American civil religion is now generally recognized as a variety of faith. It has been expounded in academic tomes and enshrined in national monuments. The term “civil religion” entered the lexicon based on a 1967 article by Robert Bellah of Harvard. It came into widespread use during the 1976 US Bicentennial celebrations, but is standard today.
Bellah's definition of American civil religion is that it is "an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation," which he sees symbolically expressed in America's founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called "God," an idea that the American nation is subject to God's laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. [quoted from the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society article on “Civil Religion”]
In brief, American Civil Religion is an aggregation of narratives and expressions about the USA as a religious nation. Those expressions include various celebrations, symbols and monuments that show how the country reflects its divinely mandated mission and destiny. The purpose of these symbols, Christine Serva reminds us, is national unity: the symbols are “the elements of cultural and political life that connect to a higher purpose and meaning, often bonding the people of a nation together.” At the epitome of these manifestations is the supreme dedication shown by persons in the armed services; military monuments and memorials are most revered semi-sacred symbols of American Civil Religion.
What is not so well understood, and is therefore controversial and divisive, is the fact that American civil religion is often exclusionary. Here are some examples:
It is being suggested, now, that American Civil Religion is being eclipsed by cynicism about all things religious and that the high purposes of American Civil Religion are being ignored. Whereas, in the past, there were prophets to keep reminding us that “without an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment, the tradition of the civil religion would be dangerous indeed,” (to use Bellah’s later warning at the time of the US Bicentennial), the prophets are ominously missing. In the past, America stood for “service and sacrifice” and America was a leader bringing nations of the world into greatness to stand beside us. Recent political expression uses degraded rhetoric with an emphasis on separation, division, hate, partisanship and the absence of higher authority (although there is the assumption of blessing, without any compensating assumption of accountability). Furthermore, as American Civil Religion’s loftiness has seemed to be surrendered to political expediency, it is being abandoned and doubted by those who abhor the drift toward confrontation, increased religious hatred and rivalry, and radical motivation to violence. Rather than unity, division is expanding.
Nevertheless, altered and diminished as it may be, American Civil Religion persists and exerts a still powerful pull. We will probably wrap a flag around the Bible on July 4. We are still urged to put our hands over our hearts when we sing the National Anthem and pledge allegiance to the flag … one nation, under God …. And our authenticity as American citizens is doubted if we do not do these things.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.