Civil Religion in America Then and Now

Yesterday, I discussed with my class Robert Bellah’s famous 1967 essay entitled “Civil Religion in America.” In a time when news commentators and some scholars express concern that there is too much religion in American politics, Bellah’s essay reminds us that religion has always been part of American politics and national discourse.

Referring to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Presidential Inaugural speech, Bellah remarked that President Kennedy referred to God three times in that famous speech. Bellah then asks, “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word ‘God’ at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension. Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. These have played a crucial role in the development of American institutions and still provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere. This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling American civil religion.”

Before watching President Kennedy’s speech, which I suggest you do, my students wondered “Isn’t civil religion just an unspecified form of Christianity or at least monotheism?” I think not. True enough, during this speech, I counted that President Kennedy made 3 references to God, 2 references to Biblical stories (Isaiah and Paul), 1 to faith and 1 to blessings. However, he also referred 10 times to freedom, 7 times to the nation, 8 times to war or the powers of destruction, 5 times to the enemies of the U.S., and 5 times to the destiny of the U.S. in the world, and 4 times to our forbearers.

Hence, I think Bellah’s argument that civil religion is distinct from Christianity is correct. Bellah thus writes, “What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion-there seems no other word for it-while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.” Bellah’s whole point in coining the term civil religion was precisely that our public speeches, ceremonies and monuments are full of symbolism, narratives, and references to a national destiny, intended to unite Americans under a common symbolic banner.

Watching the speech gave me the chills. Perhaps it was simply because of his marked Boston accent, so reminiscent of my now-deceased Irish-American grandparents from Cambridge. Perhaps it was because he started the speech saying that “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life”–reminding me both of the fear of nuclear war that formed me in childhood and my frustration and how hard it is indeed to abolish poverty. Perhaps it was his multiple references to human rights, his call to serve the nation, or his frequent reminders that the U.S. has a mission to protect liberty in the world.

Reflecting on the larger implications of this speech with regards to current debates about religion and politics, it is worth noting that if a specific form of religion sometimes appears in political events, civil religion also does. And I think we are a better nation, a nation more true to its character, if both specific forms of religion as well as civil religion have a place in important public events. Our nation was founded on constitutional guarantee of of religious freedom, and even if referring to one’s religion or to civil religion in a public speech may turn some people off, it is neither a new phenomenon nor is it unconstitutional. To ignore the history of any particular religion or civil religion in the U.S. at important moments presidential inaugurations would certainly offend other people. Even if we somehow muffled all references to God or civil religion in political speeches, wouldn’t we lose the ability to have our leaders reflect on the larger meanings of our nation, the world and humanity?


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