Civil Religion in America by Bellah: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Mara Sobotka

Mara holds an MA in Comparative Religion, and she teaches writing, religious studies and the Hebrew language.

In this lesson, we will take a brief look at the major theories, religious metaphors, and cultural context surrounding Robert Neely Bellah's 1967 article 'Civil Religion in America.' Following this, you can take a quiz to test your newfound knowledge!

Definition of Civil Religion

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:

  • How the idea of God and the institution of the church have shaped the American civic consciousness.
  • How theological ideas influence how we define and discuss what it means to be American.
  • The ritual component of politics.
  • That the public religious dimension involves belief in God, but it does not dictate that one must either practice or eschew religion.

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.

Theoretical Influence: Emile Durkheim

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:

  • People must agree on which beliefs are sacred and which are profane (i.e. not sacred),
  • People must agree on which practices/rituals are sacred and which are profane (and when)
  • People must agree on which things are sacred and which are not, and when (for example: texts, foods, or clothing).

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.

Theoretical Influence: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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:

  • The belief that God exists
  • The belief in an afterlife
  • The belief that good deeds will be rewarded and evil ones punished
  • The belief that religious intolerance is unacceptable, particularly that exercised by the state.

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.

Differences and Similarities

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!

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