ASU Professor: Biden's Inaugural Address Bolsters Civil Religion

Published: Thursday, January 21, 2021 - 1:41pm
Updated: Thursday, January 21, 2021 - 1:42pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: President Biden's inaugural address was a striking contrast to President Donald Trump's 2017 speech — one that former President George W. Bush (reportedly) described as, quote, "some pretty weird (expletive)." Biden acknowledged the many challenges his administration and the country faces, including the pandemic and racial injustice. He also spoke a lot about faith, but more in the sense of a collective coming together to solve problems to preserve the American experiment of democracy. John Carlson of ASU's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict believes that focus was part of civil religion. I spoke with Carlson earlier and asked him what Biden's approach said to him.

JOHN CARLSON: Well, what it says to me is that Joe Biden has an array of religious resources and inputs that he's drawing from — whether it's his own family experiences, his Catholicism, or, frankly, what I would call a kind of "American civil religion." And in all of those ways, from the kind of familiar day-to-day quotidian to the more soaring rhetoric and sublime of American history, religion is very much part of that that vocabulary.

GOLDSTEIN: Civil religion is a very important phrase. I want to have you define that in your terms.

CARLSON: Yeah. So it's not a term that we use in the day to day. You can basically think about it as a kind of civic faith or creed when you hear the people talk about what our values are as Americans, or "this is who we are." An effort really to understand what are the guiding principles, ideals, events, experiences of the American story of democracy that shape us and inform us and speak, that speak to us. And, and how we might think about those experiences, perhaps in light of higher truths.

GOLDSTEIN: And though President Biden in no way could ignore all the challenges that we as a country face, he did strike a rather optimistic tone, at least, a tone that considered to be, if we work together, we can get through this, we can conquer this, unlike what we saw in 2017.

CARLSON: Well, let me start by saying that the inaugural address of 2017 was unlike any other. When President Bush apparently turned to former Secretary of State Clinton, said to her — something I'll keep it proper for public radio here — but that was some strange stuff, that really was a significant deviation and aberration of American civil religion in the whole previous legacy of that inaugural addresses form as a kind of canon, actually, of civil religion. So Biden is very much trying to recover that. I think that's important because in this case, his key theme in his message was — in his address — was unity.

JOE BIDEN: And I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the foes we face — anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity, we can do great things, important things.

CARLSON: And civil religion provides a vocabulary for thinking about unity, not only how we pursue it, but why we pursue it, why it's needed.

GOLDSTEIN: And how much does the concept of civil religion play into faith in our fellow man or woman, faith in our community, but also faith in our institutions? That has been one of the fears of a lot of people over the Trump years, that there were institutions that we knew were not perfect, but he and his supporters really tried to tear many of them down, where it sounds like President Biden is trying to make sure to build them back up.

CARLSON: Yeah, well, I'm glad that you mentioned that. Let me first say that civil religion is itself an institution. It's an enduring feature of American democracy without which, I would argue, we can't endure, or at least we're not going to endure in the way that we exist and have existed. In terms of the more specific kinds of institutions, when we think of that word, I very much agree — he is trying to reinstate a kind of, a kind of trust and faith. And that trust and faith is based, upon the inaugural, has to start with trust and faith in each other.

BIDEN: America has been tested, and we've come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's challenges. And we'll lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.

CARLSON: We, the people, make up the government. The government is not some, is not made up of some other people. They are us. We are them. And that, we can't trust our governments if we don't trust one another. And we've seen a lot in recent years, efforts to divide us, to draw hard distinctions, to create stereotypes, to really talk through big categories under which we can lump all sorts of things: The socialist radical left, the deep state, the enemies of the people, the press. I mean, you can just pack so much under this. And that then becomes the kind of building blocks of a way of thinking and a way of seeing the world. We need to tear some of those down and rebuild from the ground up again. And that starts with trusting each other on an interpersonal level.

GOLDSTEIN: It's rare, especially among politicians or elected officials, even if they feel it in their gut to actually in a speech — and this, let alone a presidential inaugural address — to talk about the folks that, some of you didn't vote for me. Some of you don't trust this or that. But it's not only that I'm going to, I want you along for this ride, it's that you are important, an important part of this. That struck me as significant, to not act as though this reality, which we all know is there, doesn't exist.

CARLSON: I quite agree. The call to unity is, is really interesting for for several reasons. Number one, it's partly our identity. You know, we can't be a United States of America if we're not united, if we don't have unity. That's just part of defining who we are. But most importantly, I think really most powerfully, what Biden articulated was that we cannot confront the challenges, massive challenges, the trials, the dark winter that is hanging over us and it the perils of which are still to come if we don't band together. And we've seen the terrible consequences of dividing people up on questions of like, you know, masking or social distancing or how to confront a pandemic. We've seen the perils that we can't confront racism if we're completely divided on it, if we only see things from one perspective or the other. So all of these challenges — rebuilding the economy, fundamentally restoring a commitment to truth — we can't do those things with just one side working to do it. And that's why I think the call to unity is really, is quite important. It's very pragmatic, actually.

GOLDSTEIN: That is John Carlson of ASU's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

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