SCOTUS Decision Changes the Meaning of Civil Religion in America

Under Trump, civil religion has been broadly redefined to mean that the United States is exclusively shaped by and for white Christians.


Last year, Hussein Rashid and I wrote a piece for RD on stolen citizenship in light of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, and why it follows a trajectory of exclusionary legislation and action that demonized America’s Others: Black people, Japanese people (and other Asians), and other non-white groups.

At the time, we thought the precedents set by the legislative reversals of Ozawa vs. United States and Thind vs. United States (and the shameful Dred Scott decision) would guide the Supreme Court to sanction racializing citizenship and giving the executive branch carte blanche to exclude certain groups. Tuesday’s 5-4 decision proved us wrong.

The court’s decision does more than codify exclusionary policies and expand the executive branch’s authority (which the court vigorously attacked when President Obama was in power). It threatens the very idea of American civil religion. More than 50 years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah defined civil religion as “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals,” that function “not as a form of national self-worship but as the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged.”

To be sure, civil religion in America has been broadly interpreted, and there have been varying degrees of theological interpretation and interventions, depending on who occupies the White House. Under Trump, however, civil religion has been broadly redefined to mean that the United States is exclusively shaped by and for white Christians (primarily evangelicals). Its rituals are now a deification of intolerance and mass rituals of white grievance and self pity.

What the Court’s decision means is that people from Muslim-majority countries could just become the guinea pigs for Trump’s efforts to more narrowly define citizenship. The Court has essentially codified efforts to limit the citizenship and civil rights of African Americans, LGBTQIA Americans, and religious minorities. As this has taken shape, Trump’s transparent attacks on multiculturalism in America—and the Supreme Court’s acquiescence to those attacks—are testing the very idea of civil religion. If the Trump Administration can legally prevent Muslims from entering the country today, what will prevent future actions against Hindus, Buddhists, or Yazidis?

If our civil religion disappears, we may no longer have a set of guiding principles and values informing us what it means to be American. That very prospect should send shivers down the spine of anyone—whether on the left or right—who believes in the idea of a values-driven democracy.