Civil Religion

views updated May 14 2018


CIVIL RELIGION . The word religion is derived from two Latin terms, religio and religare. The first term designates a quality of prudence, regard, and seriousness as an attitude toward ancestral founders. The second term means to bind, to tieas a mode that gives a specificity, concreteness, and cohesionan identity to a human community. The binding is always related to a myth that reveals the nature and meaning of ancestors who were involved in the founding of the city.

This meaning of religion can be seen in ancient foundings of cities and towns. In his book The Ancient City (1873) Fustel de Coulanges described religions associated with founding Greek and Roman city-states. This sense of founding took into account the ancestors and gods that existed prior to the organization of the city. Joseph Rykwert's The Idea of a Town (1976) provides a similar discussion of sacred symbols, rituals, and meanings that were essential to the foundation of Greek and Roman communities.

The term civil religion was first introduced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book The Social Contract (1762). Rousseau used the term in the context of the European Enlightenment and the revolutionary movement toward democratic statehood. The concept applied to the ordering and organization of modern democracies preceeding the French Revolution and the overthrowing of religious and political hierarchies as the ordering principles of the state. Rousseau, as did many founders of modern democracy, nevertheless thought that a shared sense of essential moral and religious beliefs must still serve to provide cohesion for the general citizenry of the French nation. Such beliefs were girded in Enlightenment Christianity and consisted of "essential" prescriptive values:

  1. the idea of a benevolent deity,
  2. the existence of an afterlife,
  3. the faith in justice and divine retribution,
  4. sacred correspondence of the social contract with the state's laws.

Rousseau was writing before the French Revolution and was attempting to locate a basis for the integrative principle of society that would replace the monarchy and the church. But even after their revolutions democratic European states still possessed the residue of ancient traditions embedded in their histories and institutions. In other words, they were already "a people" prior to the foundation of democratic institutions. The difference between European and American identities was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville when he toured the United States in the 1830s. "Up to the present," he noted, "I don't see a trace of what we generally consider faiths, such as customs, ancient traditions, and the power of memories" (Pierson, 1938, p. 153).

None of these cultural forms of customs, ancient traditions, or the power of memories was present in the American nation; thus the basis for a civil society was always rather tenuous. What was present was a historical style of Protestantism, which was embraced by the majority population. Although the U.S. Constitution denies the meaning of any positive religion as the "religion of the Republic" and all specific religions are entitled to have the right of full expression and freedom, it was assumed by the "majority" of Americans that the proper lens of interpretation for important national issues was through a Protestant point of view.

Introduction of "Civil Religion" in the American Academy

Will Herberg's 1960 work Protestant, Catholic, Jew was an attempt to break through this Protestant sense of America by offering an alternative and plural understanding of the nature of American religiosity. The title of his book is taken from one of the popular identifiers on identification tags of American soldiers in World War II. Along with the soldier's serial number and blood type was one of these religious identifiers. An apocryphal story is told that if a soldier declared himself or herself an atheist, then his or her tag was stamped "p" for Protestant. This story goes to the heart of the matter, for the designation was only a sign of religion and carried with it no serious meaning or commitment. The designation expressed a sentimentality associated with religious rhetoric rather than any efficacious religious meaning.

Robert Bellah's article "Civil Religion in America," published in Daedalus in 1967, brought to the surface the problematical nature of the foundational principles of American society. Bellah made clear that his article grew out of a concern occasioned by the public debate that had grown out of the candidacy of Senator John F. Kennedy for president of the United States. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic, and therefore the issue of both his adherence to a hierarchical religious church whose administrative center lay outside of the United States as well as the fact that he was not a member of the Protestant majority raised questions about the de facto meaning of what constitutes an American.

As a sociologist, Bellah focused his meaning of American civil religion in the symbols and rituals that provided a sense of cohesion and continuity for Americans. He drew attention to the founding documents and the rhetoric of the American Republic in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which he argued made possible the existence of a civil society in the United States. He pointed to Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and Gettysburg Address as examples of civil religion. In particular the first few presidents had set the tenor in their words and deeds. Bellah argued that American civil religion, although derived from Christianity, is not to be equated with a positive religion. The "God of the Republic" can be characterized as having more of a concern for "order, law, and right, than to salvation and love" (Demerath and Hammond, p. 172). This God is active in history and shows a "special concern for America." (Demerath and Hammond, p. 172). A higher law and a transcendent force exist by which to judge the political processes of the American people (Demerath and Hammond, p. 172).

In a subsequent discussion, "American Civil Religion in the 1970's," published in the Anglican Theological Review, Bellah asserted that he had invented the notion of "civil religion" as a social science category of interpretation, stating, "In a sense, and not in a trivial sense, civil religion in America existed from the moment the winter 1967 issue of Daedalus was printed" (Bellah, 1973, p. 8). He admitted that there had been other interpretations on the topic prior to the publication of his article, but he took credit for the specific contextualization of this notion. Prominent in these prior interpretations of an American religion was the American church historian Sidney E. Mead, who referred to the United States as a "nation with the soul of a church," a phrase he took from G. K. Chesterton (Mead, 1975). Mead showed that while there was nothing like a "church" in the Constitution of the first pluralistic and "secular" democracy, there was a strong tradition of voluntary association imbibed through the Puritan Dissenters in the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century that was not to be seen as entirely at odds with the beliefs in popular sovereignty later propounded by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

In The Nation with the Soul of a Church (1975) Mead argues that a principle of religious freedom began with the Lutheran Reformation and continued through a variety of Calvinist sects. The American sects emphasized covenant theology, which resembled social contracts and reflected the idea that voluntary consent of the governed was the basis of all good government. The Puritans were able to wed this democratic formulation to a sense of chosenness, with their Calvinist notions of "election" or sainthood as the condition of the governing bodies or theocracy. Thus voluntary consent to the laws of the Puritan state coalesced with consent to divine laws and "destiny" for a "peculiar people." Mead's formulation is based upon the history of American religion from the Puritans through American denominationalism into the midtwentieth century. He discerns that through this history Americans have been able at various times to appeal to a meaning of their destiny as it is revealed beyond the empirical historical situations. They have been within these spaces at various moments able to discern unique and qualitative meanings of freedom as they relate to the very constitution of an American self.

Historical Background and Manifestations of American Civil Religion

Catherine Albanese (1999), following closely upon Mead, has delineated several modes civil religion has taken during American history. She has shown that the Enlightenment and Puritan traditions combined to shape the rhetoric, symbols, and structure of American civil religion. The Puritans laid the groundwork for a national symbology that could be drawn upon by subsequent revolutionaries and later generations of Americans in times of war and crises.

John Winthrop imagined the 1630 Puritan crossing of the Atlantic in terms of a biblical typologythe crossing was a reenactment of the Exodus story of Israelites from Egyptian captivity and the crossing of the Red Sea. He compared the colony to the "chosen" people and a "city set upon a hill"; their duty was to be a light unto Europe so all could follow their example. The American people may inherit what Albanese calls a "melodramatic" edge from the Puritans along with a strong sense of suffering and guilt (Albanese, 1999, p. 439). Perhaps the guilt was occasioned by their departure from Britain; perhaps their sense of failure stemmed from the imminent British Reformation, which as Perry Miller claimed in his famous book Errand into the Wilderness, may have left uncertainty as to whether their "errand" was not more similar to that of an errand boy (Miller, 1956, p. 3). In any case, the Puritans developed their chosenness with gravity, guilt, and a sense of the imminence of their own failure and depravity, the latter of which was also grounded in the Calvinist focus on predestination and original sin.

Although the Puritan focus on innate depravity would seem to be at odds with the language of the Declaration of Independence, during the eighteenth century the situation of Puritans had changed. As can be witnessed in the sermons of the Northampton clergyman Jonathan Edwards, the experience of conversion or chosenness gained closer proximity to a language of the senses and nature. According to many critics, the First Great Awakening (17301740) that Edwards initiated can be seen as a forerunner to the American Revolution. To be sure, for many itinerant preachers and the general populace involved in mass revivalist democracy, the focus on a sensuous experience of conversion often converged with Puritan millennialism and a sense of imminent natural redemption of the American land as the "Promised Land" and the place in which the new millennium would begin. While Jonathan Edwards maintained a balance between millennialist rhetoric and the ordering of the township space of Northampton into a space for cultural expressions of religious concern, in the hands of those less concerned with local communities the typologies could be adapted to the Enlightenment belief in individual and national rationality, prosperity, and progress.

Benjamin Franklin may be one such figure who recognized the utility of revivalism for the creation of moral and "civil" citizens. Natural law seemed to coincide with God's law. And God, for the Enlightenment founders, was understood within the register of deism as a benevolent and "great governor." Freemasonry, a semisecret society, flourished as a method for the spread of deism and "fifty-two of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons" (Albanese, 1999, p. 440). During the Revolutionary War, the Puritan rhetoric of chosenness converged with natural law, and drawing on Puritan symbols, many revolutionaries depicted themselves as involved in a millennial battle with Great Britain. This adaptation of Puritan rhetoric and typologies to "America," or what Ralph Waldo Emerson called "Nature's Nation," increased during the nineteenth century after the Louisiana Purchase and the expansion of the continent. As Giles Gunn pointed out, Sidney Mead claimed that with the Second Great Awakening came a "reactionary evangelical enthusiasm" that "sever[ed] religious life in America from intellectual life" (Gunn, 1992, p. 225). Indeed the varieties of denominations and sects that developed during this period seemed to turn inward and focus on individual purity. Nonetheless in the nineteenth century expansion gave impetus to the continuation of Enlightenment notions of progress adapted to millennialism.

American civil religion finds its most intense expression during periods of crises and wars. The "War of 1812, like the Revolution, was a holy war" (Albanese, 1999, p. 450). Moreover in 1845 John L. O'Sullivan coined the term "manifest destiny" to justify American expansion and the annexation of Texas. The Civil War furthered the attachment of millennial rhetoric associated with New England Puritans to the Civil War between the North and the South. Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was sung with its martial rhythms and its casting of the South as the anti-Christ over which the righteous North would prevail (Albanese, 1999, p. 451). During this time there was also a construction of the sacredness of the "founding fathers." Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was, however, one attempt to interrogate the meaning of the American Revolution in terms of the promises for civil religion that attended to the ordering of the nation. In the twentieth century many critics argued that there was a decline in the efficacy of American civil religion. Through ceremonies like Memorial Day, an attempt was made to connect Americans to their foundations, but "as veterans began to die, a bond with the past was broken" (Albanese, 1999, p. 455). Although civil religion may have emerged in times of "trial" through successive generations, and especially during the Vietnam War, Albanese claims that the "many" of the United States were losing faith in the "oneness" that civil religion symbolized.

E Pluribus Unum: Founding a "Novus Ordo Seclorum"

At this juncture where the story of American civil religion seems to end, the notion of the many and the one needs to be revisited. In addition to her delineation of the various historical forms of civil religion in the United States, Albanese paid attention to the "religion" and rituals of the founding. She noted the conscious imitation of Rome and Roman rituals in the festivals and early celebrations of the founding of the nation. A mingling of Puritan and Roman elements served in the symbolism and rituals surrounding George Washington. He was both a Moses figure and a Roman hero, who like "Cincinnatus, the Roman general, left his plough to fight for the country and then, when the task was done, had dropped the sword to return to his farm" (Albanese, 1999, p. 443). In Albanese's opinion the Roman allusions, such as the motto e pluribus unum, were an attempt to capture the spirit of a republic that would attend to the plurality of creeds and nations united by the oneness of a state.

In another vein Hannah Arendt also analyzed the meaning of the founding of the American Republic. She noted that the language of the founding works almost in a formulaic manner as it determines a structure of meaning and constitution. Arendt undertook a philosophical analysis of the language of the founding as a basis for the civil religion in the United States. Arendt's analysis shows that though the American Republic was the first of the modern democracies, its founding could not totally shed the problem of founding, as Rykwert and de Coulanges set forth in ancient cultures. For in the founding of a modern state the revolutionaries underwent a unique experience of novelty and the issue of beginning anew. "Novus Ordo Seclorum" (a new secular order) is the title of a chapter in Arendt's On Revolution (1963); it is the Latin motto on the Great Seal of the United States and on the American dollar bill. Arendt clarified that if the founders' attitude was "religious," that sense of religion was closer to religare, which consists of binding "back to a beginning." For the Romans that beginning entailed a binding "to the beginning of Roman history, and the foundation of the eternal city" (Arendt, 1963, p. 198). The modern revolutionaries faced the problem of a free act, which, in their case, did not consist of binding oneself to a "distant past" (as in Rome). Rather, they faced the problem of manifesting the specific novelty of the "American" situation. Their beginning needed to account for the plurality and the aboriginal ordering of the land that immediately surrounded them. This means that if they were to legitimate a foundation premised on revolution, they would have to provide spaces for the voluntary association and public debate to continue.

While the founders did provide a "constitution," they were not as successful in providing spaces for the spirit of revolution and freedom to continue. According to Arendt, even the founders immediately worried that their foundation would encourage apathy. While the ritual of "voting" might serve to activate some of the population in the spirit of political freedom, it was too infrequent an occurrence to maintain the revolutionary spirit of the Republic. Many critics have pointed out that this failure to provide spaces for novelty to continue to appear coincides with the retention of slavery in the founding of the Republic. While slavery was one of the main topics of discussion during the Constitutional Convention, it was not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and the mention of it in the Constitution was the basis for the famous three-fifths compromise. This compromise at the founding of the Republic on the meaning of freedom was repeated throughout American history. Thus one might return to the critical debate on the decline in the commitment to American civil religion in the twentieth century, most aptly characterized by Bellah's title of his 1975 book The Broken Covenant. From this perspective, that sense of betrayal of not only the authenticity of the words but also the acts of founding a revolutionary democracy has been present for much longer.

Critical Understandings of American Civil Religion

In his essay in the Anglican Theological Review, Bellah in response to his critics made it clear that it had not been his intent to define civil religion as a good thing. He said, "Like all things human, civil religion is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but in any case, it seems likely to be with us for a very long time" (Bellah, 1973, p. 10). Almost every notion of civil religion or one of its predecessors or derivatives has been established with a positive quality while allowing for ambiguities that move toward a negativity. Arendt has pointed to the fact that this quality of civil religion was present in the founding itself. Mead noted that this negative quality might be found in the emphasis Americans have given to space over time. Given such an emphasis, Americans seem to have had little patience with memorieswith the meaning of the actual events that took place in the land. While Herberg's formulation of Protestant-Catholic-Jew attempted to show that an Americanness could be expressed in any of these forms, the formula was always in danger of turning into an innocuous triviality because any of these designations or all of them together might be understood as a kind of religion in general (see Demerath and Hammond, 1969, p. 172).

Ambiguity around the notion of American civil religion persists, and the attempt to connect it to normative or positive religious expressions has been unsatisfactory. The reason for this might be located in the problematic of founding a revolutionary democracy. Arendt argued in subsequent reflections on the American Revolution in her book Willing (1978) that the revolution itself created a "hiatus" or a radical break with the past; the hiatus is the revolutionary time of possibility and freedom, a space in between the "no more" of the old order and the "not yet" of the new (Arendt, 1978, p. 204). The problem of the constitution of a civil religion based on a revolutionary spirit that had detached itself from the meaning of ancestors or sacred space may be viewed next to the problems of constituting a religion of the Republic that would also take into account the presence of aboriginal people, Native Americans, and African Americans. In terms of revolutionary beginnings and civil religion, a long and hopeful, while often prophetic and judgmental, tradition has existed with African Americans.

And yet these traditions have for the most part been left out of most formal discussion of American civil religion. Charles H. Long noted this exclusion in his essay "Civil RightsCivil Religion: Visible People and Invisible Religion" (1974). This essay is included in the collection American Civil Religion edited by Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones in 1974 with the approaching bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Bellah, Mead, and Herberg contributed as well. Here Long noted that the issue of "American" civil religion brought to the fore questions of what it means to be American and in particular what it means to be invisible in the telling of the national story, which has gained a well-nigh "cosmogonic language, a language of beginnings; it structures the American myth of beginnings, and has continued to express the synchronic dimensions of American cultural life since that time" (Long, 1974, p. 214). From this perspective, the issue of American civil religion is one of contestation, "concealment," and exclusion in the telling of a myth of origins.

Myth, as Long notes, is a "true story," and African American versions of American civil religion often used the language of religio-political symbols while defining another space for freedom of expression through music, art, and the cultural redefining of a transnational "America" to emerge. This tradition begins at least as early as the black music of the spirituals and the oral traditions of speaking and preaching, later finding written expression as Walker's Appeal in Four Articles (1829), in which David Walker challenged the Jeffersonian natural hierarchies and "Nature's God."

A sense of importance is also brought to Africa in the creation of the United States, while European Christians were challenged on their hypocritical understandings of an "equality" before God. Slave revolts, such as those led by Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey and especially the 1831 revolt led by Nat Turner, often relied on biblical typologies of the Israelites in Egypt, and the leaders became Moses figures for their people. While an eschatological and often violent protest tradition emerged to challenge the white Protestant civil religious tradition in the United States, Frederick Douglass and other black abolitionists seemed to share more closely the Enlightenment values of natural equality and the Protestant work ethic. One might also cite W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and his later Black Reconstruction (1935) as major documents of American civil religion. In the former Du Bois addressed both the issue of ordering American society and the telling of its myth of beginnings. "Your country?" he asked and then inserted a black presence into the sacred story by reminding Americans that "before the Pilgrims landed [Africans] were here" (Du Bois, 1903, p. 275). The stories, music, spirit, and folk traditions of both Africans and aboriginal tribes were present, Du Bois claimed, and were "gifts," added and intermingled in blood, sweat, and wars in the formation of the "Promised Land." Finally, one must mention the last great documents of this tradition as the speeches, events, and works of Martin Luther King Jr.

The African American tradition is a reminder that whatever form civil religion takes, its more hopeful organization includes that enunciated by Edwards in his "awakening" of active and free persons who are provided with a place for public debate over the issues of the day. While it may seem clear that "American civil religion" in its more positive Christian orientations and its faith in national heroes has declined in the twentieth century, the problematic of the nation's religio-political identity and the meaning of its revolutionary founding remains central as the nation further reflects on its powerful status in international affairs and the increasing diversity within its borders.

See Also

Politics and Religion.


The ideological and intellectual foundations of the new Western democratic states stem from the Reformation and Enlightenment critiques of hierarchical and sacredotal authority as the ordering principle for society and in the drive for a form of freedom defined for and located in the individual person. New democratic governments were brought into being to establish and maintain the rights of the individual. Democratic states, for the most part, did institute new human rights for the individual but this left open the meaning of a binding that would hold together a group of individuals into an abiding bond of unity. The United States of America is a case in point.

In addressing this issue, many revolutionaries had recourse to models from ancient societies, such as those in Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (Garden City, N.Y., 1956; originally published 1873); and Joseph Rykwert, The Idea of a Town (Princeton, N.J., 1976), which show how religious rituals and beliefs created the "common bond" that held societies together. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (Baltimore, 1968; originally published 1762), notes that revolutionary democratic societies, like ancient societies, needed some form of religion to guarantee the integration and cohesion of modern democratic societies. Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, translated by Karen Fields (New York, 1995), in his description of Australian Aboriginal religion, alludes to a similar notion about the social integrative meaning of religion. Catherine L. Albanese, Sons of the Fathers (Philadelphia, 1976), discusses the imitation of Roman rituals in the ceremonies connected with the inauguration of George Washington as the first president.

The Puritan dimensions of American cultural and religious institutions have been ably set forth in Perry Miller's essays, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), a good introduction to the range of his scholarship on the Puritans. Discussions of the rhetoric of chosenness and New England Covenant theology commonly begin with analyses of John Winthrop's lay sermon preached aboard the Arabella in 1630, "A Modell of Christian Charity." Winthrop Papers: Volume II, 16231630. New York, 1968, 282295. Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), indicates the radical and intense fragmentation within the religious and secular parts of society prior to the Revolutionary War. Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment (New York, 1963), discusses the "shape of Protestantism" in relation to the expansion in geographical space of the American Republic. Jonathan Edwards is often cited as setting the precedent for an enduring form of Puritanism as the basis for a "secular" religious polity, as seen in his writings on revivalism, especially The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 4: The Great Awakening, edited by Perry Miller (New Haven, Conn., 1972), in which C. C. Goen provides an introduction that addresses Edwards's often disputed "post-millennialism," pp. 194. An analysis of this transition is in Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind, from the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1966). Along with Miller, Joseph Haroutunian, Piety versus Moralism: The Passing of the New England Theology (New York, 1932), offers an examination of the more "progressive" use of Edwards's theology by his New Divinity followers. Alexis De Tocqueville commented on the importance of the Puritan townships and municipalities to the formation of a democratic spirit in the United States in his two volume work, Democracy in America (New York, 1990; Volume I originally published 1835; Volume II originally published 1840). George W. Pierson alludes to De Tocqueville's comments on the disregard of ancient traditions and cultures in the United States in Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York, 1938).

Broader interpretive works that deal with the history of religion in America include Martin E. Marty, Righteous Empire (New York, 1970); and Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn., 1972). Albanese's textbook, America: Religion and Religions (Belmont, Calif., 1999), gives prominence to the various expressions of civil religion in American cultural history. The sociologists N. J. Demerath III and Phillip E. Hammond survey the religious situation in America in Religion in Social Context (New York, 1969).

H. Richard Niebuhr puts forth theologically critical positions regarding the plurality of religious institutions in the United States in The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York, 1957). Given the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state and the fact that American culture was a Protestant culture in terms of style and history, the many immigrants from other parts of the world, the progeny of the Africans enslaved within the country, and the aboriginal populations, one looked for a meaning of America that could provide the serious binding that is necessary for a functional society. Sidney E. Mead, The Nation with the Soul of a Church (New York, 1975), explains the meaning that could provide the serious binding necessary for a functional society within the structures of a form of secular Protestantism. Will Herberg attempts to extend a meaning of America in terms of a pluralistic religious meaning in Protestant, Catholic, Jew (Garden City, N.J., 1960).

Within this context one must understand Robert N. Bellah's programmatic "Civil Religion in America," Daedalus 96 (Winter 1967): 121. Bellah responds to some of his critics in "American Civil Religion in the 1970's," Anglican Theological Review, supp. ser., 1 (July 1973): 820, and continues his exposition of civil religion in The Broken Covenant (New York, 1975) and with Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton in Habits of the Heart (New York, 1986). Trenchant critiques of American civil religion are in John Murray Cuddihy, The Ordeal of Civility (New York, 1974) and No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste (New York, 1978). Another critical examination of Bellah's position is in John F. Wilson, Public Religion in American Culture (Philadelphia, 1979). Giles B. Gunn, Thinking across the American Grain, chap. 9, pp. 212236 (Chicago, 1992), is an interrogation of the concept from a literary perspective informed by the tradition of American pragmatism. Hannah Arendt examines the philosophical meaning of the founding documents and rituals of the United States in On Revolution (New York, 1963) and in Willing (New York, 1978), the latter published posthumously.

Hardly any discussion of civil religion in the United States has emphasized the issue of slavery as an institution or the existence of enslaved Africans in the country at the time of its founding. Though this is a perennial issue of the country, having been one of the major causes of one the greatest wars in human history, it is seldom mentioned in relationship to either a religious or civil ordering of the country. Slavery was discussed almost every day in the constitutional convention and provisions were made to count the number of slaves for representation, but the founding made no change in their status. For the institution of slavery and the enslaved in the Constitutional Convention, see Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1981). Charles H. Long, "Civil RightsCivil Religion: Visible People, Invisible Religion," pp. 211221, in American Civil Religion, edited by Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones (New York, 1974), contributes to this discussion. There is, however, a long tradition of African American thought concerning the civil ordering of the country, including David Walker, Walker's Appeal in Four Articles (1829), which has been reprinted as David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, edited by Peter P. Hinks (University Park, Pa., 2000); W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago, 1903) and Black Reconstruction (New York, 1935); and Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (New York, 1963), Where Do We Go From Here? (New York, 1967), and Why We Can't Wait (New York, 1964). In addition a great deal of the contemporary Black Theology movement can be seen as contributing to the meaning of a civil religion. See especially James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York, 1969) and A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia, 1970). Gayraud S. Wilmore's interpretive discussion of African American Christianity, Black Religion and Black Radicalism (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1998) also makes a major contribution to this discussion.

Carole Lynn Stewart (2005)

Civil Religion

views updated May 11 2018


Civil religion in America today refers to a national faith that has a creed and moves the people of the nation on occasion to stand in judgment on its laws when they perceive that those laws violate what the creed affirms. It also moves people to rejoice in their nation-state when they experience it as realizing the values of the creed.

The term "civil religion" comes from rousseau's Social Contract (Book 4, ch. 8), where it was used to refer to a set of beliefs that support the political authority of the State. In Rousseau's analysis, these included belief in the existence of God, life to come, the reward of virtue, and the punishment of vice, with the added dictum of the "exclusion of religious intolerance." In his essay, Rousseau, as social philosopher, was recommending a way to civic harmony through supporting civic authority, a development of the ancient pietas (Marty, 1974).

Bellah's Theory. In 1967 the American sociologist Robert N. Bellah extracted the term from Rousseau's work and gave it a new meaning. In Bellah's use, it refers to something more specifically religious in the sense of transcending the law of the land yet capable of passing judgment on it. He introduced the term as a concept for sociological analysis of a phenomenon he thought could be distinguished from several others. At that time, he said: "While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith and others, that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of the 'American Way of Life,' few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America" (Bellah, 1967). The main tenets of this faith he extracts from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The central elements are the belief that God created all people as equal and endowed them with certain inalienable rights (Bellah, 1976, 168). The critical quality of this religion, he claims, is that people who believe in it can call upon it as a framework from which to judge the nation when it violates the rights of people or fails to protect them in time of unrest. Thus, the test of the depth of the institutionalization of America's civil religion in the mid-1960s was to be its response to the civil-rights movement and the antiwar movement (Bellah, 1967). Writing again about civil religion in 1974, Bellah entitled his book The Broken Covenant. Here he speaks as prophet to a nation failing to fulfill its promise. He expresses the hope, however, that scholars who find flaws in the American system will do what Max weber and Émile durkheim, who preceded them in the analysis of the relationship between religion and society, did, namely, use the lecture platform to clarify the present reality and to warn their colleagues about imminent dangers their analyses reveal. Their scientific observations thereby provide social service (Bellah, 1976). To make his point clear, he refers to the behaviors of Jefferson and Lincoln as foremost spokesmen of American civil religion, reiterating "the right of revolution should the state attempt to destroy the God-given rights of the individuals" (Bellah, 1976, 167168).

For Bellah, "civil religion at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people." Political theorists and activists who have taken a position on separation of Church and State are disturbed by Bellah's passion and, for this reason, question his objectivity as a sociologist, claiming that the intent of his analysis is to bring about a condition of critical self-examination from the perspective of religious symbol and fervor, while they believe that the failures of State are better addressed from the perspective of cool reason and secular values (Smith; Wilson, 1971). This focus is but one dimension of the debate that currently surrounds civil religion.

The Sociological Debate. Writings of social scientists and ethicists preceded the debate by providing the books that incorporated the themes that later were analyzed as civil religion (de Tocqueville, Dewey, Tuveson, Smith). It is possible, as Prof. Mary L. Schneider of Michigan State Univ. suggests, to extract from the debate at least five definitions that provide different focuses on religion and the State or society. The first became popular in the mid-1950s, when America's common religion was described as emerging from actual life, ideals, values, ceremonies, and loyalties of the people. The suggestion was made that, out of its own ethos and history, a people can come to worship its own heritage (Warner, Williams). A second theme took the form of religious nationalism. In this perspective, the State becomes the object of religious adoration and glorification. This is a main aspect of classical pietas, wherein religion and patriotism are one (Dohen). Stress on the value of liberty as provided for in a democracy without dependence on a transcendent deity or even on a spiritualized nation is described as the focus found in Dewey's Common Faith ; here, democracy is religion (Williams). A fourth theme is Protestant nationalism, without there being any zealous or idolatrous element to it; it simply is the fusion of Protestantism and Americanism, its moralism, individualism, pragmatism, values, and the like. This perspective characterizes any number of works, but is particularly evident in Winthrop Hudson (Ahlstrom; Cuddihy).

All of these emphases, analyses, and commentaries are not the phenomenon that Bellah seeks to isolate for analysis. The fifth theme, then, is the one that characterizes his own work. Civil religion is a normative reality; it is essentially prophetic and stands over and against the folk ways of the people. It judges idolatrous tendencies of particular forms of Christianity and Judaism. In the words of Bellah, "it is of the essence of the American civil religion that it 'challenges institutional authority'" (Bellah, 1976). He locates in civil religion the prophetic function of calling the nation, including its civic leaders, to account whenever they fail to provide the members their rights as people "created equal." He includes, therefore, among the martyrs of the republic Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Bellah predicted a crisis of conscience for the nation at the time of the Vietnam War. When this did not occur, it did not disconfirm, for him, his analysis but indicated that the covenant was broken, although hope never fails. When his own writings carried the prophetic above the analytic function, his social-science colleagues chided him for his lack of objectivity (Fenn, Hammond). However, religionists espoused his cause and made him the central figure of major bicentennial celebrations (Boardman and Fuchs). The debate continued, then, with two new focuses: (1) is the covenant really broken? (Novak); (2) has the focus of civil religion moved from the nation to the world society? (Neal).

While essayists were debating the reality or emergent quality of civil religion (Bourg, Richey, and Jones), some survey analysts were attempting to measure the verbalized opinions and attitudes from samples of significant size and diversity to determine whether any variable could be found with consistency that might be claimed to carry this conception of civil religion through the social consciousness of acting communities of American people. To date that research is indecisive. In some cases, the sample is too narrowly encompassed to preclude the Protestant nationalism concept (Hoge). At other times, the items are too general to conclude that civic piety is not also being measured (Christenson and Wimberley). This lack of conclusiveness is agreed to by the researchers themselves. In the late 1970s, they invited more empirical studies with better measures and samples before anything decisive could be claimed as causally connected with civil religion, or before it could be stated that civil religion can be differentiated for analysis from any of the other concepts connected with national patriotism, with which it is so closely connected experientially (Wimberley, Cole and Hammond). To get evidence that would be convincing for the existence of the civil-religion hypothesis, one would have to find a substantial number of non-church-related believers as well as church-related ones. At the present time, the items used provide high association with church attendance but correspondingly low association with socially concerned non-church-attenders. There should be no significant difference if civil religion is an independent variable. Other research, assuming the civic-piety definitions of civil religion, examines its presence in new religious expression of the 1970s (Robbins).

Theological Interest. The intellectual and religious interest in the idea of civil religion is directly associated with a new political consciousness in modern theological speculation (see political theology). Theologians show the need of new reflection on religion and State now that their attention has been drawn to the growing problems of a world economy that outstrips the power of the State, and the corresponding need for associations of some type capable of seriously addressing the ethical and social problems generated by new centers of power (Baum, Neal, 1977). This political emphasis is dialectically related to the Churches' affirming the value of their plurality and social commentators' allocating religion to the private sphere with high public approval in established states only (Bell, Berger, Greeley). The emergence of more effective power centers in Third-World concentrations in the international struggle for survival brings the question of the object of civil religion into the fore-front of Catholic reflection and analysis. In this context, the traditional association of Catholicism with the affirmation of hierarchy and of Protestantism with congregationalism, shifts interest to the Judaic theme of exodus and covenant for a movement-perspective for historian, social scientist, and religionist simultaneously. From this fact derive the contemporary debates about civil religion.

Bibliography: s. ahlstrom, "The American National Faith: Humane Yet All Too Human," in j. m. robison, ed., Religion and the Humanizing of Man (Council on the Study of Religion, Waterloo, Ont. 1973). g. baum, Religion and Alienation (New York 1975). r. n. bellah, "Civil Religion in America," Daedalus 96 (1967) 121; "American Civil Religion in the 1970's," in r. e. richey and d. g. jones, eds., American Civil Religion (New York 1974) 255572; The Broken Covenant (New York 1975); "Response to the Panel on Civil Religion," Sociological Analysis 37 (Summer 1976) 153159; "Comment on 'Bellah and the New Orthodoxy'," Sociological Analysis 37 (summer 1976) 167168. p. l. berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y. 1967). j. bernardin, "Civil Religion," Origins 5 (197576) 113, 115117. c. j. bourg, "A Symposium on Civil Religion," Sociological Analysis 37 (Summer 1976) 141159. c. cherry, ed., Today's New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1971). j. a. christenson and r. c. wimberley, "Who Is Civil Religious?" Sociological Analysis 39 (Spring, 1978) 7783. w. a. cole and p. e. hammond, "Religious Pluralism, Legal Development, and Societal Complexity: Rudimentary Forms of Civil Religion," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 13 (June, 1974) 177189. j. m. cuddihy, No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste (New York 1978). j. dewey, A Common Faith. Terry Lectures (New Haven 1934). d. dohen, Nationalism and American Catholicism (New York 1967). a. greeley, The Denominational Society (Glenview, Ill. 1972). p. e. hammond, "The Sociology of American Civil Religion: A Bibliographic Essay," Sociological Analysis 37 (Summer, 1976) 169182. d. r. hoge, "Theological Views of America among Protestants," Sociological Analysis 37 (Summer, 1976) 127139. w. s. hudson, Nationalism and Religion in America: Concepts of American Destiny and Mission (New York 1970). b. kathan and n. fuchs, Civil Religion in America: A Bibliography (New Haven 1976). m. marty, The New Shape of American Religion (New York 1959); "Two Kinds of Civil Religion," in r.e. richey and d. g. jones, American Civil Religion (New York 1974) 139157. s. e. mead, "The Nation with the Soul of a Church," Church History 36 (Sept., 1967) 262283. m. a. neal, "Civil Religion, Theology and Politics in America," in America in Theological Perspective (New York 1976); "Civil Religion and the Development of Peoples," Journal of Religious Education (MarchApril, 1976); "Rationalization or Religion: When is Civil Religion Not Religion But Merely Civil?" in A Socio-Theology of Letting Go (New York 1977) 931. r. neuhaus, Time Toward Home: the American Experiment as Revelation (New York 1975). m. novak, Choosing Our King: Powerful Symbols in Presidential Politics (New York 1974). t. robbins et al., "The Last Civil Religion: Reverend Moon and the Unification Church." Sociological Analysis 37 (Summer 1976) 111125. e. a. smith, ed., The Religion of the Republic (Philadelphia 1971). e. l. tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (Chicago 1968). w. l. warner, American Life: Dream and Reality (Chicago 1957). r. williams, American Society (New York 1970). j. f. wilson, "A Historian's Approach to Civil Religion," in r. e. richey and d. g. jones, American Civil Religion (New York 1974) 115138; "The Status of 'Civil Religion' in America," in e. a. smith, ed., Civil Religion (Philadelphia 1971) 121. r. c. wimberley, "Testing the Civil Religion Hypothesis," Sociological Analysis 37 (Winter, 1976) 341351. m. l. schneider, "A Catholic Perspective on American Civil Religion," in t. m. mcfadden, ed., America in Theological Perspective (New York 1976) 123139.

[m. a. neal]

Civil Religion

views updated May 11 2018

Civil Religion

In 1967 Robert Bellah published an essay titled "Civil Religion in America." There followed a flurry of articles and books about civil religion, most of which, instead of analytically appraising the concept, debated whether such a thing exists. Considerable ambiguity surrounded the topic, therefore, and after a decade or so, scholarly interest in civil religion waned. It lingers, however, not just in America but in other countries as well. The result, unfortunately, is not a codified set of findings about civil religion, surrounded by a systematic theory explaining those findings.

This regrettable situation stems from the overemphasis on debating whether civil religion exists. One does not ask if, in a society, an economy exists, or a polity, or a religion. Instead, one investigates how elaborate or encompassing those institutions are. One looks at how many people are involved and what they are doing. One looks at how those institutions are stratified and how authority is distributed and maintained. And one inquires into the beliefs and practices of those involved in the economy, the polity, and the religion. Despite enormous variation in these institutions through time and space, we have no difficulty identifying them sufficiently to study them without wondering if they exist.

Why, then, is the analysis of civil religion different? It is because so many analysts are not prepared for the amorphous character of this particular institution. They fail to see that the term "civil religion" is a construct, not an objective thing. Moreover, it is a construct consisting of many elements that are objective, but they have been investigated piecemeal, and detractors can claim that a particular objective element is not itself a civil religion. Of course it is not, but that does not mean a civil religion does not exist. Bellah's analysis, for example, borrowed much from presidential inaugural addresses, which had the effect of highlighting civil religion's ritualistic element. Others have explored the religio-political thought of the major figures giving shape to American society. Fourth of July and Memorial Day celebrations—celebrations that affirm the goodness of America—have been the focus of some, while still others see in the rhetoric of the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War campaigns how American civil religion can judge and condemn the nation. In each case an objection can be raised that ritual alone, or the founders' philosophy alone, or patriotic holidays alone, do not indicate civil religion.

What, then, is a civil religion? The phrase originated with the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) in his book The Social Contract. He offered it as a solution to the dilemma of church-state relations in religiously plural societies. In his civil religion, what Rousseau called "positive dogmas" are simple and few in number: "The existence of a powerful, wise, and benevolent Divinity, who foresees and provides the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws." The only "negative dogma," he said, is "intolerance."

However attractive such a solution might seem, it is unrealistic because for a religion—any religion, including a civil religion—to be religious, it must be thought to be not a human but a supernatural creation. In the American case, the founders, while recognizing that they, as human beings, were expressing truths about the meaning of America, believed that the truths they expressed were not of their making but were truths reflecting the natural order of things. Moreover, as Bellah says,

though much [of what the founders said and did] is selectively derived from christianity, this religion is clearly not itself christianity. . . . [rather, it] exists alongside of and . . . [is] clearly differentiated from the churches.

The result was a civil religion, which can be defined as any set of beliefs and rituals related to the past, present, and/or future of a people ("nation") that is understood to have not only political but also supernatural meaning.

By this definition, any group of people has the potential to evolve a civil religion. The chances that this will happen increase under certain conditions: if a group believes that it has a political history, if it traces that history to real or mythical founders, if it experienced a dramatic founding and/or suffered challenges to its unity, etc. The list could go on, but the point is clear: Whether a civil religion does emerge depends on many factors. And something else is just as clear: The visibility of civil religion increases and decreases with events. An inaugural address, or the assassination of a president, or an Olympic gold medal, or a Ku Klux Klan parade reminds us that we are fellow citizens of a group where political events can take on transcendent meaning.

It is not surprising, then, to find that in modern societies, the groups most likely to experience emergent civil religions are nation-states, and books have been written about not just the civil religion of America, but also that of Israel, South Africa, and others. Ethnic groups likewise may have civil religions, since so often their origins are found in a mythic past with sacred meaning.

This does not mean that because civil religions exist, all elements of them are everywhere and always in the minds of citizens. Nor does it mean that citizens cease to practice the religious tradition in which they were raised. Religions whose origins are found in one of the world's major traditions are thoroughly institutionalized, with buildings, bureaucratic administrations, budgets, membership rolls, and so forth. For the most part, these features are missing in civil religions, though temporary arrangements might exist to organize a July Fourth celebration, for example, or a civil rights rally.

There is one major exception to this claim that civil religions have little in the way of institutionalized facilities. In America at least, civil religion historically has been maintained and transmitted by a system of public schools that, among other things, rather self-consciously taught "civics" or "Americanism." Two forces in the twentieth century served to mute this effort, however. One is the increased awareness of religious pluralism in the United States. As long as nearly everyone was at least vaguely Christian or Jewish, an ethic—a civil religion—could be articulated that was believed to be a secular reflection of "Judeo-Christianity." Will Herberg, in his 1955 Protestant-Catholic-Jew, argued that this advocacy was occurring, and he also excoriated its inauthenticity and departure from the three "real" religions. The public and their schools are very mindful of how many religions get left out by this strategy, however, and, where it passes constitutional muster, how tepid it is.

The second force is similar in form, but instead of a plurality of religions it is the plurality of ethnicities that makes difficult using public schools as conduits of the doctrines and rituals of supernaturally understood unity.

Such barriers to the socialization of young Americans into their civil religion do not mean that the civil religion does not exist or is dying out. It may mean that younger generations are less knowledgeable about, less observant of, and less fervent toward their civil religion. But something of the same charge can be leveled at Methodists, for example, or Catholics, and nobody suggests that those two religions are on their way to oblivion. Civil religions, like all religions, are group properties, as Émile Durkheim showed. Their constituent elements are, therefore, always potentially present in a group. Whether they emerge and whether they cohere and form an identifiable civil religion depends on many things. Most analysts of the subject have not appreciated this amorphous quality of civil religion. They ask if it is there—whether it exists —which leaves only yes and no as possible answers. As should now be clear, however, such an approach to the topic is not very productive.

See alsoChurch and State; Civil Rights Movement; Judeo-Christian Tradition; Religious Communities; Religious Persecution; Sociology of Religion; Work.


Albanese, Catherine L. Sons of the Fathers. 1976.

Bellah, Robert. "Civil Religion in America." Daedalus 96 (1967): 96–121.

Bellah, Robert, and Phillip E. Hammond. Varieties ofCivil Religion. 1980.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of ReligiousLife, translated by Joseph Swain. 1915; repr., 1926.

Gehrig, Gail. American Civil Religion: An Assessment. 1979.

Hammond, Phillip E. "The Sociology of American Civil Religion: A Bibliographic Essay." SociologicalAnalysis 37 (1976): 169–182.

Herberg, Will. Protestant-Catholic-Jew. 1955.

Liebman, Charles, and E. Don-Yehiya. The Civil Religion of Israel. 1985.

Moodie, T. Dunbar. The Rise of Afrikanerdom. 1975.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract, translated by G. D. H. Cole. 1893; repr., 1913.

Wilson, John F. Public Religion in American Culture. 1979.

Phillip E. Hammond

Civil Religion

views updated Jun 27 2018


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.


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 .

civil religion

views updated May 14 2018

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.

Civil religion

views updated May 23 2018

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