I’m a pretty big believer in the theory of an American civil religion. For me, the important part of religion isn’t the part with gods, prophets, or an afterlife – Buddhism lacks gods, traditional Judaism doesn’t have much of an afterlife, and both get along just fine. It’s about a symbiosis between a society and an ideology. On the most basic level, it’s the answer to a series of questions. What is our group? Why are we better than the outgroup? Why is our social system legitimate?The old American civil religion is on the rocks, and conservatives are very worried about it:
For most of history, all religion was civil religion – if not of a state, then of a nation. Shinto for the Japanese, Judaism for the Israelites, Olympianism for the Greeks, Hinduism for the Indians. This was almost tautological; religion (along with language and government) was what defined group boundaries, divided the gradients of geography and genetics into separate peoples. A shared understanding of the world and shared rituals kept societies together. . . .
Say it with me: patriotism is a great force uniting our country. Now liberals aren’t patriotic enough, so the country is falling apart. The old answers ring hollow. What is our group? America? Really? Why are we better than the outgroup? Because we have God and freedom and they are dirty commies? Say this and people will just start talking about how our freedom is a sham and Sweden is so much better. Why is our social system legitimate? Because the Constitution is amazing and George Washington was a hero? Everyone already knows the stock rebuttals to this. The problem isn’t just that the rebuttals are convincing. It’s that these answers have been dragged out of the cathedral of sacredness into the marketplace of open debate; questioning them isn’t taboo – and “taboo” is just the Tongan word for “sacred”. The Bay Area’s lack of civic rituals (so goes the argument) is both a cause and a symptom of a larger problem: the American civil religion has lost its sacredness. That means it can’t answer the questions of group identity, and that communities aren’t as unified as they should be.
The parade itself hit all the requisite notes. Marching bands. Celebrities. Floats. Adorable children. Charitable organizations. The Governor drove by in his shiny black car. The Mayor, surrounded by adoring supporters. Public streetcars and sightseeing buses, festooned for the occasion. . . .
Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?I would put it this way: Gay Pride has become a key ritual in the Civil Religion of liberals. I know some gay people are unhappy about how the day has been taken over by mainstream politicians and giant corporations and support for the police, but really it is a perfect way for liberals to celebrate our identity. And, you know, there are only so many ritual templates available to choose from, and a parade is both the most inclusive and communal ritual in our repertoire.
Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.
There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:
What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.
Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.
What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.
Things change. But other things stay remarkably the same, like our deep tribalism and love of celebrating identity together.