Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society
Elon University (NC)
Feb. 9-11, 2023

Keynote speaker: Sylvester Johnson (Virginia Tech)

The majority of existing studies about American civil religion fixate on the ritual elements of white political culture, often excluding considerations of race as a significant or defining feature. Frequently studies that do look beyond white civil religion start and stop with the Civil Rights movement as representative of Black civil religion. This symposium aims to consider how the intersection of race and civil religion might be more fully interrogated.

While presidential speeches, patriotic parades, and memorial statues are legitimate areas for study, we take “civil religion” to be more capacious than these standard markers. We follow Jonathan Ebel’s instinct to consider civil religion as lived religion, a field of experiences, ideals, and norms that shape how individuals understand themselves in relationship to the United States, as well as how Americans understand those situated beyond their own community.

We also take “civil religion” to include a wide sphere of emotional, ideological, devotional, and moral commitments to the United States. Civil religion is often diffuse and inchoate rather than “institutionalized;” it often overlaps with or cocreates Christian nationalism rather than remaining “alongside” and “clearly differentiated” from churches. This approach may deviate from Robert Bellah or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s understanding of civil religion, but, we propose, it better fits the U.S. landscape. Furthermore, “civil religion” is not singular; there are many civil religions operating alongside one another. In short, we approach American identity as a religious identity that may position, discipline, or otherwise interact with Americans’ self-understandings, interpretations of difference, and behaviors.

This approach to civil religion opens up new avenues for considering its relationship to race. For most of U.S. history, whiteness was taken to be a precondition for full Americanness. Indeed, many forms today continue to embrace this understanding, such as when Donald Trump insisted that Gonzalo Curiel—a federal judge born, raised, and educated in Indiana—could not fairly evaluate his case since he was “Mexican.” In contrast, some forms of civil religion emphasize racial diversity as one of the chief virtues of the United States or its unique strength, lauding jazz music and indigenous spiritualities as ambassadors for Americanness. It is clear that race matters for how Americans make sense of being American and that they narrate (or refuse to narrate) this intersection in manifold ways. Occasionally the stakes involved bubble to the surface, as when Colin Kaepernick disrupted the national liturgy as a form of non-violent protest or “Blue Lives Matter” emerged as a retort to “Black Lives Matter.” While many have treated the 2021 Capitol Putsch as a manifestation of white nationalism, few have acknowledged that this was simultaneously an outpouring of civil religious devotion. These are just a few examples. We contend that there can be no credible accounting of American identity or the passions or meanings attached to it that does not engage race.

This symposium invites proposals for papers that address race and American civil religion, particularly those that look beyond inaugural addresses and John Phillips Sousa to the devotional, experiential, or interpretive practices of those living in the United States (broadly conceived). We encourage scholars to look beyond Black and white to a fuller spectrum of race. We also welcome papers that examine those who might renounce, reform, or reimagine American civil religion. Papers could address (but are not limited to):

  • race, American civil religion, and politics
  • indigenous relationships to American identity
  • Black Lives Matter as a form of civil religion
  • media/popular culture representations of race and Americanness
  • civil religion as a disciplinary practice or technology of the self
  • intersectional approaches to examining ACR and race
  • white nationalism or white supremacy as civil religion
  • “Immigrant Nation” or other American diversity narratives
  • civil religion and colonialism/postcolonialism/neo-colonialism
  • civil religion and Afrofuturism or Afropessimism
  • Islam as a racial category in the U.S.
  • racialized conspiracy theories
  • race and normative American moralities
  • race, LGBTQIA+ representation, and American civil religion
  • national security and race
  • the U.S.-Israel relationship, race, and civil religion
  • race, civil religion, and socialization
  • Asian Americans and national inclusion

Conference co-conveners:

Jessica Carew, Associate Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies (Elon University)

Andrew Monteith, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Distinguished Emerging Scholar, (Elon University)

Direct all inquiries to Dr. Brian K. Pennington, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society, at


On the Edge Symposium

“On the Edge” is a bi-annual symposium at Elon University that brings together scholars working at the theoretical and methodological boundaries of those fields that have a stake in the critical analysis of religion—law, history, psychology, anthropology, literature/textual studies, philosophy, art history, political science, classics, sociology, geology, folklore, and gender studies, to name a few. “On the Edge” aims to exercise a self-conscious attention to methodological advances that can be made through interdisciplinarity. Its proceedings contribute to a richly contextualized and multi-layered understanding of the role of religion in societies past, present, and future.

Elon University’s “On the Edge” symposium, hosted by the Center for the Study of Religion, Culture and Society (CSRCS), explores new directions in the interdisciplinary study of religion. In 2023 the CSRCS will host the symposium, “Civil Religion and Race,” February 9-11.  Information about other past symposia can be accessed from the menu at the left.