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Civil Religion

CIVIL RELIGION

CIVIL RELIGION, a term popularized by sociologist Robert Bellah, is used to describe the relationship between religion and national identity in the United States. The basic theory maintains that an informal civil religion binds the American people to God. This civil religion fosters national covenantalism—an ideal of unity and mission similar to that associated with more traditional faiths, which imbues American thought and culture with a sense of divine favor intrinsically tied to American political and social institutions and mores. According to the theology of this faith, God has chosen the American people for a unique mission in the world, having called the nation into being through divine providence during colonization and the American Revolution, and having tested its fortitude in the Civil War. Ultimately, according to the tenets of civil religion, God will ensure the spread of American values throughout the world.

Scholars who use the term "civil religion" understand the phenomenon to be the result of the partial secularization of major themes in American religious history. The concept has its roots in the Puritan conception of the Redeemer Nation, which was based on the theology of election and claimed that New England—and, later, American—society would carry out biblical prophecy and set a godly example for humanity. During the Revolutionary War some clergy built upon this idea in their sermons by claiming that patriot forces and political leaders alike endeavored to bring about a divinely ordained republic. These religious themes increasingly appeared in political forums, particularly in religious pronouncements of presidents and governors, public rituals—such as those associated with Memorial Day and Independence Day—and popular hymns and patriotic songs. At the same time, the political strands of civil religion emerged in the postmillennial rhetoric of nineteenth-century evangelical movements and social reform efforts.

Civil religion was particularly important in shaping perceptions of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address (4 March 1865), for example, illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the civil faith. Un-like other speakers of the time, Lincoln did not simply assume that God is with the Union but interpreted the war itself as a punishment on both sides for their part in the slave system. In other instances, partisans in the war used religious evidence to support their views. The "Battle Hymn of the Republic," for instance, identifies the will of God with the Civil War aims of the Union army. Similarly, Confederates and Unionists alike used biblical passages to support their views regarding war, slavery, and the condition of the polity.

The civil religion of the United States is not merely religious nationalism. In its theology and rituals, it stresses the importance of freedom, democracy, and basic honesty in public affairs. At its best, it has given the nation a vision of what it may strive to achieve and has contributed to the realization of significant social goals. At its worst, it has been used as a propaganda tool to manipulate public opinion for or against a certain policy or group.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bellah, Robert N. The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Cherry, Conrad. God's New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Pierard, Richard V., and Robert D. Linder. Civil Religion and the Presidency. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1988.

Woocher, Jonathan S. Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Glenn T.Miller/s. b.

See alsoEvangelicalism and Revivalism ; Puritans and Puritanism ; Religious Thought and Writings .

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civil religion

civil religion, civil religion thesis In the 1960s a number of sociologists (including Talcott Parsons, Edward Shils, and Robert Bellah) distinguished civil religion from institutional (church-based) religion, arguing that societies such as modern America were attaching sacred qualities to certain of their institutional arrangements and historical events. Thus, in the case of the United States, the extensive immigration from Europe was analogous to the Jewish Exodus, and the Civil War a rebirth through bloodshed and an expiation of old sins. The theme of American civil religion was therefore one of Americans as the new Chosen People (see, for example, Bellah 's ‘Civil Religion in America’, in W. G. McLoughlin and and R. N. Bellah ( eds.) , Religion in America, 1968
). Similarly, in a famous (and much criticized) article on the monarchy in Britain, Edward Shils and Michael Young identified what they argued were religious aspects of the apparently secular rituals surrounding the coronation (‘The Meaning of the Coronation’, Sociological Review, 1953
). The basic idea behind these and other variants of the ‘civil religion thesis’ is that in advanced industrial societies, which are increasingly secular in terms of institutional religions, civic religions (such as the celebration of the state or civil society) now serve the same functions of prescribing the overall values of society, providing social cohesion, and facilitating emotional expression. In other words, civil religions offer a ‘functional equivalent’ or ‘functional alternative’ to institutional religions, since they meet the same needs within the social system. Both arguments (about civil religion in particular and functional alternatives in general) were subject to the charges of evolutionism, teleology, tautology, and empirical untestability laid against normative functionalism as a whole. See also SECULARIZATION.

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Civil religion

Civil religion. The term used by R. N. Bellah to describe the complex of symbolic meanings shared by many Americans and uniting them in a moral community. Beyond the specific use of Bellah, ‘civil religion’ has come to refer more loosely to the evident necessity of all communities to find symbols and rituals which will take the place of the religious rituals and symbols which no longer command adherence: see further SECULARIZATION.

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"Civil religion." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Feb. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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