He was both a Moses figure and a Roman hero, who like "Cincinnatus, the Roman general, … left his plough to fight for the country and then, when the task was done, had dropped the sword to return to his farm" Albanese, , p. In Albanese's opinion the Roman allusions, such as the motto e pluribus unum , were an attempt to capture the spirit of a republic that would attend to the plurality of creeds and nations united by the oneness of a state.
In another vein Hannah Arendt also analyzed the meaning of the founding of the American Republic. She noted that the language of the founding works almost in a formulaic manner as it determines a structure of meaning and constitution. Arendt undertook a philosophical analysis of the language of the founding as a basis for the civil religion in the United States. Arendt's analysis shows that though the American Republic was the first of the modern democracies, its founding could not totally shed the problem of founding, as Rykwert and de Coulanges set forth in ancient cultures.
For in the founding of a modern state the revolutionaries underwent a unique experience of novelty and the issue of beginning anew. Arendt clarified that if the founders' attitude was "religious," that sense of religion was closer to religare , which consists of binding "back to a beginning. The modern revolutionaries faced the problem of a free act, which, in their case, did not consist of binding oneself to a "distant past" as in Rome.
Rather, they faced the problem of manifesting the specific novelty of the "American" situation. Their beginning needed to account for the plurality and the aboriginal ordering of the land that immediately surrounded them. This means that if they were to legitimate a foundation premised on revolution, they would have to provide spaces for the voluntary association and public debate to continue. While the founders did provide a "constitution," they were not as successful in providing spaces for the spirit of revolution and freedom to continue.
According to Arendt, even the founders immediately worried that their foundation would encourage apathy. While the ritual of "voting" might serve to activate some of the population in the spirit of political freedom, it was too infrequent an occurrence to maintain the revolutionary spirit of the Republic.
Many critics have pointed out that this failure to provide spaces for novelty to continue to appear coincides with the retention of slavery in the founding of the Republic. While slavery was one of the main topics of discussion during the Constitutional Convention , it was not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and the mention of it in the Constitution was the basis for the famous three-fifths compromise.
This compromise at the founding of the Republic on the meaning of freedom was repeated throughout American history. Thus one might return to the critical debate on the decline in the commitment to American civil religion in the twentieth century, most aptly characterized by Bellah's title of his book The Broken Covenant.
From this perspective, that sense of betrayal of not only the authenticity of the words but also the acts of founding a revolutionary democracy has been present for much longer. In his essay in the Anglican Theological Review , Bellah in response to his critics made it clear that it had not been his intent to define civil religion as a good thing. He said, "Like all things human, civil religion is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but in any case, it seems likely to be with us for a very long time" Bellah, , p.
Almost every notion of civil religion or one of its predecessors or derivatives has been established with a positive quality while allowing for ambiguities that move toward a negativity. Arendt has pointed to the fact that this quality of civil religion was present in the founding itself.
Mead noted that this negative quality might be found in the emphasis Americans have given to space over time. Given such an emphasis, Americans seem to have had little patience with memories — with the meaning of the actual events that took place in the land. While Herberg's formulation of Protestant-Catholic-Jew attempted to show that an Americanness could be expressed in any of these forms, the formula was always in danger of turning into an innocuous triviality because any of these designations or all of them together might be understood as a kind of religion in general see Demerath and Hammond, , p.
Ambiguity around the notion of American civil religion persists, and the attempt to connect it to normative or positive religious expressions has been unsatisfactory. The reason for this might be located in the problematic of founding a revolutionary democracy. Arendt argued in subsequent reflections on the American Revolution in her book Willing that the revolution itself created a "hiatus" or a radical break with the past; the hiatus is the revolutionary time of possibility and freedom, a space in between the "no more" of the old order and the "not yet" of the new Arendt, , p.
The problem of the constitution of a civil religion based on a revolutionary spirit that had detached itself from the meaning of ancestors or sacred space may be viewed next to the problems of constituting a religion of the Republic that would also take into account the presence of aboriginal people, Native Americans , and African Americans.
In terms of revolutionary beginnings and civil religion, a long and hopeful, while often prophetic and judgmental, tradition has existed with African Americans. And yet these traditions have for the most part been left out of most formal discussion of American civil religion. Charles H. Richey and Donald G. Jones in with the approaching bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Bellah, Mead, and Herberg contributed as well. Here Long noted that the issue of "American" civil religion brought to the fore questions of what it means to be American and in particular what it means to be invisible in the telling of the national story, which has gained a well-nigh "cosmogonic language, a language of beginnings; it structures the American myth of beginnings, and has continued to express the synchronic dimensions of American cultural life since that time" Long, , p.
From this perspective, the issue of American civil religion is one of contestation, "concealment," and exclusion in the telling of a myth of origins. Myth, as Long notes, is a "true story," and African American versions of American civil religion often used the language of religio-political symbols while defining another space for freedom of expression through music, art, and the cultural redefining of a transnational "America" to emerge.
This tradition begins at least as early as the black music of the spirituals and the oral traditions of speaking and preaching, later finding written expression as Walker's Appeal in Four Articles , in which David Walker challenged the Jeffersonian natural hierarchies and "Nature's God. A sense of importance is also brought to Africa in the creation of the United States, while European Christians were challenged on their hypocritical understandings of an "equality" before God.
Slave revolts, such as those led by Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey and especially the revolt led by Nat Turner , often relied on biblical typologies of the Israelites in Egypt, and the leaders became Moses figures for their people. While an eschatological and often violent protest tradition emerged to challenge the white Protestant civil religious tradition in the United States, Frederick Douglass and other black abolitionists seemed to share more closely the Enlightenment values of natural equality and the Protestant work ethic. One might also cite W.
In the former Du Bois addressed both the issue of ordering American society and the telling of its myth of beginnings. The stories, music, spirit, and folk traditions of both Africans and aboriginal tribes were present, Du Bois claimed, and were "gifts," added and intermingled in blood, sweat, and wars in the formation of the "Promised Land. The African American tradition is a reminder that whatever form civil religion takes, its more hopeful organization includes that enunciated by Edwards in his "awakening" of active and free persons who are provided with a place for public debate over the issues of the day.
While it may seem clear that "American civil religion" in its more positive Christian orientations and its faith in national heroes has declined in the twentieth century, the problematic of the nation's religio-political identity and the meaning of its revolutionary founding remains central as the nation further reflects on its powerful status in international affairs and the increasing diversity within its borders. Politics and Religion. The ideological and intellectual foundations of the new Western democratic states stem from the Reformation and Enlightenment critiques of hierarchical and sacredotal authority as the ordering principle for society and in the drive for a form of freedom defined for and located in the individual person.
New democratic governments were brought into being to establish and maintain the rights of the individual. Democratic states, for the most part, did institute new human rights for the individual but this left open the meaning of a binding that would hold together a group of individuals into an abiding bond of unity. The United States of America is a case in point. In addressing this issue, many revolutionaries had recourse to models from ancient societies, such as those in Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City Garden City, N.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract Baltimore, ; originally published , notes that revolutionary democratic societies, like ancient societies, needed some form of religion to guarantee the integration and cohesion of modern democratic societies. Catherine L. Albanese, Sons of the Fathers Philadelphia, , discusses the imitation of Roman rituals in the ceremonies connected with the inauguration of George Washington as the first president. The Puritan dimensions of American cultural and religious institutions have been ably set forth in Perry Miller 's essays, Errand into the Wilderness Cambridge, Mass.
Discussions of the rhetoric of chosenness and New England Covenant theology commonly begin with analyses of John Winthrop's lay sermon preached aboard the Arabella in , "A Modell of Christian Charity. New York , , — Stephen A. Sidney E.
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Mead, The Lively Experiment New York, , discusses the "shape of Protestantism" in relation to the expansion in geographical space of the American Republic. Jonathan Edwards is often cited as setting the precedent for an enduring form of Puritanism as the basis for a "secular" religious polity, as seen in his writings on revivalism, especially The Works of Jonathan Edwards , vol. Goen provides an introduction that addresses Edwards's often disputed "post-millennialism," pp. Alexis De Tocqueville commented on the importance of the Puritan townships and municipalities to the formation of a democratic spirit in the United States in his two volume work, Democracy in America New York, ; Volume I originally published ; Volume II originally published George W.
Pierson alludes to De Tocqueville's comments on the disregard of ancient traditions and cultures in the United States in Tocqueville and Beaumont in America New York, Broader interpretive works that deal with the history of religion in America include Martin E.
Civil Religion in America
The sociologists N. Richard Niebuhr puts forth theologically critical positions regarding the plurality of religious institutions in the United States in The Social Sources of Denominationalism New York, Given the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state and the fact that American culture was a Protestant culture in terms of style and history, the many immigrants from other parts of the world, the progeny of the Africans enslaved within the country, and the aboriginal populations, one looked for a meaning of America that could provide the serious binding that is necessary for a functional society.
Mead, The Nation with the Soul of a Church New York, , explains the meaning that could provide the serious binding necessary for a functional society within the structures of a form of secular Protestantism. Within this context one must understand Robert N. Bellah responds to some of his critics in "American Civil Religion in the 's," Anglican Theological Review , supp. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton in Habits of the Heart New York, Another critical examination of Bellah's position is in John F.
Giles B. Gunn, Thinking across the American Grain , chap. Hannah Arendt examines the philosophical meaning of the founding documents and rituals of the United States in On Revolution New York, and in Willing New York, , the latter published posthumously. Hardly any discussion of civil religion in the United States has emphasized the issue of slavery as an institution or the existence of enslaved Africans in the country at the time of its founding.
Though this is a perennial issue of the country, having been one of the major causes of one the greatest wars in human history, it is seldom mentioned in relationship to either a religious or civil ordering of the country. Slavery was discussed almost every day in the constitutional convention and provisions were made to count the number of slaves for representation, but the founding made no change in their status. Jones New York, , contributes to this discussion. Hinks University Park, Pa. In addition a great deal of the contemporary Black Theology movement can be seen as contributing to the meaning of a civil religion.
See especially James H. Gayraud S. Cite this article Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography. Stewart, Carole " Civil Religion. Stewart, Carole "Civil Religion. October 18, Retrieved October 18, from Encyclopedia. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list. Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia. Civil religion in America today refers to a national faith that has a creed and moves the people of the nation on occasion to stand in judgment on its laws when they perceive that those laws violate what the creed affirms.
It also moves people to rejoice in their nation-state when they experience it as realizing the values of the creed. The term "civil religion" comes from rousseau's Social Contract Book 4, ch. In Rousseau's analysis, these included belief in the existence of God, life to come, the reward of virtue, and the punishment of vice, with the added dictum of the "exclusion of religious intolerance.
Bellah's Theory. In the American sociologist Robert N. Bellah extracted the term from Rousseau's work and gave it a new meaning. In Bellah's use, it refers to something more specifically religious in the sense of transcending the law of the land yet capable of passing judgment on it. He introduced the term as a concept for sociological analysis of a phenomenon he thought could be distinguished from several others.
At that time, he said: "While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith and others, that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of the 'American Way of Life,' few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America" Bellah, The main tenets of this faith he extracts from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The central elements are the belief that God created all people as equal and endowed them with certain inalienable rights Bellah, , The critical quality of this religion, he claims, is that people who believe in it can call upon it as a framework from which to judge the nation when it violates the rights of people or fails to protect them in time of unrest.
Thus, the test of the depth of the institutionalization of America's civil religion in the mids was to be its response to the civil-rights movement and the antiwar movement Bellah, Writing again about civil religion in , Bellah entitled his book The Broken Covenant. Here he speaks as prophet to a nation failing to fulfill its promise. Their scientific observations thereby provide social service Bellah, To make his point clear, he refers to the behaviors of Jefferson and Lincoln as foremost spokesmen of American civil religion, reiterating "the right of revolution should the state attempt to destroy the God-given rights of the individuals" Bellah, , — For Bellah, "civil religion at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people.
This focus is but one dimension of the debate that currently surrounds civil religion. The Sociological Debate. Writings of social scientists and ethicists preceded the debate by providing the books that incorporated the themes that later were analyzed as civil religion de Tocqueville, Dewey, Tuveson, Smith. It is possible, as Prof.
Mary L. Schneider of Michigan State Univ. The first became popular in the mids, when America's common religion was described as emerging from actual life, ideals, values, ceremonies, and loyalties of the people. The suggestion was made that, out of its own ethos and history, a people can come to worship its own heritage Warner, Williams.
A second theme took the form of religious nationalism. In this perspective, the State becomes the object of religious adoration and glorification. This is a main aspect of classical pietas , wherein religion and patriotism are one Dohen. Stress on the value of liberty as provided for in a democracy without dependence on a transcendent deity or even on a spiritualized nation is described as the focus found in Dewey's Common Faith ; here, democracy is religion Williams. A fourth theme is Protestant nationalism, without there being any zealous or idolatrous element to it; it simply is the fusion of Protestantism and Americanism, its moralism, individualism, pragmatism, values, and the like.
This perspective characterizes any number of works, but is particularly evident in Winthrop Hudson Ahlstrom; Cuddihy. All of these emphases, analyses, and commentaries are not the phenomenon that Bellah seeks to isolate for analysis.
In This Article
The fifth theme, then, is the one that characterizes his own work. Civil religion is a normative reality; it is essentially prophetic and stands over and against the folk ways of the people. It judges idolatrous tendencies of particular forms of Christianity and Judaism. In the words of Bellah, "it is of the essence of the American civil religion that it 'challenges institutional authority'" Bellah, He locates in civil religion the prophetic function of calling the nation, including its civic leaders, to account whenever they fail to provide the members their rights as people "created equal.
Bellah predicted a crisis of conscience for the nation at the time of the Vietnam War. When this did not occur, it did not disconfirm, for him, his analysis but indicated that the covenant was broken, although hope never fails. When his own writings carried the prophetic above the analytic function, his social-science colleagues chided him for his lack of objectivity Fenn, Hammond. However, religionists espoused his cause and made him the central figure of major bicentennial celebrations Boardman and Fuchs.
The debate continued, then, with two new focuses: 1 is the covenant really broken? Novak ; 2 has the focus of civil religion moved from the nation to the world society? While essayists were debating the reality or emergent quality of civil religion Bourg, Richey, and Jones , some survey analysts were attempting to measure the verbalized opinions and attitudes from samples of significant size and diversity to determine whether any variable could be found with consistency that might be claimed to carry this conception of civil religion through the social consciousness of acting communities of American people.
To date that research is indecisive. In some cases, the sample is too narrowly encompassed to preclude the Protestant nationalism concept Hoge. At other times, the items are too general to conclude that civic piety is not also being measured Christenson and Wimberley. This lack of conclusiveness is agreed to by the researchers themselves. In the late s, they invited more empirical studies with better measures and samples before anything decisive could be claimed as causally connected with civil religion, or before it could be stated that civil religion can be differentiated for analysis from any of the other concepts connected with national patriotism, with which it is so closely connected experientially Wimberley, Cole and Hammond.
To get evidence that would be convincing for the existence of the civil-religion hypothesis, one would have to find a substantial number of non-church-related believers as well as church-related ones. At the present time, the items used provide high association with church attendance but correspondingly low association with socially concerned non-church-attenders.
There should be no significant difference if civil religion is an independent variable. Other research, assuming the civic-piety definitions of civil religion, examines its presence in new religious expression of the s Robbins. Theological Interest. The intellectual and religious interest in the idea of civil religion is directly associated with a new political consciousness in modern theological speculation see political theology.
Theologians show the need of new reflection on religion and State now that their attention has been drawn to the growing problems of a world economy that outstrips the power of the State, and the corresponding need for associations of some type capable of seriously addressing the ethical and social problems generated by new centers of power Baum, Neal, This political emphasis is dialectically related to the Churches' affirming the value of their plurality and social commentators' allocating religion to the private sphere with high public approval in established states only Bell, Berger, Greeley.
The emergence of more effective power centers in Third-World concentrations in the international struggle for survival brings the question of the object of civil religion into the fore-front of Catholic reflection and analysis. In this context, the traditional association of Catholicism with the affirmation of hierarchy and of Protestantism with congregationalism, shifts interest to the Judaic theme of exodus and covenant for a movement-perspective for historian, social scientist, and religionist simultaneously.
From this fact derive the contemporary debates about civil religion. Bibliography: s. Terry Lectures New Haven NEAL, M. Considerable ambiguity surrounded the topic, therefore, and after a decade or so, scholarly interest in civil religion waned. It lingers, however, not just in America but in other countries as well.
The result, unfortunately, is not a codified set of findings about civil religion, surrounded by a systematic theory explaining those findings. This regrettable situation stems from the overemphasis on debating whether civil religion exists. One does not ask if, in a society, an economy exists, or a polity, or a religion.
But this is not a simple or obvious task, and American students of religion would probably differ widely in their interpretation of these passages.
Free civil religion Essays and Papers
Let us consider first the placing of the three references. They occur in the two opening paragraphs and in the closing paragraph, thus providing a sort of frame for more concrete remarks that form the middle part of the speech. Looking beyond this particular speech, we would find that similar references to God are almost invariably to be found in the pronouncements of American presidents on solemn occasions, though usually not in the working messages that the President sends to Congress on various concrete issues.
How, then, are we to interpret this placing of references to God? It might be argued that the passages quoted reveal the essentially irrelevant role of religion in the very secular society that is America. The placing of the references in this speech as well as in public life generally indicates that religion "has only a ceremonial significance"; it gets only a sentimental nod that serves largely to placate the more unenlightened members of the community before a discussion of the really serious business with which religion has nothing whatever to do.
A cynical observer might even say that an American President has to mention God or risk losing votes. A semblance of piety is merely one of the unwritten qualifications for the office, a bit more traditional than but not essentially different from the present-day requirement of a pleasing television personality. But we know enough about the function of ceremonial and ritual in various societies to make us suspicious of dismissing something as unimportant because it is "only a ritual.
Following this line of argument, it is worth considering whether the very special placing of the references to God in Kennedy's address may not reveal something rather important and serious about religion in American life. It might be countered that the very way in which Kennedy made his references reveals the essentially vestigial place of religion today. He did not refer to any religion in particular. He did not refer to Jesus Christ, or to Moses, or to the Christian church; certainly he did not refer to the Catholic church.
In fact, his only reference was to the concept of God, a word that almost all Americans can accept but that means so many different things to so many different people that it is almost an empty sign. Is this not just another indication that in America religion is considered vaguely to be a good thing, but that people care so little about it that it has lost any content whatever? Isn't Dwight Eisenhower reported to have said "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith-and I don't care what it is," [ii] and isn't that a complete negation of any real religion?
These questions are worth pursuing because they raise the issue of how civil religion relates to the political society on the one hand and to private religious organization on the other. President Kennedy was a Christian, more specifically a Catholic Christian. Thus his general references to God do not mean that he lacked a specific religious commitment.
But why, then, did he not include some remark to the effect that Christ is the Lord of the world or some indication of respect for the Catholic church? He did not because these are matters of his own private religious belief and of his own particular church; they are not matters relevant in any direct way to the conduct of his public office. Others with different religious views and commitments to different churches or denominations are equally qualified participants in the political process.
The principle of separation of church and state guarantees the freedom of religious belief and association, but at the same time clearly segregates the religious sphere, which is considered to be essentially private, from the political one. 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.
The inauguration of a president is an important ceremonial event in this religion. It reaffirms, among other things, the religious legitimation of the highest political authority. Let us look more closely at what Kennedy actually said. First, he said, "I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago. He swears it before the people you and God. Beyond the Constitution, then, the president's obligation extends not only to the people but to God. In American political theory, sovereignty rests, of course, with the people, but implicitly, and often explicitly, the ultimate sovereignty has been attributed to God.
This is the meaning of the motto, "In God we trust," as well as the inclusion of the phrase "under God" in the pledge to the flag. What difference does it make that sovereignty belongs to God? Though the will of the people as expressed in the majority vote is carefully institutionalized as the operative source of political authority, it is deprived of an ultimate significance.
The will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong. There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged; it is possible that the people may be wrong.
The president's obligation extends to the higher criterion. When Kennedy says that "the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God," he is stressing this point again. It does not matter whether the state is the expression of the will of an autocratic monarch or of the "people"; the rights of man are more basic than any political structure and provide a point of revolutionary leverage from which any state structure may be radically altered.
That is the basis for his reassertion of the revolutionary significance of America. But the religious dimension of political life as recognized by Kennedy not only provides a grounding for the rights of man that makes any form of political absolutism illegitimate, it also provides a transcendent goal for the political process. This is implied in his final words that "here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
Now the trumpet summons us again-not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need-not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"-a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself. The whole address can be understood as only the most recent statement of a theme that lies very deep in the American tradition, namely the obligation, both collective and individual, to carry out God's will on earth.
This was the motivating spirit of those who founded America, and it has been present in every generation since. Just below the surface throughout Kennedy's inaugural address, it becomes explicit in the closing statement that God's work must be our own. That this very activist and noncontemplative conception of the fundamental religious obligation, which has been historically associated with the Protestant position, should be enunciated so clearly in the first major statement of the first Catholic president seems to underline how deeply established it is in the American outlook.
Let us now consider the form and history of the civil religious tradition in which Kennedy was speaking. The Idea of a Civil Religion. The phrase "civil religion" is, of course, Rousseau's. In chapter 8, book 4 of The Social Contract , he outlines the simple dogmas of the civil religion: the existence of God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance.
All other religious opinions are outside the cognizance of the state and may be freely held by citizens. While the phrase "civil religion" was not used, to the best of my knowledge, by the founding fathers, and I am certainly not arguing for the particular influence of Rousseau, it is clear that similar ideas, as part of the cultural climate of the late eighteenth century, were to be found among the Americans. For example, Benjamin Franklin writes in his autobiography,.
I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world and govern'd it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing of good to men; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho' with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix'd with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm morality, serv'd principally do divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another.
It is easy to dispose of this sort of position as essentially utilitarian in relation to religion. In Washington's Farewell Address though the words may be Hamilton's the utilitarian aspect is quite explicit:. Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man ought to cherish and respect them.
A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
But there is every reason to believe that religion, particularly the idea of God, played a constitutive role in the thought of the early American statesmen. Kennedy's inaugural pointed to the religious aspect of the Declaration of Independence, and it might be well to look a that document a bit more closely. There are four references to God. The first speaks of the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" that entitle any people to be independent.
The second is the famous statement that all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights. The third is an appeal to "the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions," and the last indicates "a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence. The intimate relation of these religious notions with the self-conception of the new republic is indicated by the frequency of their appearance in early official documents. For example, we find in Washington's first inaugural address of April 30, It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge.
No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of man more than those of the United States. Every step by which we have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token providential agency.. The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained..
The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people. Nor did these religious sentiments remain merely the personal expression of the President.
At the request of both Houses of Congress, Washington proclaimed on October 3 of that same first year as President that November 26 should be "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer," the first Thanksgiving Day under the Constitution. The words and acts of the founding fathers, especially the first few presidents, shaped the form and tone of the civil religion as it has been maintained ever since. Though much is selectively derived from Christianity, this religion is clearly not itself Christianity. For one thing, neither Washington nor Adams nor Jefferson mentions Christ in his inaugural address; nor do any of the subsequent presidents, although not one of them fails to mention God.
Even though he is somewhat deist in cast, he is by no means simply a watchmaker God. He is actively interested and involved in history, with a special concern for America. Here the analogy has much less to do with natural law than with ancient Israel; the equation of America with Israel in the idea of the "American Israel" is not infrequent.
God has led his people to establish a new sort of social order that shall be a light unto all the nations. We have already alluded to it in the case of the Kennedy inaugural. We find it again in President Johnson's inaugural address:. They came already here-the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened-to find a place where a man could be his own man. They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still.
If we keep its terms, we shall flourish. 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. At a time when the society was overwhelmingly Christian, it seems unlikely that this lack of Christian reference was meant to spare the feelings of the tiny non-Christian minority.
Rather, the civil religion expressed what those who set the precedents felt was appropriate under the circumstances. It reflected their private as well as public views. Nor was the civil religion simply "religion in general. Precisely because of this specificity, the civil religion was saved from empty formalism and served as a genuine vehicle of national religious self-understanding.
But the civil religion was not, in the minds of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, or other leaders, with the exception of a few radicals like Tom Paine, ever felt to be a substitute for Christianity. There was an implicit but quite clear division of function between the civil religion and Christianity. Under the doctrine of religious liberty, an exceptionally wide sphere of personal piety and voluntary social action was left to the churches.
But the churches were neither to control the state nor to be controlled by it. The national magistrate, whatever his private religious views, operates under the rubrics of the civil religion as long as he is in his official capacity, as we have already seen in the case of Kennedy.
This accommodation was undoubtedly the product of a particular historical moment and of a cultural background dominated by Protestantism of several varieties and by the Enlightenment, but it has survived despite subsequent changes in the cultural and religious climate. Civil War and Civil Religion. Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny. The Civil War, which Sidney Mead calls "the center of American history," [vi] was the second great event that involved the national self-understanding so deeply as to require expression in civil religion. In , Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the American republic has never really been tried and that victory in the Revolutionary War was more the result of British preoccupation elsewhere and the presence of a powerful ally than of any great military success of the Americans.
But in the time of testing had indeed come. Not only did the Civil War have the tragic intensity of fratricidal strife, but it was one of the bloodiest wars of the nineteenth century; the loss of life was far greater than any previously suffered by Americans. The Civil War raised the deepest questions of national meaning. The man who not only formulated but in his own person embodied its meaning for Americans was Abraham Lincoln. For him the issue was not in the first instance slavery but "whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.
All the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated in and were given to the world from this Hall. I have never had a feeling, politically, that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. The phrases of Jefferson constantly echo in Lincoln's speeches. His task was, first of all, to save the Union-not for America alone but for the meaning of America to the whole world so unforgettably etched in the last phrase of the Gettysburg Address.
But inevitably the issue of slavery as the deeper cause of the conflict had to be faced. In his second inaugural, Lincoln related slavery and the war in an ultimate perspective:. If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. But he closes on a note if not of redemption then of reconciliation-"With malice toward none, with charity for all.
With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. Nowhere is it stated more vividly than in the Gettysburg Address, itself part of the Lincolnian "New Testament" among the civil scriptures. Robert Lowell has recently pointed out the "insistent use of birth images" in this speech explicitly devoted to "these honored dead": "brought forth," "conceived," "created," "a new birth of freedom.
The Gettysburg Address is a symbolic and sacramental act. Its verbal quality is resonance combined with a logical, matter of fact, prosaic brevity.. In his words, Lincoln symbolically died, just as the Union soldiers really died-and as he himself was soon really to die. By his words, he gave the field of battle a symbolic significance that it has lacked. For us and our country, he left Jefferson's ideals of freedom and equality joined to the Christian sacrificial act of death and rebirth.
I believe this is the meaning that goes beyond sect or religion and beyond peace and war, and is now part of our lives as a challenge, obstacle and hope. Lowell is certainly right in pointing out the Christian quality of the symbolism here, but he is also right in quickly disavowing any sectarian implication. The earlier symbolism of the civil religion had been Hebraic without any specific sense of being Jewish. The Gettysburg symbolism ". The symbolic equation of Lincoln with Jesus was made relatively early.
Herndon, who had been Lincoln's law partner, wrote:. For fifty years God rolled Abraham Lincoln through his fiery furnace. He did it to try Abraham and to purify him for his purposes. This made Mr. Lincoln humble, tender, forbearing, sympathetic to suffering, kind, sensitive, tolerant; broadening, deepening and widening his whole nature; making him the noblest and loveliest character since Jesus Christ.. I believe that Lincoln was God's chosen one. With the Christian archetype in the background, Lincoln, "our martyred president," was linked to the war dead, those who "gave the last full measure of devotion.
The new symbolism soon found both physical and ritualistic expression. The great number of the war dead required the establishment of a number of national cemeteries. Of these, Gettysburg National Cemetery, which Lincoln's famous address served to dedicate, has been overshadowed only by the Arlington National Cemetery. Begun somewhat vindictively on the Lee estate across the river from Washington, partly with the end that the Lee family could never reclaim it, [x] it has subsequently become the most hallowed monument of the civil religion.
Not only was a section set aside for the confederate dead, but it has received the dead of each succeeding American war. It is the site of the one important new symbol to come out of World War I, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; more recently it has become the site of the tomb of another martyred President and its symbolic eternal flame. Memorial Day, which grew out of the Civil War, gave ritual expression to the themes we have been discussing. As Lloyd Warner has so brilliantly analyzed it, the Memorial Day observance, especially in the towns and smaller cities of America, is a major event for the whole community involving a rededication to the martyred dead, to the spirit of sacrifice, and to the American vision.
Together with the less overtly religious Fourth of July and the more minor celebrations of Veterans Day and the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, these two holidays provide an annual ritual calendar for the civil religion. The public school system serves as a particularly important context for the cultic celebration of the civil rituals. The Civil Religion Today. In reifying and giving a name to something that, though pervasive enough when you look at it, has gone on only semiconsciously, there is risk of severely distorting the data.
But the reification and the naming have already begun. The religious critics of "religion in general," or of the "religion of the 'American Way of Life,'" or of "American Shinto" have really been talking about the civil religion. As usual in religious polemic, they take as criteria the best in their own religious tradition and as typical the worst in the tradition of the civil religion. Against these critics, I would argue that the civil religion at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people.
Like all religions, it has suffered various deformations and demonic distortions. At its best, it has neither been so general that it has lacked incisive relevance to the American scene nor so particular that it has placed American society above universal human values.
I am not at all convinced that the leaders of the churches have consistently represented a higher level of religious insight than the spokesmen of the civil religion. Reinhold Niebuhr has this to say of Lincoln, who never joined a church and who certainly represents civil religion at its best:. An analysis of the religion of Abraham Lincoln in the context of the traditional religion of his time and place and of its polemical use on the slavery issue, which corrupted religious life in the days before and during the Civil War, must lead to the conclusion that Lincoln's religious convictions were superior in depth and purity to those, not only of the political leaders of his day, but of the religious leaders of the era.
Perhaps the real animus of the religious critics has been not so much against the civil religion in itself but against its pervasive and dominating influence within the sphere of church religion. Lipset has recently shown, American religion at least since the early nineteenth century has been predominantly activist, moralistic, and social rather than contemplative, theological, or innerly spiritual. It is certainly true that the relation between religion and politics in America has been singularly smooth.
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