In one recent week, time took two heroes. So far as I know, the legendary civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers and the esteemed public intellectual Robert Bellah never met. They lived on opposite ends of the country and traveled in different circles. But they were connected in an important, symbolic way, and their passing within a few days of each other provides the occasion to reflect on their common lesson for modern American life.
Bellah was a sociologist at UC Berkeley. Though he began his professional career as an authority on Japan and the Far East, he made his most enduring contributions tracing the complex relationship between religion and civic life in the United States, and first came to the attention of the wider public for his 1967 article "Civil Religion in America."
In "Civil Religion," Bellah noted the ubiquitous role of religion in national life. But Bellah did not mean a particular organized religion. Writing a few years after the assassination of President Kennedy, he pointed out that the Roman Catholic Kennedy invoked much the same religious imagery to describe America's "mission" as the Protestant founders two centuries earlier.
Instead, Bellah meant that America understood its national identity in terms of a cluster of ethical principles — like freedom, equality and the rule of law — and that these principles are often described in religious terms and symbols. This religious language ranges from the generic, almost ritualistic, invocation of God by public officials to the frequent use of biblical themes such as redemption and the "Promised Land."
America's most cherished achievements have always been revered in these religious and quasi-religious terms. The Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the abolition of slavery, the triumph over communism, the end of Jim Crow — these and countless others are understood as more than mere documents or historical events. They are demonstrations of God's hand in helping to guide America's destiny.
And this brings us to Julius Chambers. A child of the segregated South, Chambers was unquestionably one of the most important civil rights lawyers of the 20th century. Along with his colleagues at the first integrated law firm in Charlotte, N.C., the brilliant and soft-spoken Chambers filed scores of civil rights cases, taking eight to the Supreme Court, all of which he won. He became director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York and later the chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University.
Nowhere is America's civil religion on more vivid display than in the modern celebration of the civil rights era. The historic struggle to achieve equality through law is almost universally recalled in religious terms. It is surely not coincidental, for instance, that Taylor Branch's monumental history of America during the civil rights movement, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, was titled "Parting the Waters."
Today, the veterans of the civil rights era are routinely celebrated for having done God's work, deploying the rule of law to vindicate his will on Earth. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than Chambers' eulogy, delivered by his friend and longtime law partner James Ferguson: "I saw him walking up the hill with Abraham, Martin and John."
But Bellah knew only too well that America's civil religion "has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes." As much as we may wish it otherwise, the religious language of national identity can just as easily sanctify something wretched as exalted. The language of civil religion has been invoked to justify every dark chapter in U.S. history, from the slaughter of Native Americans to discrimination and nativism to our periodic military misadventures.
Likewise, today's celebration of the civil rights era should not blind us to the reality of the times, when civil rights workers were threatened, beaten and killed by those who understood America's civil religion in far darker terms. Chambers found himself on the receiving end of this violence; his home, office and car were all firebombed.
America's civil religion will be with us always, but we must listen to the form it takes. Today, tens of millions of Americans merge an angry God with a chest-thumping nationalism to justify endless misadventures in the war on terror, thereby giving political cover for the apparently limitless expansion of the national security state.
As the late Sen. William Fulbright warned nearly 50 years ago, "power tends to confuse itself with virtue, and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor." This is again the greatest challenge to America's civil religion, and if recent events are any indication, the future is ominous. Robert Bellah and Julius Chambers would have understood it perfectly well.
Joseph Margulies is a professor at Northwestern University Law School and the author of "What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times