American Civil Religion: An Idea Whose Time Is Past

By Gedicks, Frederick | The George Washington International Law Review, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

American Civil Religion: An Idea Whose Time Is Past


Gedicks, Frederick, The George Washington International Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION: THE FAILURE OF AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION

From the founding of the United States, its citizens have understood loyalty to their country as a religious and not just a civic commitment. The idea of a "civil religion" that defines the collective identity of a nation originates, of course, with Rousseau, who argued that "no state has ever been founded without religion serving as its base."1 Rousseau's argument was adapted to the United States by U.S. sociologist Robert Bellah, who suggested that a peculiarly American civil religion has underwritten government and civil society in the United States.2

I am a civil religion skeptic. Leaving aside the question whether civil religion has truly been a unifying force in the past, it no longer functions like this in the present. Civil religion provides the United States with a national identity, to be sure, but one that now excludes too many Americans. The United States ought to move from its relatively thick civil religious identity to a thinner Rawlsian one dedicated to procedural values of fairness and equity. Professor Silvio Ferrari has suggested, in a wonderful turn of phrase, that "it is hard to fall in love" with procedural values like the rule of law, the "thin theory of the good," or notice and hearing, and that a civil religion is necessary to bind the hearts of citizens to their country.3 But this argument concedes too much. One can fall in love with human dignity, with freedom of speech, with equal opportunity, and even with the separation of church and state. The United States can rescue its civil religion by abandoning the religious part, and retaining the civil part-that is, by emphasizing the civil rather than the religion of "civil religion."

II. DEFINING CIVIL RELIGION

Professor Bellah defined American civil religion as a set of religious beliefs that are shared by most citizens and are consistent with the particular theologies of the religions that have been historically present in the United States.4 Civil religion includes beliefs in the existence of God, in his special blessing of the United States, and in the ultimate accountability of the United States and its people to him.5 Bellah maintained that this civil religion has underwritten "the whole fabric of American life," including its politics.6

Evidence of this civil religion is everywhere in American public life. "In God We Trust" is on our money, acknowledgment of our existence "under God" is in our Pledge of Allegiance, and "God Bless America!" is incessantly voiced by U.S. politicians.7 Note, however, how these expressions are "religious" without being theologically particular. The "God" of American civil religion is more deist than Christian-supreme, remote, and unitarian, more closely related to order and right than to salvation and love,8 like "the Force" in the Star Wars movies. American civil religion ties the founding of the United States to the Old Testament without seeming Jewish, and the Civil War to the New Testament without seeming especially Christian.9

A critical ambiguity lurks in the concept of "civil religion,"10 stemming from its combination of "civil order" and "religious order."11 On the one hand, according to Bellah, civil religion is a set of religious beliefs that grounds the identity and self-understanding of the United States as a nation and people.12 On the other hand, civil religion is also a set of secular beliefs held with a religious tenacity that performs the same function.13

There are, for example, a number of unambiguously secular beliefs that inform U.S. identity and that are held with such fervor that they can be considered functionally religious. U.S. sociologist Will Herberg, who wrote in the 1950s and 1960s, identified as elements of the American civil religion "an intense faith in education" and a dedication to "democracy," "the Constitution," "free enterprise," and "high social mobility."14 There is also in this regard the idea of the United States as the "land of opportunity," as well as the so-called "American dream" of economic and social advancement through hard work.

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