Belonging … Or Not

David Brooks is at it again.

This American creed gave people a sense of purpose and a high ideal to live up to. It bonded them together. Whatever their other identities — Irish-American, Jewish American, African-American — they were still part of the same story.

Over the years, America’s civic religion was nurtured the way all religions are nurtured: by sharing moments of reverence. Americans performed the same rituals on Thanksgiving and July 4; they sang the national anthem and said the Pledge in unison; they listened to the same speeches on national occasions and argued out the great controversies of our history.

All of this evangelizing had a big effect. As late as 2003, Americans were the most patriotic people on earth, according to the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.

Recently, the civic religion has been under assault. Many schools no longer teach American history, so students never learn the facts and tenets of their creed. A globalist mentality teaches students they are citizens of the world rather than citizens of America.

Critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates have arisen, arguing that the American reality is so far from the American creed as to negate the value of the whole thing. The multiculturalist mind-set values racial, gender and ethnic identities and regards national identities as reactionary and exclusive.

And he continues:

Sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism. When we sing the national anthem, we’re not commenting on the state of America. We’re fortifying our foundational creed. We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us. We’re expressing commitment to the nation’s ideals, which we have not yet fulfilled.

If we don’t transmit that creed through shared displays of reverence we will have lost the idea system that has always motivated reform. We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives.

If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another and will interact in cold instrumentalist terms.

You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism, which erects barriers between Americans and which is the dark opposite of America’s traditional universal nationalism.

Brooks’ presumes participation in the rituals fosters both a sense of inclusion and actual inclusion itself. He cannot imagine an America built on deliberate exclusion, that participation in the rituals is a gesture often demanded and frequently compelled not because it makes us all fellow citizens in solidarity with each other, but because it is creates a hierarchy of who is worthy and who is not.

We can still be strangers when we sing and pledge.


The solidarity Brooks yearns for here is frequently nonreciprocal. Sacrifices, loyalty, and love are often demanded, but rarely returned.

Let’s think of the most important ritual of the church — eucharist. Many churches reserve it for insiders, for members, for those who have confessed their sins and gotten right with God. Being at the table, taking bread and wine, shows that you belong, that you have done the long, hard, purposeful work of belonging. That you have learned to “discern the body,” as Paul wrote, when you eat and drink. And thus take no judgment upon yourself.

I don’t argue much with this view, since it has deep historical roots and legitimacy (“The doors! The doors!” as the Orthodox say, harking back to a time when the unbaptized were ushered out of our most sacred mystery). Nor do I feel excluded when a pastor or priest tells me I cannot take communion. (Though I do get miffed when a Lutheran tell me no, since I believe I am entitled to an opinion on that matter and I think they get what it means to be church wrong.)

America’s nationalistic rituals — the rituals of our civic faith — feel this kind of exclusionary to me. You can be at the table all you want, but if the priest and the people around you see you as a sinner, for whatever reason, there simply is no belonging. And unlike religious ritual (though, sadly, like too many religious communities), there is no meaningful repentance and penance.

Once a sinner, always a sinner.

I get what Brooks wants. An America, united in purpose and faith, even as we are divided by creed and color. This is a powerful story, developed and honed in the 20th century as Americans struggled against forces that sought to extinguish difference in ideological or racial uniformity.

But he fails to appreciate there can be no in without an out. And often, that out is right in our midst, a reminder that enemies and nonbelievers lurk among us. I honestly have no idea how they are identified — how I was singled out — but it happens. We are not all happy members of some great ecumenical holding company, with our share of stock and our little vote.

Some of us are singled out. And no mere recitation of words, or singing of a song, can save us. Can make us belong.

2 thoughts on “Belonging … Or Not

  1. The ‘civic creed’ made some sense and had some practical value when it was a compromise — a common denominator among creeds. It was never all-inclusive, though despite some good efforts. Some of it was even invented by people who wanted a basis for community other than ethnicity or regionalism. But it was not the kind of thing which could exist on its own. I think it was already fading in the childhood of my generation in the 1950s. The remnant which was revived after the 60s was especially not inclusive or universal. In fact it was contrarian — a challenge to dissenters and a wall against doubt.

    I think Brooks has it backwards. The American creed was the product of forces which encouraged unity, not the cause. You can’t summon the spirit by performing rituals. It is only the prior presence of the spirit which can make the rituals meaningful.

  2. Pingback: Another Look: Charles Featherstone on Civil Religion – Everyone's Entitled to Joe's Opinion

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