America's First Post-Christian Debate

The belief in a common purpose that long defined America’s civil religion was strikingly absent on Monday night.

Mike Segar / Reuters

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.

There are necessary corollaries to that belief, which long shaped the political debate. That individual success is a means of advancing the general good. That there are limits to what any of us can accomplish on our own. That our actions must serve some higher purpose. And that, individually and collectively, Americans can and must do great things.

Hillary Clinton, a devout Methodist, tends not to discuss her Christian faith before general audiences, or to infuse her rhetoric with the language of religion. In that, she follows the path of many recent Democratic nominees. (Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, argues that this aversion to the language of public religion is what turned evangelicals into Republicans, writing that it is “more accurate to conceive of much of grassroots white America as being repelled by a secular left, than as attracted by the particular policy visions of a religious right.”) On Monday night, Clinton limited herself to passing references to the black church and faith communities as civic institutions.

Nor, more significantly, did she invoke the language of civil religion. She did stress that “we have to bring communities together,” and refer to the “future we’ll build together,” but there was little emphasis on either America’s distinctive mission, or on the individual or collective responsibility to achieve it.

Trump, on the other hand, didn’t just abandon the rhetoric of American religion; he repudiated it. He spoke sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the majestic plural, but always to explain what he himself intended to do, and never to summon his fellow Americans to join him in the work. The solutions he offered all rested, to greater or lesser extents, on actions he would take as president.

He promised to impose law and order. To renegotiate trade deals. “I will bring back jobs,” he said. “I’ll be reducing taxes tremendously.” He didn’t ask Americans to make any sacrifices. He didn’t tell them what they might achieve together. He didn’t affirm that his own actions are subordinate to some higher purpose.

To the contrary. When Clinton criticized him for profiting from the misfortune of others in the housing crash, he defended himself: “That’s called business, by the way.” When she hit him for stiffing his creditors, he said he’d just “taken advantage of the laws of the nation.” When she attacked him as a tax-dodger who failed to shoulder his share of responsibility for the common good by paying federal income taxes, he replied: “That makes me smart.”

It’s easy to get so caught up in the madness of 2016 that all of this seems normal. But the Clinton-Trump debate was decidedly Marxian in its assumptions—all about material concerns, with little regard for higher purpose. To see the contrast, look back just four years, to the first presidential debate of 2012. Obama stressed that his policies were “designed to make sure that the American people—their genius, their grit, their determination—is channeled and they have an opportunity to succeed.”

And Romney, while stressing liberty and individual freedom, also emphasized responsibility. “We're a nation that believes that we're all children of the same god,” he said, “and we care for those that have difficulties, those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that are disabled. We care for them.”

Instead of promising to fix things himself, the Republican nominee urged the federal government to make space Americans to solve their own problems. “We can care for our own poor in so much better and more effective a way than having the federal government tell us how to care for our poor,” Romney said. “The right approach is one which relies on the brilliance of our people and states.”

That was then.

Now, the Republican nominee stands up at his convention, rattles off a litany of dysfunction, and proclaims: “I alone can fix it.”