What Is Civil Religion and How Does It Affect Christians?

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Abstract:

What is civil religion and how does it affect Christians? That is the question that this

paper will examine. This paper identifies what civil religion is and how it has evolved over the

years. In the Literature Review, this paper examines and summarizes the different sources’

opinions and definitions of civil religion. It also discusses how politicians do not actually use the

term “civil religion,” but imply it in their speeches. This paper discusses the themes of civil

religion and how various authors predict that this may become a universalized religion. Then it

will discuss all four authors’ different conclusions on civil religion and how they think that civil

religion will affect America and religion. The paper concludes by looking into the future and

explaining how civil religion does and might affect Christians.

Introduction:

Robert Bellah defines civil religion as “the public religious dimension that plays a crucial

role in the development of American institutions that is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols,

and rituals”(228). The term “civil religion” was first coined in the 8th chapter of Jean-Jacques

Rousseau’s book The Social Contract (1762). For Rousseau, civil religion was simply a form of

social cement, providing the state with sacred authority to help unify itself. Rousseau’s simple

outline of the principles of civil religion is: (1) Deity, (2) life to come, (3) the reward of virtue

and the punishment of vice, and (4) the exclusion of religious intolerance (252). Rousseau

believed that this group of religious beliefs is universal and that the government has a right to

sustain it. He also said that individuals’ religious opinions are outside the bounds of the

government (252-253). History has made many different references to forms of civil religion,

but the main study done by Robert Bellah and Martin Marty took place in the 1960s and 1970s.

They studied civil religion as a cultural phenomenon in an attempt to identify the principles of

civil religion. In the United States, civil religion is commonly referred to as “Judeo-Christian

tradition,” intended to include several monotheisms that are practiced in the United States

(Wikipedia). While looking into civil religion, we will see different scholarly arguments and the

affect it may have on Christianity.

Summaries:

In researching civil religion, I found many books and essays that give definitions and

views on civil religion. Robert Bellah is the main voice of this movement and has written many

articles on this topic. In the article “Civil Religion in America” by Robert Bellah, civil religion

is defined as “the public religious dimension that plays a crucial role in the development of

American institutions that is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals”(228). Bellah

claims that civil religion has its own seriousness and integrity and that it requires the same care

in understanding as any other religion does (225). In his article, Bellah tells us where the idea of

civil religion comes from. He claims that the Declaration of Independence has four references to

God, and that the founding fathers’ words and acts are what shaped the form and tone of civil

religion today (231-232). He continues with the description of civil religion today. Bellah

argues that civil religion at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent

religious reality as seen through the experience of the American people (238). He predicts that

American civil religion may become a part of a new civil religion of the world. The difference

being that instead of it being drawn from Biblical traditions, it would be drawn from religious,

non-biblical traditions (245).

Later Bellah wrote “American Civil Religion in the 1970s” in response to the criticism he

had received from his previous article...
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