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.”
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