Civil religion died on Monday night.
For more than 90 minutes, two presidential candidates traded charges on stage. The bitterness and solipsism of their debate offered an unnerving glimpse of American politics in a post-Christian age, devoid of the framework that has long bound the nation together.
Hillary Clinton may have offered little sense of humility, of obligation, of responsibility in Hempstead, but it was Donald Trump who directly rejected those virtues, reframing them instead as vices. He painted altruism as a sucker’s game, and left sacrifice for the losers. It was a performance that made clear one broader meaning of his candidacy—the eclipse of the values that long defined America.
Until now, the political debate has generally been framed by a set of shared principles, even if they’ve often been applied to contrary ends. Washington told his fellow citizens that they “have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles”; Lincoln observed that they “read the same Bible and pray to the same God” even as “each invokes His aid against the other”; and Obama reminded them that they “worship an awesome God” in states both red and blue.
America may never have been a Christian nation, but its civil religion drew heavily on Judeo-Christian values. Americans long subscribed to the belief, as the sociologist Robert Bellah famously put it, that they shoulder a peculiar “obligation, both collective and individual, to carry out God’s will on earth.” That, Bellah argued, constituted a shared civil religion, one capable of binding together a diverse nation.