Posted in civil religion, commemoration, religion, rituals

Civil Religion in America

Bellah, Robert N. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 134, no. 4 (2005): 40-55.

In “Civil Religion in America,” Robert Bellah examines Presidential addresses from Lincoln and Kennedy to argue that American civil religion is distinct from traditional religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, etc., although it exhibits the defining characteristics and features of those religions.

The phrase “civil religion” comes from Rousseau’s The Social Contract, where he outlines the simple dogmas of the civil religion: 1) the existence of God, 2) the life to come, 3) the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and 4) the exclusion of religious intolerance. Bellah points out that Rousseau was a contemporary of the founding fathers, pointing specifically to Benjamin Franklin.[1]

Bellah notes that most Americans are familiar with certain stories and archetypes, which originate in Judeo-Christian traditions, regardless of religious affiliation. Some of these ideas include the Exodus story of Moses and the Hebrews leaving Egypt, the concept of a promised land (found in multiple incarnations throughout the Old and New Testaments), and act of sacrificial death and rebirth to make way for a new world. Bellah writes,

Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.[2]

The important turning point for America’s civil religion was the Civil War. This is when “a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the civil religion,” according to Bellah. [3] This change is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address became the “New Testament” of the civil scriptures. Bellah asserts that Lincoln, “our martyred president,” became linked to the war dead, “those who ‘gave the last full measure of devotion.’” [4] He also notes that the “theme of sacrifice was indelibly written into the civil religion” through physical and ritualistic expression. Bellah writes,

The great number of the war dead required the establishment of a number of national cemeteries. Of these, the Gettysburg National Cemetery, which Lincoln’s famous address served to dedicate, has been overshadowed only by the Arlington National Cemetery. Begun somewhat vindictively on the Lee estate across the river from Washington, partly with the end that the Lee family could never reclaim it, it has subsequently become the most hallowed monument of the civil religion. Not only was a section set aside for the Confederate dead, but it has received the dead of each succeeding American war. It is the site of the one important new symbol to come out of World War I, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; more recently it has become the site of the tomb of another martyred president and its symbolic eternal flame.[5]

America’s civil religion incorporates many of the same types of religious elements found in traditional religions: beliefs  and events that seem to reveal God’s purposes (most notably the American Revolution and the Civil War), prophets (especially Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln), sacred places (shrines to wars and presidents), sacred texts (such as the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address), ceremonies (Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans’ Day celebrations, etc.), and rituals (prayers at public events and saluting the flag).

Bellah wrote this essay in 1967, near the height of the Vietnam War (and a year before the Tet Offensive). He reflects on the dangers of a country that feels that it answers to no one: “Without an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment, the tradition of the civil religion would be dangerous indeed.”[6]

[1] Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 134, no. 4 (2005): 43.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Ibid., 48.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 54.