection of sacred American beliefs providing sources of cohesion and prophetic guidance through times of national crises." Among those sacred beliefs, a cult of liberty has been important from very early on. The sociologist Robert N. Bellah quotes a 1770 observer's opinion that "the minds of the people are wrought up into as high a degree of Enthusiasm by the word liberty, as could have been expected had Religion been the cause."
Liberty, nationalism, and faith are fused in the American civil religion. As Norman Mailer once put it, "In America, the country was the religion. And all the religions of the land were fed from that first religion. . . ."
Central to the American civil religion are two eighteenth-century documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Around these documents, and linked with them in the religion, are a limited number of historical figures -- for all Americans, the Founding Fathers; for most Americans, also Abraham Lincoln. In the pantheon of the American civil religion, however, two holy personages stand out with unusually large halos. As Richard Pierard and Robert Linder, the authors of Civil Religion & the Presidency (1988), write,
The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and later, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address became the sacred scriptures of the new public faith. Just as the colonists saw their own church covenants as vehicles of God's participation in history, so these public documents became the covenants which bound the people of the nation together in a political and religious union. . . . A leadership imagery developed that paralleled the biblical account of Israel and led to the Founding Fathers mythology. . . . Before long Washington had become the Moses-liberator figure, Jefferson the prophet.
The Pope of Liberty
THERE is no difficulty in seeing Jefferson as the prophet of the American civil religion if one thinks of him as the author of its most sacred document, the Declaration of Independence, and leaves it at that. But there is great difficulty in fitting the historical Jefferson, with all we know of him, into the civil religion of modern America (as it is generally and semi-officially expounded) at all, let alone in seeing him as its prophet.
Thomas Jefferson was in his day a prophet of American civil religion. Indeed, if his original draft of the Declaration of Independence had been accepted, the @eclaration would have been more explicitly linked to the
American civil religion than it is in its present form. Whereas the second paragraph of the Declaration opens with the words "We hold phese truths to be self-evident . . . ," Jefferson's original draft had "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable . . . " The drafting of the Declaration had been entrusted by the Second Continental Congress to a committee of five, of which the leading members were Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. Although Rousseau's phrase "civil religion" does not seem to have been in circulation in America at this time (when it would have been suspect in the eyes of churchmen), Jefferson -- whether through Rousseau or not -- was a "civil religion" person in his habitual use of language. Adams objected strongly to the mixing of politics and religion. Franklin was more consistently secular than Jefferson in his style. The historian Carl Lotus Becker writes, on the change in the manuscript to "self-evident," "It is not clear that this change was made by Jefferson. The hand-writing of 'self-evident' resembles Franklin's." The change was an improvement, functionally speaking, for a revolutionary manifesto. Anyone who rejects a "self-evident truth" must be either a fool or a knave. And that is precisely what the Founders wanted to say about anyone who opposed the Declaration. Jefferson himself appreciated the polemical force of this word, and often used it later.
Thomas Jefferson served as the American Minister to France from 1785 to late in 1789, and thus witnessed the last crisis of the ancien régime. He was in Paris for the opening of the Estates General (May 5, 1789) and for the fall of the Bastille (July 14). In letters to divers correspondents he evinced growing and confident enthusiasm for the burgeoning revolution. To James Madison: "The revolution of France has gone on with the most unexampled success hitherto. . . ." To Thomas Paine: "The National Assembly [showed] a coolness, wisdom, and resolution to set fire the four corners of the kingdom and to perish with it themselves rather than to relinquish an iota from their plan of total change. . . ." To Paine again: "The king, queen and national assembly are removed to Paris. The mobs and murders under which [the revolutionaries] dress this fact are like the rags in which religion robes the true god." No mere observer of the revolution, Jefferson is believed to have played a part in formulating the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted by the National Assembly, the revolutionary heir to the Estates General, on August 26, 1789.