Volume XII, Number 2, Fall 2016

"American Civil Religion: Revisiting a Concept after 50 Years" by Károly Pintér

Károly Pintér is associate professor of the Institute of English and American Studies, Pázmány Péter Catholic University (PPKE), Budapest, teaching a variety of courses on American history, government, and culture, as well as elective seminars on diverse topics such as utopian and SF literature. His study entitled Anatomy of Utopia: Narration, Estrangement and Ambiguity in More, Wells, Huxley and Clarke was published in the US in 2010 and won the HUSSE Junior Book Award in the same year. His current research interest is church-state relations in the US and the phenomenon of American civil religion, on which he has published several essays. He also wrote introductory textbooks on British and American culture as well as literary essays on Beckett, Huxley, More, and Wells. Email:

The concept of American civil religion is an idea familiar to American studies since the late 1960s, yet it has a somewhat uneasy position in scholarly discourse and a vague frame of reference. The idea was in vogue among some social scientists and historians in the 1970s and early 1980s, after the now classic essay of Robert Bellah on the nature of the American civil religion, published in 1967, generated a vigorous debate but gave rise to a variety of different interpretations and approaches (Mathisen 130–37). As several commentators have observed over the years, the disagreements stemmed mainly from two sources: the ambiguities of Bellah’s original conceptualization and the varied disciplinary background of his readers, which prompted them to interpret and utilize Bellah’s insights selectively and according to their own preferences (Richey and Jones 6–14; Hart and Pauley 35–41). In the following essay, I wish to revisit the concept nearly 50 years after Bellah’s essay brought civil religion to the attention of American social science, and present a broad survey of the main trends of the scholarship on the subject. My aim is to find at least a tentative answer to the question whether any of the several interpretations has relevance for further research in the vastly different social and cultural milieu of the 2010s United States.

Part I. American Civil Religion ’Discovered’: Robert Bellah and His Ideas

Among historians, theologians and sociologists of religion, Bellah’s thesis elicited considerable excitement but also significant controversy in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Mathisen 130–134). Much of the subsequent debate revolved around the loaded word ‘religion’, especially because of Bellah’s own equivocation concerning the exact character of the phenomenon he purported to have identified: at the outset of his original essay, while declaring the existence of a “well-institutionalized civil religion in America,” he immediately adds a disclaimer of sorts, referring to it as “this religion – or perhaps better, this religious dimension” (Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” 1). In his subsequent definition, he reproduces the same duality: “This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling the American civil religion” (Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” 4).1 The apparent ambiguity of a certain “dimension” of public life (social interaction? political activities?) that is nevertheless claimed to be a distinct national religion has incensed many commentators and provoked sharply different interpretations.

In a footnote added to the opening paragraph, Bellah briefly attempts to explain the past scholarly oversight of the existence of such an apparently obvious phenomenon as the American civil religion. Part of his argument blames the narrow scope of the Western notion of ‘religion,’ while he currently uses the term as a “Durkheimian notion,” meaning that “every group has a religious dimension,” a commonplace idea in Southern and Eastern Asia (Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” 19). Thus, he explicitly contextualizes his own idea in the tradition of Émile Durkheim’s functionalist interpretation of religion (expounded in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, published in 1912), which emphasized the essential role of religion in the emergence of any human community. Like Durkheim, Bellah is convinced that a functioning political community needs unifying moral principles and common convictions about the origin and the destiny of that community, and such convictions inevitably manifest themselves in various widely held beliefs as well as public rituals reinforcing these beliefs. These beliefs and rituals emerge spontaneously and are distinct from organized religions because they fulfill a different societal function.2 Bellah initially appears hesitant to subsume such phenomena under the umbrella term ‘religion,’ as one of his asides tellingly reveals: “What we have, then, … is a collections of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion – there seems no other word for it – … was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.” (Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” 8)

Bellah’s hesitant embrace of the term, which he explicitly acknowledges to have borrowed from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762)3, has had a huge impact on the subsequent fortune of the concept itself. Due at least in part to the powerful overtones of the word ‘religion’ when applied to “beliefs, symbols, and rituals” about the nation’s past and collective future, a number of commentators jumped to the conclusion that Bellah has described manifestations of the idolatrous worship of the American nation, or, more broadly, as Will Herberg claimed, the “American Way of Life,” which is “the operative religion of the American people” (Herberg, “America’s Civil Religion” 77). Such a reductive understanding has carried over for instance into the Hungarian reception of Bellah: even his original term was first translated into Hungarian as “nemzetvallás,” or ‘nation-religion’ (cf. Hankiss 66). In fact, Bellah’s argument is far more subtle than that: he repeatedly makes a clear distinction between the private faith of individuals and the various religious denominations of the country on the one hand, and the proclamation of the tenets of national civil religion by elected officials and other public figures in their role as “national magistrate[s]” (Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” 8). He does not consider civil religion a substitute for organized religions (as for instance Marxist regimes during the 20th century made aggressive attempts to supplant Christianity or other established faiths with state-promoted historical materialism), but rather observes “an implicit but quite clear division of function between the civil religion and Christianity”: the latter is responsible for individual and communal devotion, the former for invoking God and faith in political contexts (8). At one point, he explicitly states that his concept of civil religion is distinct from mere religious nationalism: “the 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” (18). Despite all these nuanced arguments, the consistent application of the term has led many to conclude that what Bellah has discovered is nothing more than religious form of nationalism or, alternatively, a utilitarian application of religious rhetoric to bolster patriotic faith in citizens.

Bellah, in his subsequent reflections on the civil religion debate, was forced to protest against the misinterpretation of his ideas by readers (see for instance Bellah, “American Civil Religion in the 1970s”), but soon got tired of the rather cacophonous chorus of scholarly reactions, and by the 1980s, he essentially abandoned the concept altogether (for details, see Mathisen 133–34). In a recent retrospective essay, Matteo Bortolini reassessed the case of Bellah and his most famous intellectual brainchild, and came to the conclusion that Bellah became a victim of his own success. A casual visitor to American studies in 1967 (he was a Japanese specialist by training), he was forced by the unexpected and controversial reaction to delve deeper into American social and cultural studies, and subsequently refined and modified many of his original positions, accepting some of his critics’ points and gradually abandoning the original Durkheimian standpoint which inspired his definition of American civil religion. But the American civil religion debate by the mid-1970s had acquired a life on its own, and the participants largely ignored Bellah’s later contributions or failed to notice the changes in his original ideas, which ultimately persuaded him to simply give up the use of his own term (Bortolini 198–201). For instance, in a collection of essays published in 1986 entitled Civil Religion and Political Theology, he contributed an essay on public philosophy and public theology in contemporary America without even referring to “civil religion” in his text (Bellah, “Public Philosophy and Public Theology in America Today”). Thus, he symbolically relinquished control over the concept, and I will take my cue from this gesture: in my essay, I do not wish to reconstruct Bellah’s intellectual development vis-à-vis civil religion, but select and discuss some of the most interesting and original interpretations and applications that reflected on his original ideas, challenged and criticized them, and often expanded them by adding entirely new perspectives and contexts.

It is far from easy to present an orderly review of the extremely varied reactions, interpretations and appropriations of Bellah’s civil religion concept, and in the following I have no intention to refer to each and every piece of writing that ever touched upon civil religion, especially as a good deal of literature accepted Bellah’s conceptualization without questioning, or did not contribute anything of substance to the theoretical debate. I wish to briefly discuss those approaches that appear to me the most interesting, original and potentially most rewarding interpretations and applications of the concept. My approach is broadly similar to the way John Hammond attempted to provide a “map” to navigate the growing body of scholarly literature by grouping essays and studies around five interlocking questions in his 1976 bibliographical essay (see Hammond 171). But unlike him, I perceive the main differences of interpretation to be primarily determined by the disciplinary background of authors: sociologists, historians, theologians and political scientists have all discovered American civil religion as a kind of magic mirror, seeing primarily what they wished to see in it.

Part II. Making Sense of Civil Religion: The Priestly v. the Prophetic Modes

The main contours of the early phase of the scholarly debate were summed up comprehensively by Ritchie and Jones in their 1974 volume. They distinguished five distinct meanings of civil religion based on the interpretations of different scholars, ranging from folk religion through transcendent universal religion of the nation, religious nationalism and democratic faith to Protestant civic piety (14–18), but the various contributions collected in the volume offer more significant reflections on Bellah’s notions. Perhaps the most insightful—and subsequently most influential—essay belongs to religious historian Martin E. Marty, who perceptively mapped out the interpretative range within which various strains of scholarly opinion about civil religion could be placed. His lasting contribution to the civil religion debate is the distinction between two kinds of civil religion. One of them “sees the nation ‘under God,’” that is, envisions or perceives a transcendent deity behind social and political developments (Marty, “Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Civil Religion” 144). The other shifts emphasis on “national self-transcendence”, which means that—even though they do not necessarily emphasize the nation as a divine concept—the latter version disregards God entirely or refers to it only habitually (144). It is the latter version that comes close to the ‘nation-religion’ interpretation of Hungarian scholarship, while Bellah’s original definition clearly belongs under the former heading. Within these two kinds of civil religion (which are unfortunately never pinned down with specific names by the author), Marty further distinguishes two different modes: the priestly and the prophetic. The priestly focuses on affirming and celebrating national institutions, values and traditions, while the prophetic is drawn towards criticism and judgement of the same. To quote Marty’s witty summary: “one comforts the afflicted; the other afflicts the comfortable” (145).

The typical function of civil religion is to operate in the priestly mode, with the nation’s president as the high priest of the American version of the cult. Since Abraham Lincoln’s memorable phrase found its way into the Pledge of Allegiance (for details, see Kruse 100–11), the “nation under God” idea has acquired a semi-official position, even though people of different religious backgrounds may understand it differently.4 Marty sums this version up as a “fusion … of historic faith (as in Jewish or Christian tradition) with autochthonous national sentiments” (146). Marty singles out Eisenhower as the normative performer of the president’s priestly function in the cult of civil religion (it is no mere coincidence that the “under God” phrase was included into the Pledge by Congress in 1954, during Eisenhower’s first term, cf. Kruse above).

The most famous representative of the prophetic mode of the “nation under God” type of civil religion is Abraham Lincoln, commended by Bellah as a symbolic martyr whose sacrifice helped reunite a divided nation after the Civil War (see Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” 9–11). Marty adds two great American-born theologians, Jonathan Edwards in colonial times and Reinhold Niebuhr in the postwar era, who believed in the uniqueness of America while rebuking Americans for their excessive pride and arrogance (“Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Civil Religion” 147–48). He emphasizes the essentially dialectical character of the prophetic mode:

If it comes unilaterally from outside or is totally rejective from within, it does not belong to the civil religion, which is an expression of a somehow-covenanted group of insiders. … God both shapes a nation and judges it, because he is transcendent in both circumstances. The main critics of civil religion from both the left and the right are those who come in the name of a transcendent deity. (149)

Marty perceives a shift from the “under God” to the national self-transcendent kind of civil religion when the rhetoric veers toward the idea of a “promise of America”. He singles out Richard Nixon as a prime example of the priestly mode of this version of civil religion, who, according to Richard Henderson, “seems to make patriotism his religion, the American dream his deity” (quoted in Marty, “Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Civil Religion” 152). But he also assigns faith in the American Way of Life to this variety, citing John Dewey, Horace Kallen, and Walter Lippmann as cases in point: “This is a democratic humanism with overtones of religious ultimacy” (152).

The prophetic version of the self-transcendent nation is represented for instance by Sidney Mead’s religion of the Republic, which is explicitly described by its author as a prophetic kind of faith, judging both politicians and ordinary people’s actions in the light of a higher democratic national ideal. Bellah’s and Mead’s notions concerning the crucial function of a widely familiar but ultimately unattainable moral ideal and its continuing critical reflection on the actual state of affairs in society and government display a lot of similarities; they only differ in the relative importance they assign to the divine origin of those ideals. While Bellah insists on the vital role of a transcendent deity, Mead claims that “the nation for many Americans came to occupy the place in their lives that traditionally had been occupied by the church” (Mead 65). Drawing on an article by John E. Smylie, he affirms that for a variety of Protestant denominations, “the nation emerged as the primary agent of God’s meaningful activity in history” (quoted in Mead 67). Mead is also similar to Bellah in his vigorous argument against the danger of a religion of the Republic metamorphosing into an idolatrous worship of the nation as such. Marty’s fourfold division is a very useful matrix to be applied to the various theories of civil religion (he subsequently continued to reflect on the civil religion debate; see Marty, Civil Religion, Church and State), but it does not fully cover the whole length and breadth of the scholarly debate, as I endeavor to show in the following.

Part III. Civil Religion as a Critique of American Organized Religion

For several theologians and religious historians, Bellah’s essay read primarily as a critical comment on the contemporary state of organized religion in the post-war US. As John Hammond pointed out, during the 1950s a number of authors criticized the shallowness, smugness and conformity of mainstream religious denominations, and the theological ignorance of a significant number of regular church-goers. For them, Bellah’s civil religion appeared as one more pernicious factor undermining church religion and the essay’s arguments confirmed some of their worst fears (Hammond 169).

Arguably the most famous of these books was Will Herberg’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955), in which he contrasted the apparently high level of religiosity of American society with the increasingly secular outlook of its majority.5 Herberg provided a historical-sociological interpretation: in his view, while the second and third generations of the late 19th-early 20th century immigrant waves gradually shed their distinctive ethnic heritage (mother tongue, culture, way of life, etc.) and became acculturated to the traditional “Anglo-Saxon” mainstream of American society, one factor of their ethnic heritage remained immune to assimilation: their religious identity. In fact, religious loyalty largely replaced ethnic loyalties for the majority of immigrant communities, because this kind of allegiance was traditionally accepted and even respected by the American majority.6 As a result, by the 1950s the great majority of Americans converged into three broad religious communities which also became their primary social identifier: they were categorized first and foremost either as Protestants (with a large variety of denominations), Catholics (from diverse ethnic backgrounds) or Jews (with a number of different strains present within Judaism). Herberg borrowed the phrase of Ruby Jo Kennedy to describe the three groups as the “triple melting pot,” since

it is within these three religious communities that the process of ethnic and cultural integration so characteristic of American life takes place. Only, as we have noted, ‘transmuting pot’ would perhaps be more appropriate than ‘melting pot,’ since in each of these communities what emerges is a ‘new man’ cast and recast along the same ‘American’ ideal type. It is general conformity to this ideal type that makes us all Americans, just as it is the diversity of religious community that gives us our distinctive place in American society. (Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew 50)

The general acceptance of this threefold subdivision within American society had resulted in the fact that, according to surveys conducted in the mid-1950s, about 95% of Americans said they had a “preference” for one of the broad groups, while 73% declared themselves to be active members of some church, with 68% attending Sunday church service in the past three months (59–62). Herberg supposed that these figures represented an all-time record in terms of overall religious identification in American society, and a significant upswing in the popularity of religion compared to the first half of the 20th century. His primary explanation for this phenomenon was the desire among the suburban middle class to conform to social norms and belong to accepted and respectable groups (72–73).

Herberg, however, was strongly critical about what he considered a merely superficial attachment to faith and religion, and the perceived discrepancy between the professed religious convictions and the public social and political attitudes of Americans. While he emphasized, citing Robin M. Williams, that each functioning society must have a “common religion,”7 he located this shared system of values and convictions in what he termed “the American Way of Life,” which is “an organic structure of ideas, values, and beliefs that constitutes a faith common to Americans and genuinely operative in their lives, a faith that markedly influences, and is influenced by, the ‘official’ religions of American society” (Herberg 90). He pointed out the Protestant roots of this common faith, going so far as to declare that “it may … best be understood as a kind of secularized Puritanism, a Puritanism without transcendence, without sense of sin or judgment” (94). But the influence was mutual, and the traditional churches have all become Americanized by the pervasive influence of the spirit of religious tolerance. Herberg saw only a few exceptions to this general latitudinarian tendency in American theology, mostly among churches of recent immigrant background that have preserved some of their theological orthodoxy (90–91).

The arguably most idiosyncratic interpretation of Bellah’s thesis also approaches the phenomenon from the perspective of the acculturation of immigrant religious groups in America.8 John Murray Cuddihy dismisses the notion that civil religion could be defined academically by distilling a certain distinct theology. He claims instead that “religion is as religion does,” therefore civil religion should be examined “in its practices and rites” (Cuddihy 1). He argues that civil religion in everyday practice appears as the “religion of civility,” which is a strong social-cultural expectation against American religious believers to respect other people’s different faiths in words and deeds, and behave as politely and tolerantly as possible.

This complex code of rites instructs us in the ways of being religiously inoffensive, of giving ‘no offense,’ of being religiously sensitive to religious differences. To be complexly aware of our religious appearances to others is to practice the religion of civility. Thus, civil religion is the social choreography of tolerance. It dances out an attitude. (Cuddihy 2; his italics)

Cuddihy provides a historical background draft to his thesis which in its most important assertions follows and also further develops the arguments presented by Herberg. He claims that the “religion of civility” is a cultural outcome of the modernization and secularization of American religious institutions, which generated pressures on them to ‘privatize’ religious identity as merely one factor or aspect of a person’s social identity. In case of later immigrant groups like Irish Catholics or Eastern European Jews, the religion of civility de-emphasizes and individualizes their ethnic-religious identity as part of the process of assimilating them into the majority Protestant society, and thus helps turning Catholicism and Judaism into voluntary denominations on the Protestant model. He utilizes the insights of Talcott Parsons to point out that the “denominational phase” of Protestantism in America is a logical consequence of the constitutional separation of church and state, and as a result, “both Jews and Catholics struggle, in America, to denominationalize themselves” (Cuddihy 17).

In sum, Cuddihy argues that civil religion is a by-product of the evolution of Protestant Christianity from the ‘one true church’ loyalty to one’s original birth community to voluntary association with an individually selected denomination. Regardless of their denominational allegiance, individuals accept other denominations as their moral equals and have trust in their reciprocally tolerant attitude as well as their responsible social behavior—and the guarantor of that mutual trust in the political realm are the constitutional rules providing church-state separation.

Thus, in the three-denominational system of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, as in the two-party system, two levels of commitment are differentiated paralleling the theological differentiation of faith as creed from faith as trust, viz., party or denominational affiliation from the deeper moral community constituted by trans-denominational and trans-party trust and tolerance. We call this latter ‘civil religion’. (Cuddihy 23)

Cuddihy deliberately leaves the political sphere out of his consideration: taking the constitutional situation for granted, he is not interested in the quasi-religious references for political institutions and the political community of the nation. In his idiosyncratic interpretation, ‘civil religion’ becomes a set of conventions guiding social interaction and public rhetoric with regard to organized churches and religious matters.

Part IV. Civil Religion as Political Rhetoric: The Unwritten Contract between Church and State

Another innovative reinterpretation of Bellah’s original idea also originates from the 1970s and it complements Cuddihy’s approach in several significant ways, since it shifts focus from religion to politics and from behavior to rhetoric. Bellah identified American civil religion primarily by examining public political rhetoric (especially presidential inaugural addresses) conveying beliefs about the political community’s principal values and ultimate fate. While he considered them evidence of a wider and pervasive social-cultural phenomenon, political scientist Roderick P. Hart prefers to take them for what they seemed in plain sight: exercises in rhetoric. He confidently completes the hesitant phrase Bellah repeatedly used at the outset of his essay: “In talking about ‘this religious dimension,’ Bellah’s errors are more than syntactical. What he meant to add, of course, is ‘this religious dimension of rhetoric.” (Hart and Pauley 39, italics retained) As a conclusion, he declares that “Bellah discovered not ‘religion,’ but interesting rhetorical assertions” (39), and built a flawed construct on it. Hart contends that “there are other methods for interpreting the religious refrains found in presidential discourse, methods which appear to be aligned closely with the observed realities themselves” (41).

Hart prefers to apply the term ‘civic piety’ to the phenomena he discusses, relying on John F. Wilson’s argument, who claimed that Bellah’s American civil religion does not pass muster if one applies the strict criteria characterizing sophisticated and differentiated religions. Absent are such essential features as regular and frequent ceremonies, recognized leaders with effective authority, clear grounds for membership and ways of participation, and prescribed rules of behavior for believers. It was Wilson’s proposal that the phenomena described by Bellah should rather be denoted by the phrase ‘civic piety,’ describing certain forms of behavior rather than an institutionalized religion (Wilson 14, quoted in Hart and Pauley 36). Wilson’s proposed term, although it unfortunately never gained wide currency in scholarly circles, certainly eliminates the most problematic aspect of Bellah’s conceptualization, which suggests a full-blown alternative cult to established churches, with a faint idolatrous whiff never far away.

Armed with this significant refinement of Bellah’s original term, Hart goes on to present his own theory of a certain unwritten rhetorical contract between the government and organized religion that has governed the public religious attitude of politicians with regard to utterances concerning God and faith. In Hart’s scheme, the contract is built on three principles: the spiritual power of organized religion to provide faith and an ultimate meaning system for its followers; the coercive power of the government over the everyday life of the citizens; and the considerable rhetorical clout of both (Hart and Pauley 50). Instead of a true separation of church and state, Hart describes the situation largely as a convenient and expedient cooperation, in which the churches lend their spiritual influence to mobilize people for national and patriotic goals, while government officials pay lip service to God and religious ideals in general. While government is legally and financially separated from organized religion, there are a number of instances in which the government rhetorically approves religious faith and various activities related to it (51–53).

Hart points out that the contract is not made between equal partners: churches are inevitably the weaker side, since they are armed with no other influence but the power of rhetoric to influence their own followers and possibly a wider public, whereas governments may restrict or compel their activities in various ways. Nonetheless,

The church reserved the right to advise, to admonish, and often to advance governmental policies and behaviors, and the state agreed to provide a very public forum for the espousal of mainstream civil-religious viewpoints. … church leaders were accorded rhetorical access to heads of state, allowed to set the agenda for discussion of moral issues, and generally treated with respect … By carefully modulating the existential/rhetorical balance between church and state, Americans thereby avoided the Scylla of irreligiosity and the Charybdis of pure theocracy. (Hart and Pauley 55)

Discussing the civil religious rhetoric, Hart observes the essentially conservative and repetitive character, as well as its largely ceremonial function, typically embellishing the opening and closing sections of speeches. Examining all presidential inaugurals exclusively for their references to God, he distinguishes five different kinds of representations, out of which the most common are “God the Inscrutable Potentate,” “God the Genial Philanthropist” and “God the Wise and Just” (Hart and Pauley 64–66). However, there is a temporal shift of preferences as we approach the present, from the Inscrutable God to the Wise and Just God, which in Hart’s opinion “reflects a growing confidence in America’s ability to solve her own problems, a confidence that precludes the necessity of a transcendent God. A receptive God, an inactive God, a ‘font of wisdom’ God may well be on its way to becoming America’s most popular God.” (67) Certain features of God are also notably absent from official civic piety: there are no references to God’s vengeance or punishment; neither do presidents try to divine His purposes or foretell the future. “America’s God is an expedient God, one who watches over His people as they set about their various tasks” (67).

Beyond representations of the civic deity, Hart describes civil religious rhetoric as predominantly non-existential―that is, it is not concerned with everyday practical matters and it deals mostly with the past and the future and prefers to employ symbolic language. Hart considers it an essential part of the unwritten contract that churches typically avoid activist, mobilizing rhetoric, celebrating America’s religious history and heritage instead. He characterizes the bulk of civil religious rhetoric as quiescent, nostalgic and ritualistic (68–85). While Hart’s distinctively irreverent, occasionally sarcastic style may not have made him as widely popular as Bellah’s solemn assertions about the spiritual significance of civil religion, his rhetorical focus has found several disciples among political scientists. On occasion of the 25th anniversary of the original study, a number of authors reflected on Hart’s insights as well as the developments of the past quarter century (Hart and Pauley 99–180). Even more recently, Brian T. Kaylor devoted a whole book to the analysis of the religious campaign rhetoric of presidential campaigns from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, in which he explicitly follows Hart’s civil-religious contract theory (Kaylor 23–28). So, Hart’s theoretical framework apparently has preserved its relevance in the three decades since its original publication.

Part V. Does American Civil Religion Actually Exist? Empirical Studies

Besides the theoretical disputes surrounding the validity and scope of civil religion, some sociologists have raised the issue of whether Bellah’s claims can be empirically verified. Thomas and Flippen attempted to test Bellah’s hypothesis by examining 100 newspaper editorials published around the 1970 Fourth of July celebrations (advertised as Honor America day).9 They found that the majority of the tenets or the symbolic items Bellah considered relevant for American civil religion were absent from these anniversary articles (with the obvious exception of the Declaration of Independence, which was the primary object of celebration on Independence Day), and even when they were mentioned, the religious connotation was mostly missing. This led the authors to conclude that “the ideas embodied in these words – freedom, justice, equality – are important elements of American culture, but they do not necessarily have divine origins or sources according to those holding these values” (Thomas and Flippen 222). They also noted that civil religious references were mostly absent from small local papers, which prompted them to risk the opinion that civil religious faith is more of an elitist than a popular concept.10

A similarly skeptical conclusion about the validity of Bellah’s original claims was reached by Cynthia Toolin. Following up on Bellah’s lead of utilizing the inaugural address of J. F. Kennedy as a representative statement of American civil religion, she proceeded to perform a content analysis of all inaugural addresses up to 1981, Reagan’s first oath of office. She found that out of the four major American civil religious themes identified by Bellah and Conrad Cherry—Exodus, Sacrifice, American Destiny, and International Example—the first was almost absent (once mentioned by Jefferson in 1805), the second was sporadically present, typically with reference to fallen soldiers during wartime, and only the last two were indeed frequent themes, but hardly separable, typically raised in conjunction (Toolin 44). Thus, the superiority of American government as a distinct blessing of God and its divine mission to serve as an example to other nations all over the world—the classic tenets of American exceptionalism—appear to be the only motifs that consistently run through inaugural addresses from the Framers’ time to the 1970s. Although Toolin’s research was methodically rather inadequate as she did not contextualize civil religious references nor examine the patterns of change over time, she did point out that some of Bellah’s ambitious claims about the development of an American civil religious ‘theology’ are not borne out by the longitudinal evidence.

In contrast to such text-based research, a more properly sociological approach was preferred by Ronald Wimberley, who conducted several surveys on select groups of citizens during the 1970s and analyzed whether the data support the widespread existence of civil religious convictions and beliefs. He distilled Bellah’s thesis into 10 statements connecting God and faith with political and social institutions and symbols, which respondents evaluated on a 1-to-5 scale.11 Through highly statistical analyses, he came to the conclusion that indicators of people’s civil religious persuasions cluster differently from both their church religious beliefs and their political opinions, which furnishes empirical proof for Bellah’s claim about the existence of a civil religious “dimension” (Wimberley 349–50). But Wimberley also noted the clear correlation between conservative religiousness and the strength of civil religious notions, pointing out that “civil religion, an interpretation of one’s nation in terms of a Divine transcendence, is premised upon some sort of belief in a God. … Therefore, civil religion seems to be a conservative orientation by definition.” (Wimberley 350) In a later survey, involving a significantly larger sample, he concluded that civil religious convictions are fairly common among broad segments of American society, even including liberals and political independents, although a skeptical reader might raise the objection whether even a large sample taken exclusively from North Carolina is sufficiently representative of the variety of opinions and convictions in general American society (Christenson and Wimberley 78–82).

Judging from this somewhat scattered evidence, a detached observer cannot but draw the conclusion that some of Bellah’s original claims about the existence of a “well-institutionalized civil religion” in America were definitely hyperbolical. If American civil religion exists, it certainly does not manifest itself in the eyes of the American masses as a distinct and explicit institution of any kind. It can rather be discerned by those who are attuned to look for its manifestations as a loosely defined set of attitudes, statements and actions revealing certain values and preferences.

Part VI. American Civil Religion in the 21st Century: Still Relevant?

A cursory glance at the ‘Works Cited’ section of this essay suffices to show that the ‘golden age’ of civil religion debate was mostly in the 1970s, significantly coinciding with a traumatic period of American history overshadowed by the Vietnam War and Watergate, as the title of one of Bellah’s later contributions to the debate, The Broken Covenant (1975), clearly indicated. During the following decade the number of publications explicitly referencing civil religion declined considerably, as evidenced by James Mathisen’s survey of the history of the civil religion debate up to the late 1980s, so much so that he felt justified to ask in his title: Whatever happened to civil religion? (Mathisen 135–37) He offered several explanations in answer to his own question: the original ambiguity of Bellah’s concept followed by a lengthy debate eventually “led to doubts about whether clarity, precision, and consensus were possible” (139); over the course of 15 years, the debate has exhausted the range of potential issues and academic attention turned elsewhere; and finally, Mathisen contended, civil religion never reached a sufficiently broad base of academics to become a household topic; his example was that the most respected American sociological journals never devoted a single article to it (139).

Despite the somber summary judgment passed by Mathisen, scholarly interest in American civil religion in the past quarter century never disappeared, it merely shifted disciplines. While sociologists generally lost interest in the concept and its potential applications, historians and political scientists continued to utilize the insights provided by earlier scholarship. Two authors who maintained a steady interest in civil religion and the presidency are Richard V. Pierard and Robert D. Linder, authors of a major joint study with a broad historical sweep that reached back to colonial times and followed up the development of civil religion to the presidency of Ronald Reagan. In conclusion, they observed without hesitation that “civil religion is very much alive and an active force in contemporary America” (Pierard and Linder 287), and might even be necessary for the proper functioning of American democracy. They emphasized the unique role of the President as the national figurehead of civil religion, but also cautioned against the popular misunderstandings surrounding the concept, such as the tendency especially among conservative evangelical Christians to confuse civil religion with Christianity and continue to consider the United States a “Christian nation,” as well as the risks of attributing a divine role to America as the “chosen people” (Pierard and Linder 291–97). Both authors subsequently continued to deal with civil religion: Linder examined Bill Clinton’s civil religion in 1996, while Pierard contributed a survey article on the topic to a major recent volume on church and state issues (cf. Linder; Pierard).

Arguably the most comprehensive and theoretically most penetrating study on civil religion in the past couple of decades was published by Marcela Cristi in 2001. She brought an uncommonly keen theoretical perception to the topic, subjecting the two main sources of Bellah’s original conceptualization, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emile Durkheim, to an incisive analysis, and proceeding from the insights she gained from it. Cristi’s first important insight emerges from a close reading of the relevant chapter (Book IV, Ch. 8) of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, which had rarely been brought to bear on the concept of American civil religion, even though the term itself originated from it. Even though Rousseau starts out from the principle of the social contract, an idea rooted in individual freedom and autonomy, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that good citizenship has to be achieved by a combination of education, inculcation of proper morality, and the coercive power of the state. As a result, Rousseau’s original civil religion is a civic creed, or rather a “historically specific state ideology” (Cristi 29), invented to maintain social stability and political cohesion, and it is imposed on citizens by the power of the state. Therefore “civil religion in a Rousseauan sense, is essentially a political religion whose function is to act as the cult of the civil community, and as the pillar of the state” (24).

Durkheim, in contrast, never used the term, but he did agree with Rousseau to the extent that he also attributed a crucial role to religion in the integration of a human community. “Religion is the most important integrative force of society. It is indispensable in any social order, for it fosters the shared beliefs, sentiments, and values required to promote social cohesion, stability, and solidarity,” writes Cristi (32). Unlike Rousseau, however, Durkheim considered the emergence of such religious community rites a spontaneous development of human groups originating from the primitive phase of society. Durkheim attributed a vital function to such events as festivities and public ceremonies which lend a powerful sense of community to participants as well as a “collective effervescence” (qtd. in Cristi 34). In his evolutionary perspective, modern societies inherited the impulse of primitive tribes to sacralize certain objects and activities, but the more autonomous individuals of industrialized societies transfer such sentiments to symbols of the nation, and patriotism occupies the place of totemism.

Durkheim’s premise is that civil religion is not something to be imposed on the individual. Rather it is a cultural and social force acting upon him. Citizens are not expected to endorse the creed; … Durkheim assumes that they spontaneously or naturally do so. Civil religion springs from society itself and is carried on every time the group meets and celebrates together. (Cristi 39–40, italics retained)

From her analysis of both thinkers’ views, Cristi draws the significant conclusion that scholars of the past have neglected the essentially incompatible character of their approaches to civil religion. Rousseau’s theory in itself hides a huge internal contradiction, as his civil religion is imposed by the state to compel the supposedly free individuals to be good citizens and love their social duties. But Rousseau’s civil religion is a state ideology foisted from above, which creates social cohesion at least partly by state coercion. Durkheim’s theory neglects the state and its coercive potential altogether, he focuses on the spontaneous emergence of a cult celebrating the common values of the community, an active moral force without political intervention. In Bellah’s essay the two thinkers were oddly combined: Rousseau’s term was attached to an essentially Durkheimian understanding, without revealing or commenting on their fundamental irreconcilability. Cristi, in order to resolve this tension, argues that “while Rousseau coined the term civil religion, he created, in fact, a political religion for the use and benefit of the state” (46).

In her subsequent review of the American civil religion debate, she singles out two features of the wide-ranging discussion on which most contributors agreed: that the main function of American civil religion is to foster social integration, and it also contributes to the legitimacy of the social and political order (69). The integrative function of civil religion is mostly accepted as a positive feature and its spontaneous emergence is rarely questioned. Few people entertain the notion that “civil religion may be an explicit ideology rather than an implicit cultural phenomenon” (73) along the lines of Rousseau’s theory, and that it is employed in a deliberate attempt to legitimize the political order. Cristi’s main thesis is exactly to follow up on these insights.

While a summary of Cristi’s entire monograph is beyond the scope of the present essay, her study is a theoretically thorough-going and convincing argument in favor of the view that—contrary to Bellah’s original claim which was subsequently taken up by most commentators—American civil religion as well as civil religion in general should be more accurately considered a state-sponsored and state-directed legitimizing ideology. Her approach offers a theoretical complement to the rhetorical examinations of Hart and his followers who also commence from the explicit position that civil religion as rhetoric serves political purposes.


After surveying some of the main trends of the interpretation of American civil religion over the past half-century, I believe that a few tentative observations can be made. First, Bellah’s epoch-making original essay, while offering many relevant insights about the general attitudes of Americans concerning God and the American nation, contained some exaggerated statements about an existence of a distinct “civil religion,” located somewhere between and above organized churches and institutions of government. Rather than an organized and institutionalized entity, civil religion should best be understood as a range of phenomena revealing people’s attitudes in relation to faith as well as the nation and its representative institutions. The vagueness of the concept is due mainly to the unspecific nature of the phenomena to be involved in a potential critical examination: political rituals and rhetoric, public celebrations, widespread notions and value judgements about the American nation, social behavioral norms may all be included—and the list is far from complete. Bellah also, in the spirit of Durkheim, overstated the spontaneous origins of American civil religion; it is at least partly an artificial construction serving political ends.

Despite the broadness of potential manifestations and the controversies around its applicability, the concept of American civil religion still has untapped potential and future investigations may build on the results of earlier scholarship. In my opinion, a combination of Cristi’s theoretical positions and Hart’s rhetorical approach provide potentially fruitful tools for the examination of American civil religion in the context of 21st century public culture and politics.


This study was supported by the János Bolyai Research Scholarship of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.


Works Cited

  • Bellah, Robert N. (1974) “American Civil Religion in the 1970s.” American Civil Religion. Ed. Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones. New York: Harper & Row, 255–272.
  • —-. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 96.1 (1967): 1–21.
  • —-. (1986) “Public Philosophy and Public Theology in America Today.” Civil Religion and Political Theology. Ed. Leroy S. Rouner. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 228.
  • —-. (1975) The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. New York: Seabury P.
  • Bortolini, Matteo. “The Trap of Intellectual Success: Robert N. Bellah, the American Civil Religion Debate, and the Sociology of Knowledge.” Theory and Society 41.2 (2012): 187–210. SpringerLink. Web.
  • Christenson, James A., and Ronald C. Wimberley. “Who Is Civil Religious?” Sociological Analysis 39.1 (1978): 77–83. JSTOR. Web.
  • Cristi, Marcela. (2001) From Civil to Political Religion: The Intersection of Culture, Religion and Politics. Waterloo, Ont: Wilfrid Laurier UP.
  • Cuddihy, John Murray. (1978) No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste. New York: Seabury P.
  • Durkheim, Emile. (1995) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Karen E. Fields. Reprint edition. New York: Free P.
  • Hammond, Phillip E. “The Sociology of American Civil Religion: A Bibliographical Essay.” Sociological Analysis 37.2 (1976): 169–182. JSTOR. Web.
  • Hankiss, Elemér. (1991) “Nemzetvallás.” Monumentumok az első világháborúból. Ed. Ákos Kovács. Budapest: Corvina, 64–90.
  • Hart, Roderick P., and John Lester Pauley. (2005) The Political Pulpit Revisited. 2nd ed. (1st 1977). West Lafayette: Purdue UP.
  • Herberg, Will. (1974) “America’s Civil Religion: What It Is and Whence It Comes.” American Civil Religion. Ed. Richey, Russell E. and (first) Jones, Donald G. New York: Harper & Row, 76–88.
  • —-. (1955) Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • Kaylor, Brian T. (2012) Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics. Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books.
  • Kruse, Kevin M. (2016) One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. NY: Reprint edition. Basic Books.
  • Linder, Robert D. “Universal Pastor: President Bill Clinton’s Civil Religion.” Journal of Church and State 38 (1996): 733.
  • Marty, Martin E. (1992) Civil Religion, Church and State. Munich ; New York: KGSaur.
  • —-. (1974) “Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Civil Religion.” American Civil Religion. Ed. Russell E. Richey and Donald G Jones. New York: Harper & Row, 139–157.
  • Mathisen, James A. “Twenty Years after Bellah: Whatever Happened to American Civil Religion?” Sociological Analysis 50.2 (1989): 129–146.
  • Mead, Sidney E. (1974) “The ‘Nation with the Soul of a Church.’” American Civil Religion. Ed. Russell E. Richey and Jones, Donald G. New York: Harper & Row, 45–75.
  • Parsons, Talcott. (1967) “Christianity and Modern Industrial Society.” Sociological Theory and Modern Society. New York: The Free P, 385–421.
  • Pierard, Richard V. (2010) “The Role of Civil Religion in American Society.” The Oxford Handbook of Church and State in the United States. New York: Oxford U P, 479–496.
  • Pierard, Richard V., and Robert D. Linder. (1988) Civil Religion and the Presidency. Grand Rapids, Mich: Academie Books.
  • Richey, Russell E., and Donald G. Jones, eds. (1974) American Civil Religion. [1st ed.]. New York, Harper & Row.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1947) The Social Contract. Ed. Charles Frankel. New York: Hafner.
  • Thomas, Michael C., and Charles C. Flippen. “American Civil Religion: An Empirical Study.” Social Forces 51 (1972): 218–225.
  • Toolin, Cynthia. “American Civil Religion from 1789 to 1981: A Content Analysis of Presidential Inaugural Addresses.” Review of Religious Research 25.1 (1983): 39–48. JSTOR. Web.
  • Wilson, John F. (1971) “The Status of ‘Civil Religion’ in America.” The Religion of the Republic. Ed. Elwyn Allen Smith. Philadelphia: Fortress P.
  • Wimberley, Ronald C. “Testing the Civil Religion Hypothesis.” Sociological Analysis 37.4 (1976): 341–352. JSTOR. Web.



1 At the outset of his essay, Bellah uses the phrase repeatedly: “the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension” (3); “certain common elements of religious orientation … still provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere” (3–4); “the religious dimension in political life as recognized by Kennedy” (4; all italics added). However, as the discussion progresses, “religious dimension” gives way to a consistent application of “civil religion,” as if the author had gathered a sufficient amount of confidence in his own terminology.

2 Russell Richey and Donald Jones, in their introduction to the volume of essays on the American civil religion debate, remark that American sociology in the 1960s “rediscovered Max Weber and Émile Durkheim and thereby interest in the broader societal roles of religion. In the work of Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, Clifford Geertz, Andrew Greeley, and others the functions of religion in society came under examination.” (Richey and Jones 5) In my opinion, they have omitted to list an influential forerunner, Talcott Parsons, Bellah’s professor and subsequent colleague at Harvard, whose deep interest in both Weber’s and Durkheim’s intellectual heritage included a lifelong interest in the social roles played by religion (for instance, see Parsons “Christianity and Modern Industrial Society,” published in 1963).

3 “The phrase civil religion is, of course, Rousseau’s” (Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” 5). Whether the Rousseauan term was the most felicitious to apply to the phenomena ’discovered’ or discussed by Bellah became one of the recurring points of the scholarly debate (See Wilson; and Cristi below).

4 “This deity gives identity, meaning, and purpose to the nation and its citizens. He or it exists prior to and independently of the state and may be expected to outlive and outlast the civil society. He may be the Trinity, or God the Father of Jesus Christ, or the Supreme Architect, or a Benign Providence. In any case, he or it represents a promissor to the nation; in this terminological reference one speaks of ’the promise to American life’ more readily than of the ’promise of’ America.” (Marty, “Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Civil Religion” 145–46)

5 One of his memorable examples is the fact that while the sale of the Bible reached an unprecedented rate in the early 1950s, more than half of Americans were unable to name a single gospel out of the four in a survey, revealing a fundamental ignorance about the New Testament (Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew 14).

6 “The old-line ethnic group, with its foreign language and culture, was not for them [third-generation immigrants]; they were Americans. But the old family religion, the old ethnic religion, could serve where language and culture could not; the religion of the immigrants – with certain necessary modifications, such as the replacement of the ethnic language by English – was accorded a place in the American scheme of things that made it at once both genuinely American and a familiar principle of group identification. … to religion, therefore, the men and women of the third generation now began to turn to define their place in American society in a way that would sustain their Americanness and yet confirm the tie that bound them to their forebears.” (Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew 44)

7 Herberg 87, citing Williams 312. Williams’s understanding of a need for a common religion with fundamental integrative functions obviously echoes Durkheim and his specific turns of phrase (“overarching sense of unity,” “common set of ideas, rituals, and symbols”) are conspicuously similar to those of Bellah’s later essay, who was undoubtedly familiar with Williams’s seminal work.

8 In the author’s candid admission, he committed a willful misinterpretation of Bellah’s idea, but he believes it is a “creative misunderstanding” representing “the way believers in traditional religions experience it” (Cuddihy xiii; his italics).

9 “It was felt that the nation’s editorial pages would be the logical place to seek the spontaneous expression [of American civil religion] necessary for this study. Bellah’s thesis is based upon the analysis of cultural symbols as they appear in inaugural addresses, speeches, autobiographies, and letters.” (Thomas and Flippen 220)

10 “This might argue that the real locus of the American civil religion is in the minds of intellectual political liberals.” (Thomas and Flippen 223)

11 Here are some examples: “1. It is a mistake to think that America is God’s chosen nation today. … 4. We should respect a President’s authority since his authority is from God. 5. National leaders should affirm their belief in God. 6. Good patriots are not necessarily religious people. … 8. To me, the flag of the United States is sacred. … 10. If the American government does not support religion, the government cannot uphold morality.” (Wimberley 343)