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Civil Religion in America

Summary and Keywords

Civil religion in America has no church, denominations, or institutional center, and it cannot be traced to a single origin story. And yet, it operates as a religion in ways familiar to Americans—it has priests and pastors, altars and sacrifices, symbols, institutions, and liturgies. So, what, then, is civil religion? The term originates with the 18th-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who proposed that the French nation needed a civil religion to replace the “unholy” alliance between the Catholic Church and the monarchy. Rousseau explained in book 4 of his Social Contract that he hoped a “purely civil profession of faith” would satisfy what he viewed as the popular need for something to believe in, to give one’s allegiance to, and even to give up one life’s for—a transcendent, unifying point of reference that existed beyond politics and in place of a denominational (most likely Christian) church. Thus, in philosophical terms, civil religion is the appropriation of religion for political ends. The American version of civil religion, though, differs from Rousseau’s idea by incorporating the nation’s Christian heritage more deeply into an understanding and judgment of America.

In the American context, civil religion had to accommodate the country’s variety of faiths and Enlightenment rationalism, but was just as deeply influenced by the power of popular and elite religiosity to order American life. Thus, American civil religion has echoed Protestant values and assumptions, while enshrining the mythic nature of the Puritans, founding fathers, and common people who gave their lives in wars and conquest. Moreover, while Americans do not pray to their nation, they have no trouble praying for their nation; they see presidents and preachers as both serving in capacities that minister to the people in times of crisis, and they invest sacred meaning in events and documents to help them imagine that America is as much an idea as it is a place. Over time, American civil religion has also provided a narrative for a set of ideals, statements of purpose, and symbols to which all Americans, in theory, can appeal.

Sociologist Robert N. Bellah (1927–2013) explained in a famous and significant essay titled “Civil Religion in America,” for the winter 1967 issue of the journal Daedelus, “American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” He contended that Americans could call upon not only a common creed of ideals but also their civil religion to evaluate their nation’s actions. In parlance that became popular following World War II, the United States was a nation “under God,” meaning, as Bellah argued, “the will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong. There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged; it is possible that the people may be wrong.”

Keywords: civil religion, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Robert N. Bellah, transcendent, “under God,”, Declaration of Independence, founding fathers, Constitution, nationalism, patriotism

Appearance and Influences

For most scholars, familiarity with civil religion is tied to the 1967 essay written by Robert Bellah.

According to Google’s ngram, civil religion and Robert Bellah have a determinative relationship. From the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, Bellah’s original essay on civil religion launched an academic industry to debate, expand, test, and revise the idea of American civil religion. More importantly, prior to Bellah’s essay, very few scholars, much less the general public, used the term; when civil religion did appear, in most cases Rousseau’s name was invoked.

Thus, the timing of Bellah’s essay is significant. He seized upon a term that seemed especially well suited to describe the middle of the Cold War, a period in which religion in the United States shifted for a variety of reasons: Americans turned to religious leaders and institutions to make sense of the catastrophic destruction of the Second World War and the existential conflict with the Soviet Union; the dominance of mainline Protestantism had diminished, leaving a vacuum to be filled by other sources of transcendent thought; and in national politics, the government inserted Godspeak into national symbols such as the currency and the Pledge of Allegiance. Those who commented on and studied such religiosity often did so by either looking at the practices, symbols, and liturgies that suggested a religious dimension to the nation or by critiquing such expressions for degrading what they considered “real” religion.

Scholars writing around the time of Bellah’s essay observed the spike in nondenominational interpretations of American life. Sociologist W. Lloyd Warner wrote about the religious dimension of Memorial Day observances in his book American Life: Dream and Reality.1 He was interested in the way public rituals (such as holidays) instantiated a common understanding of the sacred for a community made up of diverse believers. Memorial Day performed that function especially well, Warner contended, because it joined community members together through the commemoration of sacrifice made by both the living and the dead. A little over a decade later, religious historian Conrad Cherry picked up Warner’s observations about Memorial Day and compared them to a singular event with similar implications, the televised funeral of Robert F. Kennedy. In “Two Sacred American Ceremonies,” Cherry argued that American civil religion was made manifest through “the themes, symbols, institutions and sources of revelation . . . [and] are sufficiently continuous and uniform to constitute an isolable religion that functions vigorously in the public sphere of American society.”2

Religion always had a public function in U.S. history, but Cherry noted that there was a public religion at work as well. Sidney Mead (1904–1999), a prominent scholar of American church history, argued in The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America that if there was a religion of the Republic it centered around foundational events such as the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution that collectively balanced the power and influence of Christianity in American democratic life.3 Seymour Martin Lipset offered a similar narrative in his The First New Nation, suggesting that the Revolutionary War imparted equality and achievement as American values.4

Religious scholars including Talcott Parsons, Martin Marty, and Will Herberg studied conflicts between the public role of religion and the existence of a public religion. Parsons focused on the role of pluralism in American religious history, observing that Americans had an unusual amount of freedom to practice their faiths in a variety of ways, including using faith to validate their nation.5 Martin Marty pointed to the problematic ways Americans used religion to affirm whatever it was they needed in their material existence—from blessing their wealth and work to blessing their nation. Calling a post–World War II religious revival “religion-in-general,” Marty argued that an American understanding of religion had become so devoid of meaning that it no longer forced adherents to live under prophetic judgment.6

Undoubtedly the harshest critique of post–World War II American religiosity, and the one that appears in retrospect as an alternative to American civil religion, was Will Herberg’s book Protestant, Catholic, Jew.7 While Herberg wrote ostensibly about religious pluralism in the United States, he also discussed at length what he called “the American Way of Life,” capitalizing each word in this term to emphasize their “spiritual structure, a structure of ideas and ideals, of aspirations and values, of beliefs and standards; it synthesizes all that commends itself to the American as the right, the good, and the true in actual life.”8 Herberg argued that what he was describing was the product of both official religion and official politics; it came from the bottom up and the top down. He warned against the appropriation of religion because the historical moment made abuse of it seem more likely.

Bellah’s essay on an American civil religion, then, was significant not because it was novel, but because it hit a mark more effectively than other works of a similar kind. Bellah’s success might be attributable to how he came to understanding American civil religion, through what he called times of trial. In particular, war and the prospect of sacrifice for the nation forced Americans to consider the moral mission of the nation and which principles they found sacred.

Bellah’s essay sprang, he said, from “concern with the American Vietnam War,” but he admitted that at the time he was not “fully aware of the new religious phenomenon” that he had observed. “It was a sense of moral crisis in the United States being engaged in a war that had such negative qualities to it that made me [ask], was there anything in our past that would help us avoid this catastrophe we were in.”9 Indeed, the Vietnam War made Bellah realize that the United States was in the midst of a period of profound doubt about the faith Americans had in the nation itself. Bellah famously wrote that civil religion allowed “an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality [which] 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.” What then was revealed in a time of crisis and war?

Vietnam tested the fundamental existence and operation of an American creed. Bellah declared it the “third time of trial.” The first time of trial was “the question of independence,” the second the “issue of slavery”; each experience brought forth figures and symbols that contributed to a collective understanding American morality. Such experiences provided landmark statements on the shortcomings and promise of the United States. Figures such as Washington, Jefferson, and (most profoundly) Lincoln reflected on struggles and sacrifices made by Americans who would not reap the benefits of their efforts. Following World War II, “every president since Roosevelt,” Bellah observed, “has been groping toward a new pattern of action in the world, one that would be consonant with our power and our responsibilities.”10 Bellah’s idea of civil religion, then, looked both backward at seminal American experiences as well as forward to ways Americans might evaluate contemporary crises and wars. Ironically, Bellah never intended for his essay to stand as the American version of Rousseau’s work, but “Civil Religion in America” became a text far more influential than Rousseau’s because of its American context.

The Initial Debate over American Civil Religion

Bellah’s essay might not have been definitive, but it was provocative. And it generated a great deal of attention for Bellah, who would be forever linked to the term, whether he wanted to be or not. In the first few years following the publication of the essay, waves of scholarship tested and challenged what they saw as Bellah’s normative civil religion. Matteo Bortolini explains in an essay titled “The Trap of Intellectual Success” that a “condensed version of the original civil religion thesis was the target of recurring criticism: Bellah was attacked for his functionalist approach, fuzziness of his concepts, lack of empirical research, scanty attention devoted to the evangelical tradition, and value-laden analyses.”11 In part because of the response of scholars, Bellah addressed what he believed was the most significant criticism and misunderstanding of the term, that it was little more than affirmation a mystical form of the nation based on a whitewashed version of American history.

In a 1975 collection of essays The Broken Covenant, Bellah responded to the upheavals in American life sparked by popular unrest with the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He argued that he did not believe that civil religion would magically connect all Americans to one another, but argued that thinking through civil religion might reveal that Americans had lost the ability to conceive of a common nation: “The erosion of language,” Bellah contended, “is a symptom of the erosion of common meanings, of which there is a great deal of evidence in our society.” To those critics who thought he believed in a normative civil religion, Bellah pointed out that “myth does not attempt to describe reality: that is the job science. Myth seeks rather to transfigure reality so that it provides moral and spiritual meaning to individuals or societies. Myths, like scientific theories, may be true or false, but the test of truth or falsehood is different.”12

Scholars who critiqued Bellah’s original essay often seemed bent on disproving his ideas as if they were truth. For example, in the first collection to critique Bellah’s essay from Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones titled American Civil Religion, Martin Marty, perhaps the most revered religious historian of his generation, contributed an essay in which he offered that there were “two kinds of two kinds of civil religion,” a “priestly” approach and a “prophetic” vision. Each of these types of civil religion connected to larger narratives about the United States as either a nation under the judgment of God or as a product of history with transcendent possibilities. Marty explained, “the priestly will normally be celebrative, affirmative, culture-building. The prophetic will tend to be dialectical about civil religion, but with a predisposition toward the judgmental . . . one comforts the afflicted,” he observed, “the other afflicts the comfortable.” Presidents most often operated in the register of priestly civil religion and theologians made prophetic pronouncements. In Marty’s view, civil religion was a useful rhetorical model for those who wanted to speak about and to the nation, even though such rhetoric often came under the scrutiny of theologians who viewed such preaching as akin to a “Way-of-Life Religion.”13

In the same volume, theologian Herbert Richardson demonstrated how theology and civil religion would naturally conflict. Richardson asserted that Bellah was too optimistic about the way civil religion operated as a means to check the actions of the nation in a time of crisis. In short, civil religion was prone to abuse by those who used it. “For it is through it best and highest aspirations,” Richardson wrote, “that American politics most reduces the discrepancy between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought,’ thereby identifying the strivings with what it believes should be and making itself the norm of judgment on itself. In this way, American civil religion always tends to generate the very situation it seeks to prevent.”14 Richardson offered what became a common criticism of American civil religion, that it was a dangerous alternative to a public application of other religions, such as Christianity. Instead of a theology with the potential to complicate one’s relationship to the state or the nation, civil religion might simplify and validate such a relationship in terms that were almost always to the benefit of those in power.

The publication of religious historian John Wilson’s Public Religion in American Culture in 1979 sought to be a definitive statement on the scholarly debate over Bellah’s original essay. Wilson argued that “Americans have characteristically understood from the outset of national life that within their culture some form of public religion—republican Protestantism, pure Christianity, or the American Way of Life—has served as a basic religious medium in the culture and as such has been enormously significant in the society. “In this sense,” Wilson concluded, “what led to the excited response to the civil religion proposal was a conviction, widely shared, that an effective religious medium no longer was part of the culture.”15 In other words, the social, political, and cultural upheavals that surrounded the writing and reception of Bellah’s essay in large part determined its prominence. Americans from the president to professors to preachers to the people were ready to embrace the kind of jeremiad that Bellah offered. By the late 1960s, the sense that something sacred in society had been lost or abandoned seemed confirmed by urban uprisings, the war in Vietnam, and the moral failings of politicians. Bellah offered a way to identify what had been sacred and how to repair it. And while Wilson acknowledged the immense significance of such a moment, he pointed out that it would only be a moment—similar to other instances of loss and renewal that had persisted throughout American history.

The American Experience as Civil Religion

Wilson settled on the utility of civil religion to serve as both a way to remind Americans of their past and as a way to interpret that past. If the first use tended toward the normative—that American historical experience revealed transcendent truths—the second use was interpretative: to understand why Americans assigned religious meaning to certain people, places, and events. Throughout the debate over civil religion (sparked as it was by Bellah’s essay), the utility of civil religion to describe how Americans used religion to interpret their history and experiences consistently attracted the attention of scholars.

City Upon a Hill

A prime example of meaning making in American history is the idea that America is a “City Upon a Hill.” In his 1989 farewell address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan famously (perhaps notoriously) incorporated that specific image: “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life,” he told Americans, “but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it.” Reagan’s vision was, he said, of a “proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.” Reagan turned a passage in a sermon from 1630 delivered by the Puritan minister John Winthrop aboard the Arabella into a symbol that existed apart from its original context. The president did so knowing that his listeners would largely accept this manifestation of civil religion because it was a proposition many wanted to believe about their nation. At the end of the Cold War and in a time of relative economic prosperity, many Americans were willing to agree with Reagan: “After 200 years, two centuries, [the nation] still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”16

However, anybody listening to Reagan’s speech could just as easily have referred to Winthrop’s original text to understand that the president had misrepresented at least the spirit of the historical source. Winthrop’s sermon did become a fundamental part of an American civil religion but not necessarily the way Reagan described it. Rather, Winthrop proposed a covenant between his people and God to build a good community. Bellah argued that this kind of covenant was what gave civil religion complexity—it incorporated both validation and judgment. Winthrop delcared, “If our heartes shall turne away so that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship . . . other Gods, our pleasures, and proffitts, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good Land whither wee passe over this vast Sea to possesse it.” Thus, when Winthrop uttered the phrase Reagan liked so much, he did so to instill the fear of God’s judgment in his listeners rather than to blithely affirm their success: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”17 This conflict between a president and preacher might be explained by the difference of time and office—as Martin Marty pointed out, presidents typically do not call down the wrath of God on the American people. However, Reagan’s optimism did not belie Winthrop’s original intentions—from where the president stood in 1989, his America had confirmed what the preacher had hoped for in 1630, that the country had survived and in some ways even thrived, thus allowing the public to celebrate the meaning of America.

Almost Chosen People

The corollary to Winthrop’s famous phrase “A City Upon a Hill” is Abraham Lincoln’s equally famous phrase of an “Almost Chosen People.” Both Winthrop and Lincoln drew upon the extensive and deeply imbedded biblical knowledge of their respective audiences. Winthrop referred to a parable in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount where, as recorded in Matthew 5:14, Jesus tells his listeners, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Lincoln’s evocation echoed a Christianized sense of covenant theology handed down through the Abrahamic tradition. At least part of the promise that American civil religion has offered is a sense of judgment for those who call upon it. In a speech to the New Jersey State Senate in February 1861, Lincoln recalled the sacrifices made on battlefields in that state for the cause independence. Humbled by that history (and mindful of the winds of war blowing in early 1861), he told his audience: I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”18

In U.S. history, Lincoln embodied and reflected the complexities and contradictions of a judgmental civil religion. Often regarded as the finest theologian of America as a religious subject, Lincoln made American civil religion possible. Many scholars, contemporary and otherwise, have paid homage to Lincoln’s religious wisdom, including Robert Bellah in his signature essay. Yet it was probably Reinhold Niebuhr, the great mid-20th century Protestant theologian, who made Lincoln a civil religious icon. Near the beginning of the Cold War, Niebuhr wrote a searing little book entitled The Irony of American History. His purpose was to channel the wisdom of Lincoln that had been borne of a dark time to assist Americans enduring another age of contradiction and moral ambiguity. Niebuhr wrote, “Lincoln’s awareness of the element of pretense in the idealism of both sides [of the Civil War], was rooted in this confidence in an over-arching providence whose purposes partly contradicted and were yet not irrelevant to the moral issues of the conflict.”19 Lincoln grappled with the contradiction of a nation blessed with so much promise and wracked by almost insurmountable peril. That was the unfolding of civil religion—the process by which Lincoln worked through the inscrutable moral questions that faced the nation in its most serious period of crisis. To get a sense of Lincoln’s ability to glean meaning from such contradictions, Americans have often turned to his two most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln dedicated a cemetery that would be the final resting place for thousands killed just a few months earlier. Of course, his Gettysburg Address remains among the most sacred statements about the nation made by any president. But why? In his remarks, Lincoln proposed a lasting tribute to the men who had fallen there, that the only suitable testament to their collective sacrifice was to pledge “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain.”20 The war was not an end in itself, Lincoln argued, but a means to endorse a “new birth of freedom.” For President Lincoln, and by extension and tradition for any president, the tragedy of war might be redeemed if Americans re-dedicated themselves to the founding promise of their nation. Lincoln ministered to a nation suffering death on a scale never previously imagined.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln pushed his role as America’s pastor by challenging the way Americans used God during the Civil War. But he did not do this by claiming he understood God’s will, but rather by dwelling on precisely the opposite notion. Lincoln recognized that his fellow Americans existed within a thick culture of faith—faith in God, in the nation, and in their own abilities to comprehend their times. He understood, as historian Harry Stout has written, that “in the blood and transformation [of the war] a national religion was born.”21 It was to this national religion—this American civil religion—that Lincoln posed a devastating question in his Second Inaugural: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”22

Lincoln asked whether the Civil War had undermined the belief that God had any active interest in the United States. In American thought, the mixing of religion and politics was not incidental but vital to the start, prosecution, and interpretation of the war. What made Lincoln the finest theologian of American civil religion was this sense of irony. He understood the paradox of counseling a nation that was stepped in faith and often swept away by the intoxicating hubris of civil religion.

Lincoln’s continuing relevance is this: he did not dismiss popular reliance on biblical faith to comprehend American history because he knew that for the vast majority of Americans, faith in God might be the only way they could comprehend the actions of their nation. Indeed, every major conflict from the Civil War to wars that dominate the early 21st century have confirmed this insight. Yet Lincoln offered a way to navigate between, on the one hand, using God to make normative claims about the meaning of the nation, and on the other, using religion to commend or condemn the nation in absolute terms. For Lincoln, looking to God helped bring perspective to the way war had revealed the soul of his nation while at the same time alerting him to the irony of that revelation. No matter what Americans might claim, God’s will would and should remain a mystery.

A Time Comes When Silence Is Betrayal

If Lincoln had a successor as America’s theologian, it was Martin Luther King Jr. American civil religion is replete with sermons that define the nation as a subject of moral scrutiny. King’s contribution to this collective liturgy is paramount. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) forced the nation and its leaders (especially those supposedly supportive of the Civil Rights movement) to confront the fact that African Americans, as King declared, “have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights.” In the “I Have A Dream” speech, King called on the nation to live up to its historic promise “that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” A promissory note, King intoned, that had been defaulted on: “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, King accepted an award for a movement that, as he said, had “not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.” And yet, King acknowledged, he did not lose hope. “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept,” King said, “the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”23

Like Lincoln, King spoke about an America that existed as both a beacon of hope and a purveyor of pain. But that contradiction was essential to him using civil religion to call Americans to action. The nation was a point of reference rather than an object of reverence, and it was worth saving from itself. King had consistently used a biblical sense of morality to provoke a reckoning with the nation’s past. And by 1967, he had determined it was time for his nation to reckon with Vietnam.

Exactly one year before his death, King denounced the Vietnam War. On April 4, 1967, King delivered a jeremiad against the war at Riverside Church in Manhattan before three thousand people. In his baritone voice, King began, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Echoing other liberal church leaders, King declared, “‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”24

Indeed, where King had chided other religious leaders in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for telling him to wait for justice, he praised religious leaders in this address because, as he contended, “surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”25 He reminded his audience that in 1957, when he helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the motto that group chose was “To save the soul of America.” King stood before the nation challenging it to save itself before it lost that soul. “Now, it should be incandescently clear,” King observed in one of his most powerful moments, “that no one who had any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.”26

Even here, in one of King’s clearest condemnations of American failures, he still appealed to what the nation “will be.” If Lincoln found it necessary to serve as a prophet as well as a priest to prevent what King called “the prophesying of smooth patriotism,” King found it necessary to combine, as Niebuhr said of Lincoln, “moral resoluteness about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment.” King believed that Vietnam had thrown his nation into a theological crisis, meaning that the war challenged Americans to come to terms with what war was doing to the moral authority of the United States. Of course, King did not consider the nation a church, but he did believe American religious faith had consequences for how the nation acted. Thus, it is not surprising that in the same year that King delivered a civil religious jeremiad, Robert Bellah’s essay appeared in print. For both King and Bellah, Vietnam had exposed the need to recover or reconstruct meaning for the nation. As Bellah wrote, “It was a sense of moral crisis in the United States being engaged in a war that had such negative qualities to it that made me [ask], was there anything in our past that would help us avoid this catastrophe we were in.”27 Bellah provided a way to understand how King could speak as a prophet, while also revealing a religious dimension to the American experience. King issued a normative indictment of the nation, but also offered a religious interpretation of the nation. Bellah saw that combination as an expression of civil religion in America.

Review of the Literature

The history of civil religion as a term has a contentious history. Even though Bellah resisted a close association to the term, his essay did lay out the two broad schools of thinking about civil religion. One school looks at civil religion through the lens of its ability to provide a transcendent point of reference, a religious dimension to American experience, and a collection of myths, symbols, and scriptures, and traditions. Perhaps fittingly, this school of thought is thoroughly divided and combative, wrestling with the idea that civil religion is normative rather than contrived and, at times, oppressive. The second school looks at civil religion as a product of crisis—mainly war—and the relationship between sacrifice for the nation and meaning invested in the nation. War had provoked Bellah to think about civil religion and war continues to prompt other scholars to do the same.

Among the scholars who analyze whether civil religion is normative, there are those who see it as a result of postwar American religiosity, those who contrast it to mythic constructions of the nation, and those who study the use of civil religion by presidents. Most of the books that took up civil religion as topic apart from Bellah’s original essay began to appear in the 1980s. In 1988, two books looked at the period from the Second World War through to the end of the Vietnam War as one that lent itself to an analysis through civil religion. In The Restructuring of American Religion,28 sociologist Robert Wuthnow contended that post–World War II American civil religion settled into a competition between two ideological camps: a conservative perspective that emphasized America as a God-blessed nation, and a liberal view that sought to promote social equality in order to live up to an American promise. Along similar lines, Mark Silk noted in his book Spiritual Politics that civil religion emerged as a product of postwar religiosity to satisfy both the popular yearning for a national faith and as a form of political leadership that deployed prophetic and priestly attributes.29 Bellah’s essay and its reception were a product of that moment.

Many scholars see civil religion as cover for myths that perpetuate ideological interests of certain groups. Books by Richard J. Ellis and Arthur Remillard begin from the notion that civil religion is, at base, a contest over competing interpretations of symbols and the meaning of the nation. Ellis argues in To the Flag, a history of the Pledge of Allegiance, that the American flag has been nothing if not a contentious symbol, reflecting everything from American hubris to American humility. And the pledge Americans have attached to it, he writes, “has mirrored the history of American anxieties.”30 Among the most persistent anxieties in U.S. history is the fear that this grand American experiment might ultimately succumb to tensions produced by political, ethnic, and religious groups. And so, legal challenges to mandating the pledge in schools and inserting “under God” into the pledge during the Cold War serve as stark reminders that the nation cannot legislate fealty to a civil religion.

In Southern Civil Religions, Remillard argues that separate groups of Americans might speak about “an” or “the” American civil religion, but on closer inspection their singular visions of civil religion almost inevitably clash. National or even regional unity is not organic to civil religion; much more common is competition with zero-sum stakes. In his book on post–Civil War movements to remake the South, Remillard describes how different groups imagined what a good society might become if only their appeal to a civil religion prevailed. “Many southern whites depicted white supremacy as an indispensable social value,” Remillard explains. “For scores of blacks, however, voting, office holding, and owning property became practices of a freedom they believed God granted and emancipation confirmed.”31

In Myths America Lives By (2004), Richard Hughes surveys a set of myths that span American life both chronologically and ideologically, but pairs those who promote such myths with those who question them—relying primarily on the voices of Native Americans, African Americans, and women to question the dark side of civil religion.32 But where Hughes was still willing to entertain that all groups ultimately need to believe in a civil religion, other scholars suggested moving away from using the term altogether. Sociologists Rhys Williams and John Demearth questioned the utility of civil religion in light of a society wracked by racial tension and cultural wars.33 A 1994 forum in the well-regarded Journal of Religion and American Culture called attention to civil religion’s squishy theoretical center, its dependency on both Protestant domination and elite support, and discordance with the culture wars.34 And religious scholar Ira Chernus provided a remarkable take-down of civil religion in an essay for a 2010 encyclopedia on religion in America.35

While many scholars of American religion reject civil religion, they also accept the significance it has for presidential politics. Among the first thorough explorations of presidential civil religion was Richard V. Pierard and Robert D. Linder’s book, Civil Religion and the Presidency (1988).36 Pierard and Linder used twelve chapters to discuss representative examples of presidents who served, among other things, as the foundation of civil religion (George Washington), the sacralization of civil religion (Abraham Lincoln), and the exaltation of civil religion (Ronald Reagan). Gary Scott Smith updated and expanded on Pierard and Linder’s work with his book Faith and the Presidency (2006).37 Smith provided the most comprehensive account of how the presidency and religion mix, but did so with a deliberate nod toward the production of civil religion. Whereas Pierard and Linder viewed presidents as part of the civil-religion constellation—as necessary features of an American civil religion—Smith argued that presidents participate in a civil religion that existed as part of the American experience. Using what presidents wrote and said, Smith offered a narrative that sees all American presidents as engaged in a similar project to use religion for political ends.

In its most basic form, civil religion is the appropriation of religion for other means. The second school of thought on civil religion looks at the appropriation of religion for use in war and American foreign policy. The book that has become the standard for this discussion is Walter A. McDougall’s The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (2016). McDougall covers the entirety of U.S. national history exploring, as he says, “U.S. diplomatic history in the metaphysical mode.”38 In a similar vein, Andrew Preston’s book Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith argues that civil religion became a way for a people of great religious diversity to infuse their international aspirations with religiosity. In other words, Preston suggests that civil religion is the appropriation of religion by foreign policy.39

In regard to war and civil religion, Catherine L. Albanese’s groundbreaking 1976 book Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution established that a particular war sat at the center of the myth of national origin. “The American Revolution,” she wrote, “was in itself a religious experience, a hierophany collectively manifested and received, which provided the fundamental basis for American civil religion as we know it.”40 Even if Albanese overstated the consensus over the meaning of such a foundational experience, her work challenged other scholars to consider the religious dimension of subsequent American wars.

The connection between war and civil religion has special resonance in the American Civil War. In The Civil War As a Theological Crisis (2006), Mark Noll contends that Americans before the Civil War shared a confidence in their collective ability to know what God wanted from them; “they were children of the Enlightenment as well as children of God,” and such hubris “also imparted a nearly fanatical force to the prosecution of war.”41 In On the Altar of the Nation (2006), Harry Stout writes about the results of such fanaticism: “As the war descended into a killing horror, the grounds of justification underwent a transformation from a just defensive war fought out of sheer necessity to preserve home and nation to a moral crusade for ‘freedom’ that would involve nothing less than a national ‘rebirth,’ a spiritual ‘revival.’”42 Perhaps the best of the bunch, George Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen People (2010) offers a Niebuhrian approach to the civil religion of the Civil War: “The crosscurrents of civil religion pulled Americans toward repentance and arrogance at the same time,” Rable argues, “and the line between righteousness and self-righteousness nearly vanished. Recognizing the hand of God in human history fostered neither humility nor even an appreciation for the majesty of inscrutable providence.”43 And Allen Guelzo offers a vigorous discussion of the high priest and prophet of Civil War civil religion, Abraham Lincoln, in his book Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999). Guelzo expertly navigates between the popular depiction of Lincoln’s death as martyrdom and the president’s own lack of religious faith.44

Looking across the 20th century and into the 21st century, Jonathan Ebel’s G.I. Messiah (2015) covers the period in a series of episodic essays. He brings together research on nontraditional religion, lived and incarnated faith, studies on war, histories of public symbols and memorials, and the role soldiers play in the narrative of U.S. history to suggest how soldiers become saviors in modern America.45 William Inboden in Religion and American Foreign Policy: 1945–1960 (2008) argues that American policymakers constructed a civil religious campaign to explain the stakes of the Cold War to Americans and to rally the public for a battle that was more existential than violent.46 T. Jeremy Gunn pushes this kind of approach a bit further in his book Spiritual Weapons (2009), by investigating what he identifies as a national religion based on three principles: governmental theism, military supremacy, and capitalism as freedom. The construction of a civil religion discussed in Inboden’s book becomes a dominant ideology in Gunn’s telling.47 In God and War (2012), Raymond Haberski Jr. argues that the period from the end of the Second World War through the administrations of Barack Obama was defined by a theological crisis over American civil religion.48 Wars of this period tested the moral interpretation Americans had of their nation, thus pushing presidents and preachers to consider whether war should indeed determine the moral meaning of the nation.

Further Reading

Albanese, Catherine L. Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976.Find this resource:

    Beiner, Ronald. Civil Religion: A Dialogue in the History of Political Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

      Blum, Edward J. W.E.B. DuBois: American Prophet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.Find this resource:

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

          Christi, Marcela. From Civil to Political Religion: The Intersection of Culture, Religion and Politics. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

            Gamble, Richard M. In Search of the City on the Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. London: Continuum, 2012.Find this resource:

              Gardella, Peter. American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

                  Levinson, Sanford. Constitutional Faith. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                    McClay, Wilfred. “The Soul of a Nation.” Public Interest 155 (Spring 2004): 4–19.Find this resource:

                      McKenna, George. The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                        Smith, Anthony. Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                          Stahl, Ronit Y. Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

                            Wilsey, John D. American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History on an Idea. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.Find this resource:


                              (1.) W. Lloyd Warner, American Life: Dream and Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

                              (2.) Conrad Cherry, “Two Sacred Ceremonies,” in Conrad Cherry, ed., God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 11.

                              (3.) Sidney Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007 reprint edition).

                              (4.) Seymour Martin Lipset, The First New Nation (New York: Norton, 1963).

                              (5.) Talcott Parsons, “Religion in a Modern Pluralistic Society,” Review of Religion Research 7 (1966): 125–146.

                              (6.) Martin E. Marty, The New Shape of American Religion (New York: Harper, 1959).

                              (7.) Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 75.

                              (8.) Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, 77.

                              (9.) Robert N. Bellah, interview: “In God We Trust: Civil and Uncivil Religion in America,” Encounter (Radio National Australia, 2000).

                              (10.) Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus, 96 (Winter 1967), reprinted in Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, eds., American Civil Religion, (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 40–41.

                              (11.) Matteo Bortolini, “The Trap of Intellectual Success: Robert N. Bellah, the American Civil Religion debate, and the sociology of knowledge,” Theoretical Sociology 41 (2012): 193.

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

                              (13.) Martin Marty, “Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Civil Religion,” in American Civil Religion, Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, eds., American Civil Religion, (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 139, 145.

                              (14.) Herbert Richardson, “Civil Religion in Theological Perspective,” in American Civil Religion, Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, eds., American Civil Religion, (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 165.

                              (15.) John Wilson, Public Religion in American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979), 19.

                              (16.) Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation” (January 11, 1989), American Presidency Project.

                              (17.) John Winthrop, “Modell of Christian Charity,” in God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny, ed. Conrad Cherry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 40.

                              (18.) Abraham Lincoln, “Address to the New Jersey State Senate,” February 21, 1861: Available online.

                              (19.) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Scribner, 1962), 172.

                              (20.) Abraham Lincoln, “Address at the Dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania” (November 19, 1863), American Presidency Project.

                              (21.) Harry S. Stout, On the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking Press, 2009), xxi.

                              (22.) Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address” (March 4, 1865), American Presidency Project.

                              (23.) Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964.

                              (24.) Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” (April 4, 1967), reprinted in Speeches by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: About the Vietnam War (New York: Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, 1969), 1.

                              (25.) King, “Beyond Vietnam,” 1.

                              (26.) King, “Beyond Vietnam,” 3, 4.

                              (27.) Bellah, “In God We Trust.”

                              (28.) Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 244.

                              (29.) Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 87.

                              (30.) Richard J. Ellis, To The Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2005), 213.

                              (31.) Arthur Remillard, Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 6.

                              (32.) Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004).

                              (33.) N.J. Demearth, III and Rhys H. Williams, “Civil Religion in an Uncivil Society,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 480 (July 1985): 154–166.

                              (34.) “In Forum: Civil Religion Revisted,” Journal of Religion and American Culture 4.1 (Winter 1994): 1–23.

                              (35.) Ira Chernus, “Civil Religion,” in The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America, ed. Philip Goff (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 57–70.

                              (36.) Martin Marty, “Foreword,” Civil Religion and the Presidency (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1988), ix.

                              (37.) Gary Scott Smith, Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

                              (38.) Walter A. McDougall, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 6.

                              (39.) Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 13–16.

                              (40.) Catherine L. Albanese, Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976), 6.

                              (41.) Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 75, 20.

                              (42.) Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the American Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006), xxi.

                              (43.) George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 88.

                              (44.) Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 447.

                              (45.) Jonathan H. Ebel, G.I. Messiah: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015).

                              (46.) William Inboden, The Soul of Containment: Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945–1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

                              (47.) T. Jeremy Gunn, Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009), 11 (emphasis in the original).

                              (48.) Raymond Haberski Jr., God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).