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

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.

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)

Keynote Speaker

“Racial States, Civil Religion, and the Future of American Democracy”

Sylvester Johnson (Virginia Tech University)


Sylvester A. Johnson is Assistant Vice Provost for the Humanities and Executive Director of the “Tech for Humanity” initiative at Virginia Tech. He is the founding director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities, which is supporting human-centered research and humanistic approaches to the guidance of technology. Johnson’s research has examined religion, race, and empire in the Atlantic world; religion and sexuality; national security practices; and the impact of intelligent machines and human enhancement on human identity and race governance. In addition to co-facilitating a national working group on religion and US empire, Johnson led an Artificial Intelligence project that developed a successful proof-of-concept machine learning application to ingest and analyze a humanities text. He is the author of The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity (Palgrave 2004), a study of race and religious hatred that won the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book award; and African American Religions, 1500-2000 (Cambridge 2015), an award-winning interpretation of five centuries of democracy, colonialism, and freedom in the Atlantic world. Johnson has also co-edited The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11 (University of California 2017); and Religion and US Empire: Critical New Histories (NYU Press 2022). He is a founding co-editor of the Journal of Africana Religions. He is currently producing a digital scholarly edition of an early English history of global religions and writing a book on human identity in an age of intelligent machines and human-machine symbiosis.


Thursday, Feb. 9

3:00 Check-in, Coffee

3:45 Welcome, Brian K. Pennington, Elon Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society

4:00-5:15: Session 1: Varieties of US Civil Religion

Geoff Claussen, Elon Department of Religious Studies, presiding

Judah Isseroff (Princeton University), “From Pluralism to Judeo-Christian Values: The New American Jewish Approach to Civil Religion”
Joe Bartzel, (Washington University in St. Louis), “The United States Needs Truth and Irreconciliation”

5:45-7:00: Keynote Address (McKinnon Hall E/F)

Sylvester Johnson (Virginia Tech University), “Racial States, Civil Religion, and the Future of American Democracy”

7:00: Dinner (McKinnon Hall D)


Friday, Feb. 10

9:00-10:15: Session 2: Civil Religion and Violence

Amy Allocco, Elon Department of Religious Studies, presiding

Megan Goodwin (Bates University), “Kool-aid Countermemory: Mis/remembering Peoples Temple”
Jonathan Ebel (University of Illinois), “Rifles, Race, and American Civil Religion”
10:15-11:00: Coffee: Sponsored by the Religious Studies Department

11:00-12:15: Session 3: Civil Religion and Affect

Dinidu Karunanayake, Elon Department of English, presiding

Shana Sippy, (Centre College), “Supremacism, Victimization and the Affective Politics of Hindu Americans”
Candace Jordan (Princeton University), “Black Lives Matter as (Un)civil Religion”
12:30-2:00: Lunch (Lakeside 212)

2:00-4:00: Session 4: Civil Religion and Empire

Lynn Huber, Elon Department of Religious Studies, presiding

Nichole Phillips (Emory University), “Spilling (un)American blood: Race, Civil Religion, U.S. Borders, Blood, Sacrifice and Service”
Jeffrey Wheatley, (Iowa State University), “Civil Religion, Fanaticism, and Materiality in US Occupied Philippines”
Isaiah Ellis, (The University of Toronto), “The Civilizing Road: Race, Empire, and the Infrastructure of Civil Religion in the American South”

7:00: Dinner: Home of Brian Pennington and Amy Allocco


Saturday, Feb. 11

9:00-10:15: Session 5: US Civil Religion and Whiteness

Waseem bin-Kasim, Elon Department of History and Geography, presiding

Valeria Vergani, (Stanford University), “Interfaith America, the America We Want: Negotiating American Nationhood and Religio-Racial Belonging in Interfaith Organizing”
Claire Hautot (University of Chicago), “The Theater of Mourning and White Victimhood at the Pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier”

10:15-11:30: Concluding Discussion

Andrew Monteith and Jessica Carew (Elon University)