A scholar’s term which embodies and describes a religio-political phenomenon considered by anthropologists, sociologists and historians to be as old as organized human communities. Civil religion is a way of thinking which makes sacred a political arrangement or governmental system and provides a religious image of apolitical society for many, if not most, of its members. Also called civic, public, political or societal religion or public piety, civil religion is the general faith of a state or nation that focuses on widely held beliefs about the history and destiny of that state or nation. It is a religious way of thinking about politics which provides a society with ultimate meaning (thus making it a genuine religion) which, in turn, allows a people to look at their political community in a special sense and thus achieve purposeful social integration. In short, it is the social glue which binds a given society together by means of well-established ceremonies—rituals, symbols, values—and allegiances which function in the life of the community in such a way as to provide it with an overarching sense of spiritual unity. Therefore, it is not a particular or specific religion or expression thereof, but is of such a nature that those who hold specific beliefs can read into it whatever meaning they choose. Civil religion has no formal organization and no central authority, yet it can be highly institutionalized in the collective life of a society.

The traits commonly associated with civil religion appeared as far back as classical antiquity when each Greek city-state had its own official gods and civic dogmas and in which the citizenry regularly affirmed their public faith by means of collective ideas, sentiments and ceremonials. Plato even developed the outline of a civil theology in The Republic in the fourth century b.c. The Romans had a more highly developed civil religion which centered on the person of the emperor, who functioned as both the chief priest of the state cult and as an object of worship. However, it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who actually coined the term in his Social Contract (1762) when he identified civil religion as something which could deal with religious pluralism and at the same time cement people’s allegiances to civil society, thereby achieving and ensuring social peace. In the Western world in modern times, civil religion has developed along Rousseauean lines, especially in terms of his insistence that it be kept general with simple, positive beliefs. The more recent popular use of the term and the ensuing debate over its conceptual utility was inaugurated in 1967 by the publication of sociologist Robert N. Bellah’s seminal essay entitled “Civil Religion in America.”

The modern American civic faith developed from English civil religion, especially as understood by the early Puritan settlers of New England. First England, then New England and finally the new American nation, came to see itself as “God’s New Israel” and a “covenanted people” with a special mission and destiny “under God.” It was John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, who, in 1630, spoke to the Puritans of their divinely appointed task to build a “city upon a hill.” Situated in the American wilderness, they were to serve as a godly model for the remainder of the world. In this way a powerful image was fastened on the people who eventually created the American nation and gave it a collective identity. The Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and, later, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, became the sacred scriptures of the new public faith. Just as the colonies saw their own church covenants as vehicles of God’s participation in history, so these public documents became the covenants which bound the people of the nation together in a political and religious union and secured for them God’s blessing, protection and summons to fulfill their historic mission.

In addition, during the first hundred years of nationhood American civil religion developed its own system of worship—that is, special ceremonies, holidays and symbols which fused piety and patriotism and melded God and country. For example, the most prominent of the civil religion holidays have come to be Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day and, more recently, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, each designed to promote public expressions of faith in the chosen nation. Themes of death, sacrifice and rebirth were introduced into America’s public faith with the coming of the Civil War (1861–1865) and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, expressed vividly in Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” (1863) and his subsequent martyrdom. In the same vein, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington has become a national temple before which more recent ceremonies of civil religion have been performed, such as King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 and Billy Graham’s Honor America Day address in 1970.

America’s civil religion was undergirded from the beginning by the support of its dominant religious faith, evangelical Christianity, and intellectual community, the members of which were mostly steeped in Enlightenment thought. These two sometimes-antagonistic socio-ideological components of early U.S society were able to join in affirming civil religion because of their desire for national well-being and unity and because civil religion was, by nature, general. An unspoken, informal understanding kept the civic faith general enough to accommodate both fervent evangelicals and less fervent deists (both groups believed in God) while the intellectuals (e.g., Franklin, Jefferson) were willing to allow the dominant evangelical religious consensus to establish the civic values of the new nation. This arrangement was confirmed and strengthened by the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, which gave the U.S. a basically evangelical orientation. The momentous decision of the founders to separate the institutions of church and state and to prohibit any kind of religious establishment made some kind of civil religion highly likely. Evangelical Christianity supplied the social glue which made it possible.

However, the increasing religious pluralism of the U.S. in the twentieth century made it necessary, by definition, to enlarge the spiritual canopy of American civil religion to accommodate, first, the great influx of Roman Catholic Christians at the turn of the century, then the growing importance in national life of adherents to Judaism in the first half of the century and, finally, the large numbers of immigrants of other religious faiths (e.g., Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus) in the last half of the century. Over the years the American civic faith has grown conceptually from evangelical Protestantism-in-general, to Christianity-in-general, to the Judeo-Christian tradition, to theism-in-general.

Historically speaking, some forms of civil religion have emphasized the Deity and others the nation itself as the ultimate transcendent reference point of highest loyalty and final judgment. These two varieties of public faith have been apparent throughout Western history and, generally speaking, have been supported by what scholars have identified as prophetic and priestly civil religion, respectively. Both have been present in America, with the prophetic form dominating the scene from the foundation of the republic until the mid-twentieth century and the priestly variety prevailing in the last half of the century. In prophetic civil religion the president often leads the nation in evaluating the country’s actions in relation to the will of the Almighty, thus correcting the idolatry of religious nationalism and calling the nation to repent of its corporate political sins. In sum, he acts as prophet of the national faith. In priestly civil religion the president often makes the nation itself the ultimate reference point in evaluating national activities and leads the people in affirming and celebrating the nation while he glorifies the national culture and strokes his political flock. In short, he acts as the high priest of the civic faith.

In any case, since the inception of the republic, the president has been the foremost representative of civil religion in the U.S. In the context of a population that is increasingly more diverse religiously and culturally, an office that is increasingly more influential politically and a nation that is increasingly more powerful militarily, the person of the president has become increasingly more important religiously. In the last half of the twentieth century, the religious dimension of political leadership in America has become more apparent and the president’s role as “spiritual father of his people” accentuated.

Modern American civil religion, therefore, is an alliance between religion and politics which transcends separation of church and state and permeates every level of national life. As such, it rests on a politicized ideological base: (1) there is a God; (2) his will can be known and fulfilled through democratic procedures; (3) America has been God’s primary agent in modern history; and (4) the nation is the chief source of identity for Americans in both a political and religious sense. According to this world view, Americans are God’s chosen people, a New Israel which made the exodus to the Promised Land across the sea and became a “city on a hill,” a light to the nations proclaiming the message of democracy as the socio-messianic doctrine that will lead the human race to freedom, prosperity and happiness.

Evidence of the civil faith includes the biblical imagery and references to Almighty God and Providence that have pervaded the speeches and public documents of the nation’s leaders from earliest times, the trappings of religious celebration at presidential inaugurations, the religio-political symbolism of much of the architecture of the nation’s capital, patriotic songs in church hymnals, the display of the nation’s flag in church sanctuaries, the celebration of national holidays in which themes of “God and country” are skillfully blended, the inclusion of under God in the Pledge of Allegiance and, above all, the national motto “In God We Trust.”

Civil religion has been and continues to be both a concept and an issue in American political and religious life and reveals something of the religious nature of the American political system and of the office of the American presidency. Its supporters point out that it contributes significantly to the formulation of a national identity, helps hold an increasingly pluralistic society together and provides (especially in its prophetic form) a context within which political responsibilities can be examined and judged. Its critics stress that in the hands of unscrupulous politicians it too often and too easily has become a useful tool to promote partisan political programs at home and an adventurous foreign policy abroad and to sanctify all sorts of political skulduggery in high places.

Historical American civil religion continues to challenge Christians to sort out the sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary, dimensions of public religion and personal faith, and to make necessary distinctions between the national mission and the Great Commission. Most important, a knowledge of the existence and nature of civil religion will force followers of Jesus Christ to make conscious choices concerning the proper relationship of the Christian faith, especially in its catholicity, to the political culture of the day.

See also Church and State, Separation of; Public Policy, Christianity and.

Bibliography. R. N. Bellah and P. E. Hammond, Varieties of Civil Religion (1980); R. N. Bellah and W. G. McLoughlin, eds., Religion in America (1968); C. Cherry, God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (1971); J. M. Cuddihy, No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste (1978); R. T. Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities, 2nd ed. (1984); W. Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, rev. ed. (1960); S. E. Mead, The Nation with the Soul of a Church (1975); M. A. Noll, N. O. Hatch and G. M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America (1983); R. V. Pierard and R. D. Linder, Civil Religion and the Presidency (1988); A. J. Reichley, Religion in American Public Life (1985); R. E. Richey and D. G. Jones, eds., American Civil Religion (1974); E. L. Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millenial Role (1968); J. F. Wilson, Public Religion in American Culture (1979).

R. D. Linder

Fuente: Dictionary of Christianity in America