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.
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.
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...
Cited: Bellah, Robert. “Civil Religion in America.” Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96.1 (1967): 1-21. Print.
Berkowitz, Peter, et al. “God Bless America: Reflections on Civil Religion after September 11.” The Pew Forum . Washington, DC. 6 Feb. 2002. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. .
“Civil Religion.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2003.
Hankins, Barry. “Civil Religion and America’s Inclusive Faith.” Liberty Magazine Jan. 2004: n. pag. Liberty Magazine. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. .
Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Social Contract: And, the First and Second Discourses. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Print.
Stauffer, Robert E. “Bellah’s Civil Religion.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 14.4 (1975): 390-395. JSTOR. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.
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