Civil Religion



When Americans turn to god, which god is it?

Americans are a praying people.  Praying gets even more popular in a national crisis, though Americans have always recognized god and prayer as important.  We have "IN GOD WE TRUST" on our currency.  We say "One nation under god” in our pledge of allegiance.  In many research reports almost all Americans say they pray regularly, and more than half claim they pray “every day.”  When national tragedy strikes, even the politicians who argued against the Lord’s Prayer in schools, will call their constituency to prayer.  There is prayer to god in congress, at white house prayer breakfasts, even in the Supreme Court. 

So, who is this god we so often call upon as a nation?  Is it the God of the Old and New Testaments--the “Christian God”—the Father Son and Holy Spirit?  The answer is “not exactly.” This is why congress and the Supreme Court can have their prayer while our kids at school can’t.  The two prayers are directed to different gods.  The Lord’s Prayer is a narrow prayer of Jesus Christ, (or at broadest only a Judeo-Christian prayer).  The prayers offered by “civil religion” are to a expansive god-behind-all-gods—a national unifying god. 1

Jean-Jacques Rousseau  was probably the first to introduce the idea of "Civil Religion."  Civil religion is a unifying nationalism that uses religious means and words to promote national values and patriotism.  In Rousseau’s book, The Social Contract he suggests three primary dogmas of civil religion:  1) There is a God; 2) God rewards virtue and punishes vice; and, 3) The chief sin is religious intolerance.  This, of course is the trinity of doctrines governing America’s current outbreak of civil religion.   Civil religion is the common ecumenical ground where we all can gather—not just all Christian denominations, but all religions—Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and even the great host of people who practice no formal religion at all but believe in god and prayer.  This is civil religion.  The god of civil religion is the "higher power as you know it"—the god behind all religions and everything else.

In the early 1960’s Protestants feared what would happen if John Kennedy were elected President.  As a Roman Catholic, they wondered if he would “take orders from the Pope.”  Kennedy did make frequent references to god—three times in his inaugural address.  Robert Bellah, in 1967 first made the keen observation that John Kennedy's use of  "god" however was not in the narrow sense as a Roman Catholic, but in the broader sense as a the god-of-us-all, the god of American civil religion. Bellah suggested that Kennedy was doing exactly what his predecessors had done—referring to the unifying god of American civil religion, not any specific narrow denominational god or even the god organized religion like the Christian god, or Roman Catholic understanding of God.   It was the god-above-all-gods, the god of American civil religion.

Civil religion is not a state religion, but rather an expression that religionizes national values, national heroes, national history, and national ideals.  It is something like Unitarianism or Bahá'í but even more foundational than these religions—for it proposes a God behind all gods that especially favors America—a totem god.  Thus, American Civil religion becomes a common ground where all Americans can stand to pray—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and non-religionists.  The unifying thing is not the object of prayer (god) but the source of the prayer—we Americans. Granted when Christians see “In God we Trust” on a coin, they “load” the term with Biblical meaning—i.e. we trust God as known in the Trinity.  But, those from other religions do the same thing, for the god of civil religion is the great unifying ground-zero god of all.  

Civil religion came easy for Americans.  Since the beginning we frequently saw ourselves as a "New Israel" coming out of Europe to freedom and plenty in our own promised land.  We believed we had a "manifest destiny" to stretch our enlightened way of life from sea to shining sea, and eventually to export the “American way of life” around the world.  We saw ourselves as God’s chosen people.  He had other sheep, but we were god’s favorites.  He wanted to use America to spread freedom (especially) and justice (a bit less so) across the earth.  We were God’s tools.

Even our symbols remind us of this way of thinking.  Consider the unfinished pyramid with the eye on top that appears on our one dollar bill.  Over the top are the Latin words, Annuit Coeptis -- "God/Providence has smiled on our beginnings."  At the bottom: Novus Ordo Seclorum -- "A new order of the ages."  Taken together these mottos merge national and religious beliefs.   God was especially smiling as we started building this nation, and we will establish a new order of the ages together under god.  Which god?  The god of civil religion—the god-behind-all-the-gods.

There are several ways of looking at religion.  One is by abstract definition.  Another way to examine religion is  phenomenologically”—that is, examining the phenomenon we see in religions in order to seek a kind of definition.   What then does civil religion look like looked at phenomenologically?  When examined this way civil religion sure looks like a religion.  Civil religion uses religious-type words and methods to produce a unifying national religion.  Civil religion offers a common three-fold doctrine, a "salvation history" telling how God saved us from our enemies, a series of hallowed rituals like the state of the union address, the national funeral of a President or inauguration.  Civil religion finds its saints in the national heroes like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and others. We even carve their images in giant mountains and make national parks out of the space. There are more images of our past heroes in Washington D.C. than St. Peter's has in Rome. We have enshrined the sacred text of the constitution and line up to glance at the original autograph housed in a sacred shrine under thick glass.   The Civil War to us was our great sacrifice, and the death of Lincoln is our own story of giving one’s life so that others may live—the substitutionary death in our own country. Arlington cemetery is just one of a dozen sacred places for us, complete with its "eternal flame."  Our flag is such a sacred object to us that we urge our congress to pass a law nobody may "desecrate" it—one can only desecrate what is sacred.  We often merge our piety with our patriotism.  Freedom is the ultimate value and we are willing to die for it—even kill for it.  So many Christians go off to war merging their faith and patriotism singing (the original wording  of the battle Hymn), “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” 

Daniel Marsh of Boston University pointed out in his book Unto the Generations: the roots of true Americanism the similarities between biblical history and American history.  The American’s book of Genesis is the Mayflower Compact.  Our exodus is the Declaration of Independence. Our book of the law is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  We have our periodic prophecies, the greatest being Washington's farewell address.  Our psalms include the Star Spangled Banner and God bless America.  The gospel of true Americanism is Lincoln's second Inaugural address, and so forth.  Civil religion provides religious means and modes for the expression of patriotism.  Civil religion and regular religion are so similar in mode and mood that it is easy to merge the two into one worship service, like many American churches do on the Sunday near July 4th.

This of course is nothing new, for all through the middle ages nations merged Christianity with nationalism.  It is common to see in stained glass windows of European cathedrals St. Andrew, St. Paul, and Jesus right beside some local crusader-hero or patron, and the cross, crown and basin to appear near a national flag or local rich family’s coat of arms.

This is what civil religion does.  It uses the means and words of religion to unify the state.  What comes out is something near enough to religion to be a decent substitute for those who reject organized religion, and the rest of us can “read our own god” into the god-talk of civil religion.  Will Hergerg calls civil religion a “folk religion.”  As the Roman Catholics discovered, folk religions are hard to stamp out—it may be easier to just incorporate them into regular worship. Civil religion is a cosmopolitan faith that is unifying, tolerant, and provides a banner under which all of us can pray.

And it promises a lot!  Civil religion in America is able to accomplish what the ecumenical movement, Unitarianism, Bahá'í and the New Age movement could not do—it provides a common unifying religion for us all.  It is the religious cement for the nation.  It enables Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist and non-religionist to all gather together to pray to the god-above-all-gods.   It is not so important who the God is, as who we are—we are Americans. 

Civil religion is good for America.

But, is it good for Christians?   Is it acceptable to merge national and religious passions?  Can Christians pray at the patriotic altars of civil religion so long as in our own mind we are thinking of the One True God?   Some early Christians did something like that in the minor civil religion required by Rome.  Was that OK for them to do—a sort of a mental crossing-of-the-fingers behind the back while offering respect to the state.  Or, did the early Christians face something totally different than civil religion? If civil religion is OK, how far is too far?  Can a Christian practice two religions at once?  Is civil religion OK so long as it is more generic and basic—not as complete as Christianity—yet not contradicting it?  If you say yes, will you extend your view to college students who dabble in other Unity religions that “do not deny but unify on our common ground?” Or is such dual religious practice limited for you only limited to civil religion?   Or, do you deny that there even is such a thing as “civil religion?”  Where do you come down on these issues?  Is civil religion bad, good, or neutral?

So, what do you think?

So what do you think?

October, 2001.  Related later article  January 20, 2008


1. I am deeply indebted for the ideas in this article to long conversations and reading papers by the late David Smith, long time friend and professor of theology at Indiana Wesleyan University.  It is honor of the life of David Smith that I submit this article for your consideration.


Interested in more reading about civil religion?  Try these:


Andrew Shanks, Civil Society, Civil Religion 

Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Robert Bellah, Civil Religion in America 

H. Richard Neibuhr.  Christ and Culture

Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic and Jew.

Robert N. Bellah  Religion in America, in Daedalus

Daniel L. Marsh, Unto the Generation: The Roots of True Americanism

Conrad Cherry, God's New Israel

Donald G. Jones, Russell E. Richey  American Civil Religion