Civil Religion in America: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

This lesson discusses the role of civil religion and looks at what has influenced this concept in the United States. You will consider the impact of seeing your culture as exceptional, including the problems that can result. Updated: 03/22/2021

Definition of Civil Religion

Have you ever noticed how the president of the United States often ends speeches with the phrase 'God bless America?' Have you observed people place their hands over their heart when they hear the national anthem? Do you see the image of the American flag as you go about your day-to-day life? Had any cash on hand lately? If so, you may have seen the words 'In God We Trust' as it is printed on U.S. currency.

These are examples of American civil religion, which are the elements of cultural and political life that connect to a higher purpose and meaning, often bonding the people of a nation together. If you've ever attended an Independence Day celebration on July 4, you've witnessed many elements of civil religion in action. There are rituals such as fireworks, symbols like the flag, and phrases used to describe the United States as unique and special. Music and speeches mention a higher purpose for the country and repeat the theme that the United States represents certain values.

Each nation has its own story about why its people are who they are. Even other arenas of life such as sports, universities, and your own town may include a civil religion of its own, with traditions and beliefs and that define the community and help people state clearly who they are in history and in the present.

Saying the pledge of allegiance in school or singing the anthem at ball games are examples of civil religion
Children holding their hands over their hearts

American Exceptionalism

Although any country can see its people and traditions as unique, American civil religion is especially connected with the idea of being special and blessed by a higher power. From its beginnings, some religious leaders establishing themselves in the United States viewed the country as having a very special purpose in sharing their moral values beyond their own communities. Political leaders also saw the United States as demonstrating powerful democratic values.

Let's use your life to consider what it would be like to feel so unique. Imagine that you believe you are destined to move to San Jose, California, where you are going to start up a very important technology company that is going to change the world and be bigger than Microsoft. You believe that this is your destiny, and what you were meant to do.

You might see yourself as special compared with other people in your life who don't seem to have such a compelling purpose. Believing so strongly in this future might cause you to act in ways that you wouldn't normally, such as failing to acknowledge problems in your technology company once it is developed or even taking advantage of those that you don't believe have such an important purpose.

During the 19th century and beyond, many people believed that the United States was destined to play a specific and critical role in history. They believed that settlers should increase the physical territory of the country, expanding its borders west. Many envisioned that the expansion of United States borders could also mean that the moral values of the society were shared with others, through force if necessary. This concept was known as Manifest Destiny. Just as you might believe that you had a future in starting a big technology company, many early Americans believed that they were a part of an unstoppable force of history.

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