Back To CourseTopics in Sociology
8 chapters | 90 lessons
Mara holds an MA in Comparative Religion, and she teaches writing, religious studies and the Hebrew language.
Robert Bellah's essay works to compare and contrast the differences between private and public religion. A civil religion is not the same as the religion found in a church, a mosque, a synagogue, or a temple, especially in the case of American civil religion. However, it's definitely influenced by them, particularly in the case of Christianity. Throughout his essay, Bellah uses examples of religious language in famous speeches and writings by American thinkers to demonstrate:
In short, civil religion is a) a set of metaphors, rituals, and ideas influenced by religion, and b) a process by which abstract ideas about God and human goodness become driving imperatives shared by every American. This process is also called reification. Bellah's theory of what civil religion is and how it works is heavily influenced by other thinkers. Let's take a quick look at two theorists whose ideas gave 'civil religion' life.
To define the theory of civil religion, it's necessary to understand a definition of 'religion,' in general. For 'Civil Religion in America,' Bellah draws on the definition of religion proposed by French sociologist Emile Durkheim. In Durkheim's theory, as found in his 1912 book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, for a social system to be considered a religion, three things must be present in the minds of all participants:
In the case of American civil religion, Bellah points out that there are certain stories and archetypes, which while originating in Christian and Hebraic (meaning of Hebrew, or Jewish/proto-Jewish, origin) traditions, are deeply familiar to all American people, regardless of their private ideas about religion. 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. To use Bellah's ideas with these archetypes in mind, consider the narrative of America's founding: America was seen as the promised land to which European colonizers came to be rid of persecution from the English monarchy. When they got there, they realized that they were, in essence, a special (perhaps chosen?) people. This narrative should at least be familiar to any of you who went to Sunday school!
So what Bellah is saying is that simply being aware of these stories, and recognizing that they have power, is all you really need to create a 'civil religion.' In other words, it isn't necessary for Americans to believe the stories are true for them to matter.
Bellah makes quite clear that the term 'civil religion' is a term originally coined by 18th century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1762 book, The Social Contract. He also notes that Rousseau was a contemporary of such American thinkers as Benjamin Franklin, and that there are some shared ideas between these parties. Bellah does not, however, argue that American thinkers were themselves influenced directly by Rousseau.
The four tenets of Rousseau's civil religion are:
Particularly in the case of the first three, the influence of Christian and Hebraic traditions practiced by the majority of American citizens should be pretty obvious to us. As mentioned earlier, Bellah illustrates the presence of theological underpinnings of American civil religion through a number of speeches and writings from important thinkers and leaders from Benjamin Franklin, to Abraham Lincoln, all the way forward to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, who were Bellah's contemporaries. You can probably see some parallels between the final tenet and the separation of church and state clause in the First Amendment in the American Bill of Rights.
There are many differences and similarities between private religion, and the public manifestation of civil religion. Bellah makes several examples of important texts in the American civil religion, including the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. The cultic celebration of rituals includes the observance of Memorial Day, Veterans' Day, and Independence Day, which also mark important points of evolution in the American civil religion. The word cultic isn't as negative or creepy as it sounds: rather, it's just a sociological term which simply refers to a group of people who share ideology and symbols. In sociology, the same word could be used to discuss different Christmas rituals around the world, or the importance of reading certain Torah passages on certain days of the year, or the fasting experienced during Ramadan. Honestly, one could even look at their own morning routine--rubbing eyes, brushing teeth, making coffee, eating cereal, and so on--as cultic!
Bellah also references the works of some non-political figures who studied the lives and philosophies of important American people. These thinkers were particularly interested in the ways in which American political figures were not privately religious. One of these theorists was American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued that Lincoln exemplified civil religion through his moral character, but was not a big churchgoer, even though he talked about 'God's will' extensively in the Gettysburg Address during the Civil War. Another theorist which Bellah used to illustrate how American civil religion looked to the outside world was French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote about the different shape Christianity took after it left England for the New World.
American civil religion is an interpretation of American culture that equates its ties to traditions and rituals with that of non-secular religions. It uses a process in which abstract ideas about God and human goodness become driving imperatives shared by every American, also known as reification. It could even be said to be cultic, a sociological term which simply refers to a group of people who share ideology and symbols.
Discussed by Robert Bellah in his 1967 article 'Civil Religion in America', he noted that it has a lot in common with the mythologies of Christian and Hebraic (or Jewish/proto-Jewish) religions. Bellah also noted that they both share certain biblical archetypes, such as Exodus (the Jews' escape from Egypt followed by their long pilgrimage following Moses), the idea of a chosen people, death and rebirth as sacrifice, and the concept of a promised land. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are two examples of the Moses (Exodus) and Jesus (sacrificial death and rebirth) archetypes. These ideas originally come from Bellah's intent to define religion itself, as outlined by French sociologist Emile Durkheim.
However, Bellah argues that even though these figures (and others) fit these archetypes in the American canon of civil religion, they embody an entirely new sort of holiness. America is the promised land to which European colonizers came to be rid of persecution from the English monarchy. One could even say that America is now the home of a special people who understand certain ideas about human freedom and democracy. But the fourth tenet of 18th century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideas is also really important in understanding civil religion: religious tolerance, coming from the American separation of church and state. Bellah noted that if the public theology of American civil religion fails to change with the times, American people may not have the knowledge needed to make decisions for the future. To provide for the needs of other people both within and outside of America requires an openness to coexistence and understanding, and for Bellah in 1967, this was the most critical part of American civil religion.
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Back To CourseTopics in Sociology
8 chapters | 90 lessons