Podcast: Wilfred McClay on America’s Civil Religion

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Chapter 1: Civil Religion and September 11

Chapter 2: Uses and Abuses

Chapter 3: The History of American Civil Religion

Chapter 4: Judaism, Christianity, and America’s Canon

Chapter 5: Losing Our Religion

America remains one of the most religious countries in the developed world. The United States has no established church; yet, some argue that it is the very absence of an official state religion that has allowed faith to flourish and grow in America. Complementing the flourishing of Judaism and Christianity in the United States is a distinct form of civil religion that permeates American institutions, symbols, and culture.

Upon what sources does this civic faith draw? How should Jews and Christians view and participate in it? And is it strong enough to persist in our increasingly secular age? These are the questions Professor Wilfred M. McClay addresses in his essay “The Soul of a Nation,” published in the Public Interest in the spring of 2004. McClay explores the idea of civil religion, tracing its history from Plato and Rousseau to Massachusetts’s Puritan settlers to President Bush’s freedom agenda. He details its uses and abuses in America and worries about a future where civil religion is missing from public life.

In this podcast, Professor McClay sits down with Jonathan Silver to revisit this essay. They discuss the role of civil religion in the period after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the ways the Hebrew Bible shapes civic religion in the United States, and the dangers of the progressive impulse to shed America’s history and hollow out the nation’s soul. At a time when visceral partisanship is running high, McClay shows us how a renewed civil religion can help bring unity and a sense of shared citizenship to a divided country.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble as well as “Baruch Habah,” performed by the choir of Congregation Shearith Israel, and “Further Down the Path” by Big Score Audio.

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