Civil Religion

Although the phrase ‘‘civil religion’’ was coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it was the American sociologist Robert Bellah who launched the term into widespread use with his 1967 essay, ‘‘Civil Religion in America.’’ The term refers to a coherent body of beliefs that many would argue could give transcendent meaning to a nation’s sense of purpose.

Unlike other religious belief systems, which correspond to identifiable religious groups, civil religion is unique in that it does not correspond to any particular religious group or institution in the conventional sense. Rather, civil religion is observed within the public sphere. For example, presidents refer to God during their inaugural addresses, proclaim Thanksgiving Day holidays, and close their speeches with ‘‘God Bless America’’; Congress has a chaplain; coins bear the nation’s motto, ‘‘In God We Trust’’; and the Supreme Court begins each session with the words, ‘‘God save the United States and this honorable Court.’’

Despite the constitutional separation of church and state in the United States, according to Bellah, Americans like any people inevitably generate for themselves a shared set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals. Together, these may be seen to provide a religious dimension for the whole of America’s common life, including the political sphere. There may, however, be situations in which certain manifestations of civil religion, such as the governmental display of a religious symbol, violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. While the outcomes of these cases are notoriously difficult to predict, in part because the Supreme Court has not settled on a single test to be applied in all such cases, the Court has on several occasions expressed concern that governmental expression of civil religion may create the perception that government endorses or disapproves of individual religious choices; for example, County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989) (display of cre`che in public building unconstitutional); McCreary County v. ACLU (2005) (O’Connor, J., concurring) (display of Ten Commandments on county courthouse walls unconstitutional).

American civil religion displays certain Christian influences, but this does not mean that it is itself a form of Christianity. To illustrate, American civil religion includes a wide variety of references to God, whereas references to Christ and other sectarian beliefs are extremely rare. This, according to Bellah, is because there is a clear division of function between conventional religion, to which the spheres of personal piety and voluntary social action are allocated, and civil religion, which lies within the realm of a nation’s public self-understanding.

The genesis of American civil religion lies in the Puritan leader John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, ‘‘A Model of Christian Charity,’’ which set the purpose of the Massachusetts Bay Colony according to a Godgiven standard: ‘‘Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission . . . . For we must consider that we that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.’’ Winthrop and the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that they had a duty to God to create a community that all could respect and admire. In keeping with the Puritans’ understanding that political communities were to be held to divine standards, from the colonial period through the years of the early Republic days of thanksgiving were proclaimed not only to express gratitude to God but also to call for the nation to engage in a collective act of soul-searching—rigorous inquiry into whether the nation was fulfilling the expectations that God was understood to have established for it.

Although in its original form civil religion was understood to offer a critical vantage point on the nation’s conduct, civil religion can be used, as Bellah concedes, to fuse God, country, and flag into a form of nation worship that would permit no place for dissent or for questioning the acts of those in positions of political leadership. Civil religion’s original emphasis, however, entailed the sense that national goals and accomplishments should be measured according to transcendent standards, rather than the self-justifying assumption that God is always on the side of one’s own nation or that out of respect for God all persons should support their country, right or wrong.

To those who have criticized civil religion as the shallow worship of the ‘‘American Way of Life,’’ Bellah counters that American civil religion contains profound religious insights that compare favorably to those of the more conventional forms of religion. Civil religion ‘‘is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality . . . as revealed through the experience of the American people,’’ Bellah claims. To make his point, Bellah comments that he is ‘‘not at all convinced that the leaders of the churches have consistently represented a higher level of religious insight than the spokesmen of the civil religion.’’ The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr contends, ‘‘Lincoln’s religious convictions were superior in depth and purity to those, not only of the political leaders of his day, but of the religious leaders of the era.’’

A brief description of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address can serve to illustrate how civil religion can function within the nation’s public discourse. On that occasion, Lincoln sought to inspire a nation overwhelmed by the horrible loss of life to rededicate themselves to the Union’s cause. On one level, Lincoln began a ceremony to dedicate a battlefield cemetery was ‘‘altogether fitting and proper.’’ ‘‘In a larger sense,’’ however, according to Lincoln, ‘‘we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow— this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.’’ Those who had come to dedicate the cemetery could only, from Lincoln’s perspective, truly dedicate themselves, by devoting themselves to the cause for which so many Union soldiers had died: ‘‘that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’’ Though it may be said that Lincoln here was using civil religion simply to advance the nation’s interests, many have concluded with Bellah that civil religion, as practiced by Lincoln and others, is significant to the extent that it offers a deeper perspective, beyond the mere worship of a nation’s way of life, or the advancement of national self-interest, which might otherwise be absent from American public discourse.

References and Further Reading

  • Bellah, Robert N. Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • ———. ‘‘Civil Religion in America.’’ In Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, 168— 189. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
  • Lincoln, Abraham. ‘‘Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg’’ (1863). In The American Intellectual Tradition: A Sourcebook, 1630—1865, vol. 1, edited by David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper, 527. Fourth edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Marty, Martin E. A Nation of Behavers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
  • Niebuhr, Reinhold. ‘‘The Religion of Abraham Lincoln.’’ In Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, edited by Allan Nevins, 39. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1964.
  • Winthrop, John. ‘‘A Modell of Christian Charity’’ (1630). In The American Intellectual Tradition: A Sourcebook, 1630-1865, vol. 1, edited by David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper, 7—15. Fourth edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Cases and Statutes Cited

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