Joe Sobran on ‘America’s Civil Religion’

In March of 2000, Joe Sobran — may his soul rest in peace — wrote a wonderful piece called “In Defense of Bob Jones.” It was recently brought to my attention by a good friend who knew Joe and, like me, relished his writing. Like most of Sobran’s work, this article succinctly blends wit and wisdom, while gently lampooning the partisans of whatever stupidity is being considered. 

My estimable friend, the respected sociologist of religion John Murray Cuddihy, has shown how America’s “civil religion” — a “religion of civility” — mutes and domesticates the shocking claims at the heart of every religion. Jews, Catholics, and Protestants have toned down their ancient claims to be the Chosen People, the One True Church, and the Only Way to Salvation. Even theology yields to “good manners.” But religion, thus liberalized, loses its urgency, its logic, its raison d’être — its original and animating fire.

Religion, in its essence, is a matter of falling in love with the divine. Like other passionate loves, it tends to excess. It can easily become fanatical, which is especially frightening to people who have never had the experience. But I do know this: the human without the divine is never fully human.

Given our dedication to “no salvation outside the Church,” and the ostracism we’ve received for upholding it, these words strike close to home. The sentence I italicized could have come from the pen of our beloved Father Feeney.

But Sobran’s observations also raise a question. There has been much talk lately about the increasing incivility in our nation, a real incivility that reveals a rude, crass, mean, ugly and angry streak in the modern American psyche. If this phenomenon, too, is real — which I think it is — is the American civil religion still a “religion of civility”? I think it is, and because it is, we have yet another manifestation of the confusion of modernity.

It all reduces to this: It’s OK to tell someone to “go to hell,” as long as you don’t say his unbelief will guarantee he gets there.