CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Aging sociologist Robert Bellah spent his long career espousing the notion that Americans share a "civil religion" -- a common belief in fairness, equality, compassion, human rights, justice and other bedrock principles of democracy. This national faith even has its martyrs, he wrote, such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, etc.
Although America is a hodgepodge of many ethnic groups, ideologies and economic classes, a unifying spirit of decent values is a glue bonding the country together.
We think Dr. Bellah was quite perceptive about U.S. culture. He richly deserved the National Humanities Medal he was given by President Clinton in 2000 for "his efforts to illuminate the importance of community in American society." His books include Beyond Belief, Habits of the Heart and The Good Society.
British writer G.K. Chesterton said America is "the only nation founded on a creed," adding that America is "a nation with the soul of a church." Sociologist Robert Linder wrote: "Throughout American history, the president has provided leadership in the public faith. Sometimes he has functioned primarily as a national prophet, as did Abraham Lincoln."
However, we think the civil religion evolves constantly, becoming ever-fairer. Perhaps the civil faith includes a tenet requiring entrenched injustices to be reformed.
There was a time when many Americans felt it was proper to own people as slaves, little more than work animals -- but Lincoln and the horrible Civil War ended that cruelty.
There was a time when women were deemed so inferior they couldn't vote, hold jobs, practice birth control, etc. -- but a century of crusading by feminist fighters wiped out those barriers.
There was a time when most aging Americans were consigned to poverty and illness after they became too old to work -- but Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" created Social Security, and later advances brought Medicare and the rest of America's "safety net."
There was a time when blacks were banished to dismal segregation, like Indians on reservations -- but Dr. King's historic civil rights struggle finally forced the nation to allow legal equality.
There was a time when gays were thrown in prison for their alternative sexuality -- but reforms in the 1970s made gay sex no longer a crime.In all these improvements, and many more, liberal progressives won the day, defeating conservative resistance. Thus America's civil religion -- its shared values and ideals -- keeps advancing as it glues the country into a whole.