Op-Ed

Does America have a religion? For the answer, look to Walt Whitman

Does America have a religion? It seems a strange question to ask. Some Americans have one religion, others another; many have none at all. If there is one conviction about religion that nearly all Americans share, it is that religion is a private matter that each of us is free to arrange as he or she thinks best. But our shared commitment to the separation of church and state can hardly be called a religion itself. 

That government should stay out of religion, and religion out of government, is a principle as deeply entrenched in the American way of life as that of free expression, to which it is closely allied. Like others, I hold the principle dear. But I also have great sympathy for those who long for an America whose citizens are joined by more than rights and duties or shared material ends. And I believe this is not an empty dream — that America is, in fact, already held together by a common spiritual ideal, though it is not always recognized as such.

Walt Whitman described this ideal in his 1871 essay “Democratic Vistas.” A fervent democrat, Whitman believed in government of, by and for the people. He was also a fierce champion of diversity. 

But the diversity that Whitman loved was not the group-based kind we think of today. It was the endless diversity of individuals that Whitman revered. Indeed, “revered” is too weak a word to describe Whitman’s awestruck wonder at the uniqueness of every individual he encountered, from the “pimply” prostitute plying her trade on the streets to the president and his Cabinet in their stately gatherings. In each of these he saw an infinitely complex human being like no other on Earth.

Whitman also believed that every individual makes a singular contribution to the story of the world and thereby shares, in a limited way, in the eternity of the world. He had a single word to express all these convictions. He insisted that every individual is “divine.” We rarely see the divinity in others, or even in ourselves. But the deepest truth, according to Whitman, is that we are all expressions of the one everlasting God of the world. 

The true end of American democracy, he declared, is to establish a system of laws, which treat all of us alike, so that we have the freedom and security to begin to explore the divine diversity that sets us apart, not group by group, but individual by individual. The attainment of this higher goal lies in the distant future, beyond democracy and equality, beyond the rule of law and the principle of tolerance. But it is something even better than all of these. Whitman called it America’s “religious” ideal.

Whitman’s use of that word is bound to strike some as strange. 

For most Americans, religion means the Abrahamic faiths. These all rest on the belief that the world was created from nothing by a God beyond the world and time. From this perspective, the greatest heresy imaginable is the claim that the world itself is eternal. But this is just what Whitman believed. Unlike many atheists, Whitman was convinced that we are awash in a sea of divinity. But unlike every Christian, Jew and Muslim, he also believed that the eternity that resides in even the least conspicuous corner of the world is not the gift of a God beyond it, but the world’s own possession — indeed, that “world” and “God” are two different words for the very same thing.

Although Whitman’s religion has sometimes been described as a form of pantheism, his reverence for the individual has no counterpart in the pantheistic philosophies of pagan antiquity, or those of the East for that matter. It is the bequest — the afterglow — of Abrahamic belief, which first conferred on the individuality of every man and woman the infinite value that Whitman assigns it. A better name for his religion would be born-again paganism: a reaffirmation of the unity of God and the world, enriched by the central teaching of the three creationist religions that insist so vehemently on their separation. 

Born-again paganism gives spiritual depth to America’s culture of individualism. It explains our reverence for diversity in a way that avoids the worst excesses of identity politics. And it gives us a God that is magnified, not threatened, by the restless drive to explain all things that is such a striking feature of our national character.

In these respects, born-again paganism suits us well. It is the right religion for America. 

No one can be compelled to embrace it, of course, but those who do may find it easier to see that, despite our proud commitment to the separation of church and state, we are one nation under God after all. 

Anthony T. Kronman is Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He is the author of “Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.”

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