“A world civil religion could be accepted as a fulfillment and not a denial of American civil religion. Indeed, such an outcome has been the eschatological hope of American civil religion from the beginning.”
So wrote Robert Bellah near the end of his famous 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America.” I regularly read this text with students and always find Bellah’s vision of a “world civil religion” arresting. Even more so, his observation that “so far the flickering flame of the United Nations burns too low to the focus of a cult.”
I’m not surprised that Bellah thought that the UN could not do this symbolic work. But I am struck that that the UN figured so prominently in the social consciousness of his day that he thought it worth mentioning. Recently the U.S. President denounced “globalism” in favor of “patriotism” before the United Nations General Assembly. Bellah’s world was clearly different from ours
If a world civil religion with the United Nations as a focus were to develop, one of its sacred sites would surely be San Francisco, the UN’s birthplace. The UN already figures prominently in the iconography of one of the city’s sacred shrines, Grace Cathedral.
Entering this Episcopal cathedral by its main doors, one of the first things that draws a person’s attention is a mural commemorating the UN’s founding.
Painted by Polish émigré, Jan Henryk de Rosen (1891-1982), it depicts individuals involved in the founding of the UN above the city’s Ferry Building. They are flanked by representations of Peace and Victory. Tellingly however, Victory is depicted by a representation of the Winged Victory of Samothrace in its surviving, headless, form. This underscores that the founding principle of the UN is not victory, but peace. The quotation from the preamble to the UN charter underscores this point, “We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war . . .”
Just to the left of the mural a metal casting makes the UN’s religious significance more explicit.
Potentially sacred verses of a global civil religion ring the UN emblem symbols of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Daoism, and Hinduism are arranged below.
Venturing further into the cathedral, careful observers may also see the UN symbol shining like a silver moon in a clerestory window honoring President Harry S. Truman.
It is not surprising that the United Nations should be so celebrated in the city of its birth in a mainline Protestant church. As Heather Warren showed in Theologians of a New World Order, Protestant ecumenists were instrumental in its founding. Yet, I can recall only one church in which I have seen the United Nations flag displayed in honor, St. Luke’s Episcopal in Atlanta, Georgia. Grace’s sister Episcopal cathedrals in Washington and New York are among the many Protestant churches of the twentieth-century with expansive iconographic schemes celebrating the unity of humanity. Yet, as far as I recall, neither of them give a prominent role to the United Nations.
A world civil religion, especially one in which the United Nations plays a central role, seems to be something we are only able to explore in fiction. In the 1982 movie The Wrath of Khan, the Star Trek franchise introduced the UN-inspired emblem for the United Federation of Planets for the first time. It was a ritual redolent with civil religious meaning, the funeral of one who had given his life for his friends, Commander Spock.
Since then the Federation and its emblem and have been treated with more religious-like ceremony in Star Trek shows and films. The idea that the United Federation of Planets is the future fulfillment of both the United States and the United Nations is evident throughout the Star Trek franchise. Here perhaps we can see an image of the global civil religion Bellah imagined.