Civil religion in Africa and America: A Thanksgiving Meditation

HarDivBulletinThe rare juxtaposition of dates on solar and lunar calendars brought two holidays together in November 2013: the American Thanksgiving, based on Puritan-Native American relations in colonial history, and Hanukkah, based on Jewish history from before the beginning of the common era.

These two celebrations come together nicely because they encourage the spirit of rejoicing throughout the entire community. The festive character of the celebrations makes it possible to include many people, whether or not they share explicit religious interpretations of life.

While celebrating Thanksgiving with extended family and friends at my Seattle daughter’s home, I found and read an essay discussing the relationship of civil religion and institutional religion in Nigeria, which helps me understand the broad meaning of Thanksgiving Day in America.

The author is Jacob K. Olupona, son of a Nigerian Anglican priest and now Professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School. Early in the article, Olupona discusses the fact that Nigeria has two imported religious traditions that coexist in his country more successfully than elsewhere in Africa. He identifies a third institutional religion, indigenous African religion, which also is distributed throughout the nation.

What holds these three institutionalized religions together and makes possible their operations in relative harmony are “the ideology and rituals of Yoruba sacred kinship.” Olupona refers to this Yoruban system as a civil religion; it “is the incorporation of common myths, history, values, and symbols that relate to a society’s sense of collective identity.

In a footnote, he cites American sociologist Robert Bellah who describes “civil religion as the sacred principle and central ethic that unites a people and without which societies cannot function.”

Olupona’s understanding of civil religion embraces a wide range of activity, including “rites of passage and ceremonies…that promote the symbols and values of communalism and national sacrifice”; other activities that involve religion in public affairs; “the human, cultural dimensions within faith traditions, such as how human agency shapes, influences, and complicates religious control”; and “religion not only as a sacred phenomenon, but also as a cultural and human fact brought into being through social interaction.”

Nigerian civil religion is derived from one of the nation’s institutional religions—the indigenous African religion that was already there when Islamic and Christian missionaries brought their respective religions to this African country. Although the civil religion uses elements that come from institutionalized Yoruban religion, they have been modified so that their spirit also infuses Christians and Muslims.

The institutionalized religions are deeply established in Nigeria, and clearly are distinct from one another; yet, they have been dynamically intermixed “because of the enduring role of indigenous moral systems and practices among those professing Islam and Christianity.”

The United States and Nigeria differ in fundamental ways. Most important, in light of Olupona’s analysis, is the fact that the culturally dominant population of the United States consists of immigrant people who, like invasive plant species, have overrun and crowded out the original people with their myths, rituals and moral systems. What now operates as the American pattern of indigenous belief, ritual, and morality is derived from Christian belief and practice brought to North America by successive waves of European immigrants.

Not only in the churches, but in literature, music, politics, and culture in the broadest sense, the American sense of transcendence is shaped by the God of the Bible. The common ventures of life, such as marriage, work, and death, are framed by practices carried over from times when they were defined by Christian beliefs. The instincts concerning good and evil, justice and honor, mercy and care for another are derived from ethical systems derived from Jesus and other prophetic voices in the Christian Bible.

The serious character of this indigenous system came to mind again as I hurriedly scanned Stephen Mansfield’s recent book, Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What it Meant for America (Thomas Nelson, 2012). Mansfield traces Lincoln’s religious trajectory, beginning with a period when he scoffed at religious practice and read widely in the literature of skepticism.

Gradually, Lincoln moderated his views and the tenor of his speeches and writings changed. Although he seems never to have joined a church, he attended frequently, read the Bible carefully, absorbing many of its ideas, and adopted the Bible’s tragic view of life. Increasingly, this somber sense of America’s character and destiny permeated everything that Lincoln did.

This all came to expression in one of the most revealing documents in America’s cultural, political, and religious history, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Although redolent with American indigenous religious language, this speech cannot be contained within any of the nation’s institutionalized religions. It presents the moral vision that is a central feature of American identity whether or not people affirm the explicit understandings of God and the divine purpose that are inscribed in the Bible.

It is good that we read the president’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation every year Even better, if we want to remember the deeper meaning of America’s civil religion, would be the annual reading of Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

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