Sociologist Robert Bellah on American ‘Civil Religion’

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Sociologist Robert Bellah (1927-2013) was fascinated with the phenomenon of American religion, which he approached from a sociological perspective. He most distinctively presented the concept of “civil religion” in his article Civil Religion in America (1967) (1).

Bellah’s notion of civil religion states that there exists a discernible systematic and institutional alternative to church religion in American thought and life. Bellah writes,

“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” (2).

Civil religion, notes Bellah, traces back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) in which the philosopher outlined the core dogmas of so-called civil religion: the existence of God, an afterlife to come, the reward of virtue, the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance (3). Religious opinions beyond these exist outside the cognizance of the state and may be freely held by citizens. Regarding contemporary society, Bellah claims that American civil religion is “thoroughly biblical” in that “behind the civil religion at every point lie Biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, Sacrificial Death and Rebirth.” This type of religion is portrayed and explained in terms of biblical symbolism while American citizenry is interpreted as being an “almost chosen people” (4). But despite sharing in biblical archetypes, civil religion is also something genuinely new,

“It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations” (5).

Civil religion is similar to some other religions that have their own sacred scriptures because it also has texts that are regarded as close to sacred. These include the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the Declaration of Independence which invoke notions of transcendence and supreme importance. The Declaration, for example, attests to how American citizens are endowed with unalienable rights by their creator,

“Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny… With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. Nowhere is it stated more vividly than in the Gettysburg Address, itself part of the Lincolnian “New Testament” among the civil scriptures” (6).

Like other religions, civil religion has its ritualistic holidays such as the Fourth of July, Veterans Day, the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, as well as “Memorial Day, which grew out of the Civil War, gave ritual expression to the themes we have been discussion… the Memorial Day observance, especially in the towns and smaller cities of America, is a major event for the whole community involving a rededication to the martyred dead, to the spirit of sacrifice, and to the American vision” (7).

Although much of civil religion derives from Christianity and the Bible, Bellah claims that it is not the same as Christianity or biblical religion despite the two being viewed as mutually supporting. For instance, by observing the presidents of American history and their parallels with biblical imagery, none of them ever mentioned Jesus Christ in their inaugural address or the Christian religion in particular. Speaking of president John F. Kennedy, Bellah says,

“He did not refer to any religion in particular. He did not refer to Jesus Christ, or to Moses, or to the Christian church; certainly he did not refer to the Catholic church. In fact, his only reference was to the concept of God, a word that almost all Americans can accept but that means so many different things to so many different people that it is almost an empty sign” (8).

All of the presidents make reference to the God of civil religion, which is a Being who appears more related to order and law than to salvation and love. The God of civil religion is also actively interested and involved in history, with a special concern for America: “What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity” (9). Bellah says that civil religion has been a part of American consciousness since the founding of the nation; it is the “religion of the American way of life.” It is also clear that the God of civil religion lacks specificity. Adhering to civil religion does not require that the American individual embrace a specific faith, but merely that civic life involves belief in God. Who and what this God is, is open to the individual’s interpretation and subjectivity.

Bellah’s essay presents a fascinating thesis and goes down as an insightful attempt to show how American civic consciousness has been shaped by belief in God and the church, as well as how ideas of God have influenced what it means to be an American.

References

1. Bellah, Robert. 1967. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 96(1): 1-21.

2. Bellah, Robert. 1967. Ibid. p. 1.

3. Bellah, Robert. 1967. Ibid. p. 5.

4. Bellah, Robert. 1967. Ibid. p. 19.

5. Bellah, Robert. 1967. Ibid. p. 18.

6. Bellah, Robert. 1967. Ibid. p. 9-10.

7. Bellah, Robert. 1967. Ibid. p. 10.

8. Bellah, Robert. 1967. Ibid. p. 3.

9. Bellah, Robert. 1967. Ibid. p. 10.

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