This Essay first attempts to understand how a contested Christian doctrine found its way into constitutional law. It does so through a reverse genealogy of ideas—an archaeology, perhaps. The Essay begins by sketching how U.S. constitutionalism, in both theory and doctrine, reflects the belief that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It then suggests that underlying this constitutional theme is a merger of two features of American civil religion: the tradition of treating the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as the central texts of a sacred canon and the belief that America has a special moral destiny.

The Essay then unearths the religious streams contributing to the doctrine of moral destiny. Each of them reflects a position on Christian eschatology. The first is the postmillennial movement among mainstream and evangelical American Protestants beginning in the Second Great Awakening, a movement that birthed a wide range of associational efforts to promote social progress. The second and third were both influenced by the Hegelian school’s philosophy of history, in which God is synonymous with human conscience, social conflict, and an inexorable trajectory of moral progress. These streams include the liberal Protestant movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the deliberate secularization of historical eschatology by pragmatists like John Dewey. The stream nearest in time to the constitutionalization of this doctrine was the religious leadership of the civil rights movement, especially Martin Luther King, Jr. Together, these streams leant rhetorical power to President Kennedy’s appeal to the Puritan image of America as a “city upon a hill.”

The Essay concludes by reflecting on this development. Scholars have not appreciated how much U.S. constitutional law reflects American civil religion, which itself reflects the various and often competing religious beliefs of Americans. Each of these—constitutional law, civil religion, and denominational religion—influences the others. This suggests new challenges for the ideal of governmental neutrality, both among competing notions of American civil religion and among diverse religious groups.



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