Habits of the State

Sociologist Robert Bellah has been an influential observer of religion in American culture for more than three decades. His early writings on civil religion helped convince many scholars of the importance of the religious dimensions of public life, while his widely read Habits of the Heart has brought his critical insights on “individualism and commitment” to an even broader audience. Deloria shares Bellah’s concerns about the impact of secularism on a collective American consciousness, the crisis of meaning in a post-traditional world, and the importance of morality for a sense of national purpose. He has diverged from Bellah’s self-conscious emphasis on the dominant (white, middle-class) culture, however, instead critiquing American society from the vantage point of minority religious communities. Acutely aware of the stifling political power that a dominant majority wields, Deloria has analyzed civil religion and secularism in relationship to the practice of religious freedom in a pluralistic society. “Habits” are routine mannerisms, patterned behaviors, normative customs, unexamined assumptions; the free expression of a minority religion is often less dependent on the disposition of its practitioners’ hearts than on the character of the political state within which it finds itself. Deloria has explored the practical dilemmas of minority existence in a number of writings. The essays in this section address the sociopolitical dimensions of religious diversity in the modern nation-state.

The first two essays originated as public lectures at conferences where Bellah was also a featured speaker. “Completing the Theological Circle: Civil Religion in America” was a keynote address at an annual convention of the Religious Education Association and was later published in their journal Religious Education. Deloria suggests that Bellah and other mainstream scholars have misinterpreted “the metaphysics of American existence” by theorizing civil religion from inside the confines of Christendom. Reversing the analytical perspective, Deloria examines the situation from the standpoint of America’s religious outsiders and concludes that the U.S. government and the political process constitute nothing more than a “late-blooming Christian denomination,” albeit one that is ecumenical in scope. Civil religion is not the product of the American historical experience; rather, “America” makes sense only in the context of the Christian worldview, even if this relationship has not always been made theologically explicit. Deloria continued his engagement with Bellah’s work more than a decade later in “American Indians and the Moral Community,” which was presented at the third in a series of consultations on law and theology sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, then published in the denominational journal Church and Society. Law and theology commonly facilitate the impersonal “world of systems” represented in the nation-state, whereas the tribal “life-world” is organized by narrative traditions; stories preserve and personalize “the particularity of the world.” Though he is critical of Bellah’s assessment of religious individualism in an institutionalized society, Deloria finds the notion of the moral community useful in revisioning the future.

Examining an important test case, Deloria documents a significant failure of the American moral community in “A Simple Question of Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of the Reburial Issue,” which was the lead article for an issue of the Native American Rights Fund’s NARF Legal Review. He excavates some disturbing inconsistencies in public life by showing how tribal people have been singled out for exploitation by secular science, denied protection for their dead despite profound and abiding religious sensibilities regarding the disposition of human remains. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 has proven to be ineffective at ending these abuses. Reading the reburial crisis as a referendum on American character, Deloria suggests that continuing debate over the issue reflects the dominant culture’s unresolved doubt regarding the basic humanity of tribal people, a manifestation of both racial discrimination and religious persecution.

In the next two essays, Deloria assesses the current status of religious freedom in the wake of two disastrous Supreme Court rulings. “Sacred Lands and Religious Freedom” was written for the Association on American Indian Affairs, a member of the Religious Freedom Coalition organized in response to the 1988 Lyng decision. Subjecting tribal religious traditions to legal criteria derived from the Western religious heritage, the Court ruled that devastating infringements on the religious freedom of minority faiths are an unfortunate inconvenience, a requisite sacrifice for life in a modern democracy. Deloria counters this reasoning by proposing a functional typology of sacred sites, using examples from biblical and American history to demonstrate the broad applicability of such an approach to the stewardship of public lands. Deloria condemns Christian complicity in the persecution of tribal religions in “Worshiping the Golden Calf: Freedom of Religion in Scalia’s America,” which appeared in New World Outlook, a publication of the United Methodist Church, as part of a thematic issue on the Columbus Quincentenary. The tone of this essay reflects the mood of many tribal and religious leaders after the 1990 Smith decision; shock, anger, fear, and determination led to intensified efforts at comprehensive legislative relief. Pointing out the irony of a legal ruling that protects immigrant idolatry while proscribing indigenous sacrament, Deloria recalls Bellah’s warning about the rise of a secularized citizenry. “The ultimate goal of religious people today,” Deloria argues, “must be to establish, in belief and behavior, a clear difference between religion and secularism.”

Deloria provides a synthetic overview of the religious situation in the last essay in this section. “Secularism, Civil Religion, and the Religious Freedom of American Indians” was the lead article for a thematic issue of the American Indian Culture and Research Journal. Reflecting on the impotence of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the folly of the Lyng and Smith rulings, Deloria asks whether these events reflect anti-Indian or anti-religious sentiment. He surveys the history of secularization and fragmentation in American religious life and finds this process has produced a virulent strain of civil religion that acknowledges “no higher value than the state.” Tribal communities encounter American civil religion when they interact with federal agencies, where secular bureaucrats administer public resources in accordance with the values of capitalism and science. “Traditional religions are under attack not because they are Indian,” Deloria concludes, “but because they are fundamentally religious,” which is an example of “the secular attack on any group that advocates and practices devotion to a value higher than the state.” Since these essays were written, Congress has passed several important pieces of religious freedom legislation, though dissenting religious communities continue to struggle with principalities and powers in the midst of Western cultural decline.