Religious Studies Paper on American Civil Religion

American Civil Religion

Civil religion refers to a set of fundamental and sacred beliefs, rituals, and values of the people, and in particular citizens of the United States of America. These beliefs and values are based on,and parallel to theological dogmas of specific religious denominations, but independent from them (Bellah). Sherrill explained ‘Civil religion is the mysterious way that religion, politics, ideas of nationhood, patriotism, etc. – energized by faith outlooks – represent a national force.’ For instance, the American flag is great symbol that its use and reverence links all its people emotionally and inspires them towards nation building. The idea of civil religion traces its origin in the U. S due to the rich religious diversity of this nation.

Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists and many other religions all exist with their people with different values and beliefs; but for civil religion, it conglomerates all these groups to have common beliefs of the country.  However, there have been heated debates for a long time regarding the distinctive feature of the civil religion, from political and denominational religions. This study seeks to reveal the significance of American Civil Religion; is it the religion America needs? There is, however, need to first understand the genesis, mythological foundation, and the various values and beliefs of civil religion connected to the American people.


The genesis of civil religion

Jean Jacques Rousseau started the whole idea of civil religion whereby in his “On the Social Contract” (1762) he explicated;

“There is, therefore, a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. … Now that there is and can be no longer an exclusive national religion, tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship.”

Rousseau examined the connection between the political society and governments with religion in the book, as well. He, however, disapproved the absolutist monarchies of his contemporary model whereby the head of state was viewed as the church leader. Withal, he disregarded Christianity because it did not allow citizens to perform both civic and spiritual responsibilities, but rather believed in civil religion; ‘a purely civil profession of faith’. According to him, nation leaders would promote this religion (Rousseau and Cole).

How American culture rests upon a religious and mythological foundation that is identifiable as civil religion

The American culture is so diverse in regard to different peoples in this state. However, the people have common beliefs that may mean or be interpreted differently in their private denominations. Civil religion as a mythological foundation can be illustrated in the political arena especially with presidential speeches in special occasions such as inaugurations. The 1971 J. F. Kennedy inaugural speech landmarked studies on civil religion. In his President Kennedy’s speech, he mentioned God three times; (President Kennedy 1961 Inaugural Address.” YouTube. N.p., n.d)

‘… for I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed…the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God…lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.’

The president mentioned God with no specific reference to any denomination but it is a matter of fact the most people in America accept although it may mean a different thing to them. If Kennedy ever meant a specific religion for instance Christianity of which he is, maybe he could have mentioned Jesus Christ who is a common name to Christians all over the globe. The political society, therefore, signifies how the country is rooted in a mythical religious faith; civil religion. The religion has been cultivated, maintained, and shaped by various presidents who could miss to mention Christians’ Christ but never fail to mention the Unitarian God (Bellah).

The civil war in the 19th century, either, required expression of civil religion. This is the time when the country needed national meaning and this could come with the aid of civil religion embracement. Sentiments of national meaning are well remembered from Abraham Lincoln whose ‘civil scriptures’ are common to the Americans. Lincoln could, therefore, symbolically representChristian’s Christ and the civil war marked his life and death.  Great monuments that were built for the respect and remembrance of those who died in the civil war, and these monuments are great symbols of civil religion. However, the religion is expressed with the observation of major holidays and celebrations such as birthdays of Lincoln and Washington, and Fourth of July (Bellah).

Symbols, values, and ideas that constitute civil religion

One of the major symbols that constitute civil religion is the presidency. In America the president has been assumed to be the leader of civil religion (Rouner). The president has a role of leadership in the citizens` faith. Sometimes the president is viewed as a national prophet. He also serves as the Nation`s pastor and at times he performs the roles of the chief priest of civil religion. As a prophetic leader the president leads the public in the offering of sacrifices whenever there arises a crisis and as a priest, he leads the citizens in national ceremonies as he makes America the reference state. Also, as a pastor, he inspires the public spiritually and comforts the citizens during a crisis (William and Bellah).

The American flag is another symbol of civil religion. The flag can be assimilated to the American civil war, whereby it was used to symbolize nationalism and later termed as a symbol of patriotism (Griffith).

School rituals also exhibit civil religion in America. It is portrayed in public schools in their daily rituals like in social studies, the pledge of alliance, holiday observances, and activities such as music and art. Civil religion in schools socializes the learners to have a mutual understanding among themselves. It promotes unity among the youths which allows them to work in groups in harmony.

Bellah defines American civil religion as ‘an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation,’ which he views symbolically being portrayed in the American flag and other documents. These beliefs are seen in the values of justice, for example the use of the bible to take oaths in courts and also used during the swearing in of members of the lower and upper houses. These beliefs too can be seen in the values of liberty whereby every citizen has a right of freedom to worship and values of personal virtue for example the terms ‘In God We Trust’ can be seen in currency and national emblems. Bellah says that civil religion is different from religion denominations.

The idea of civil religion is supportive and essential in America as it contains other ideas, like the idea of God which governs the morals and values of most individuals. The idea of God played a very important constitutional role in the minds of early American presidents. We notice that during presidential inaugural, the presidents had to mention a statement in which God was to be a constituent. The actions and words of the first American presidents contributed to the formation and diversity of civil religion. God is repeatedly mentioned by the presidents who is more associated with law, order, and right than love and salvation (Hvithamar, Warburg, and Jacobsen).

The frequency of appearance of religious notions in the early documents shows the relations between the ideas of civil religion and self-conception of the modern republic. The religious sentiments made by the America presidents were believed to be a universal calling from God and not personal expression. The idea of civil religion has been linked with Christianity for a long period, but, the two differ completely. In functionality, there was a clear difference between the two, whereby the voluntary social actions were all under the church but had no control over the state affairs. In president Obama`s second inaugural, he said that American journey is not aimless but, rather a journey towards a deeper realization of community ,mutual care, stewardship of the earth, prosperity human rights, and peace making. These six pillars form an American creed and could be interpreted and understood through religious perspectives (William and Bellah).


The virtues and problems that arise from American civil religion

American civil religion has promoted patriotism among the citizens, this can be shown through saluting the national flag and performing sacred ceremonies, for example, the pledge of alliance, and observing the Fourth of July. The citizens love their country and fully participates in national events which are as a result of civil religion like observing some religious holidays. Also civil religion promotes unity among the citizens. During national gatherings the American citizens come together and speak with one voice as the name of God is obeyed and emphasized by the leaders, this unites the people in the name of God.

Civil religion like all other religions, has undergone several deformations and demonic distortions. This distortion has made civil religion to be irrelevant among the Americans today. America`s moral failings as democracy are due to civil religion. It makes us to forget past injustices which are supposed to be brought to book. Also, it weakens the government`s ability to work efficiently. It`s also argued that civil religion corrupts the real religion, thereby destroying the morals and values of real religion (William and Bellah).


Civil religion, therefore, has performed a fundamental role of shaping the people and the moral vision of United States through a way that avoids theological concerns due to diverse religious backgrounds of the people. People would only be concerned about their private beliefs and disregard the common faith of the nation. American civil religion acts a way to unify the citizens and give them a common direction of nation building. It is basically what the country and its people need to move forward and develop the nation; and it is clear that America is at the top considering other world class economies. The political society and revolution are the basis of the mythical religion hence they should cultivate and enhance the religion for the good of the United States.



Works Cited

Bellah, Robert N. “Civil Religion in America.” (1970)

Retrieved from

Griffith, R M. American Religions: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.  

Hvithamar, Annika, Margit Warburg, and Brian A. Jacobsen. Holy Nations and Global Identities: Civil Religion, Nationalism, and Globalisation. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Print.

“President Kennedy 1961 Inaugural Address.” YouTube. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.

Retrieved from

Rouner, Leroy S. Civil Religion and Political Theology. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and G D. H. Cole. The Social Contract: And Discourses. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, Inc, 1950. Print.

William G, and Robert N. Bellah. Religion in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. Internet resource.