Civil Religion, United States
The phrase "civil religion," first coined by the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), was popularized by the American sociologist Robert N. Bellah in 1967. Using President John Kennedy's inaugural address as an example, Bellah described the pervasive presence of civil religion in the United States and argued that it existed as a religion in its own right alongside denominational religions. Although civil religions emerge in other national settings, this article focuses on the American situation.
The symbolic content of American civil religion in the United States is heavily influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. The sacred myths, rituals, and symbols that constitute this generic American faith unite a diverse population in a common religious experience. As a "folk" or "generalized" religion, it transcends divisive denominational, racial, economic, political, and ethnic loyalties that fragment the nation, and it enables Protestant and Catholic, Hispanic and Italian, as well as Republican and Democrat, to rise above their differences and join together in singing "God Bless America." A civil religion performs valuable integrative functions for a nation and in rare instances, such as in Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, prophetic civil religion can mobilize citizens for social justice.
Although the United States constitution calls for a legal separation of church and state, the two realms blend together informally in the rituals of civil religion—national holidays, Memorial Day parades, patriotic songs, and presidential inaugurations. The symbolic marriage of sacred and political orders is consummated when Bible and flag blend together in the same photograph, when religious pamphlets are printed in red, white, and blue, and when presidents issue Thanksgiving Day proclamations and invoke the name of God in their speeches. Religious leaders of national prominence encourage the church-state romance when they publicly support the political order by attending ceremonial occasions such as "White House Prayer Breakfasts."
The civil religion of a nation provides a sacred canopy that enshrouds the origins and destiny of the state in sacred mysteries. Although American civil religion is imbued with Judeo-Christian language and symbolism, its doctrinal content is diluted with the most vague references to God, e.g., Almighty Power and Divine Providence. References to Christ, sin, and the cross are conspicuously and necessarily missing, to prevent offense in a pluralistic religious setting. The doctrinal creed of civil religion is inoffensive, polite, and courteous, for it must confer a divine blessing that legitimates national policies and encompasses the entire body politic in bland but common mysteries.
The sometimes subtle and other times explicit fusion of church and state in civil religion has troubled Mennonites for several reasons. From the outset of the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century, Mennonites have insisted that the church is autonomous from the political order. The two-kingdom theology in the early Anabaptist confessions of faith assumed that the church would often be at odds with civil government as well as the dominant culture. The Mennonite conception of the state was somewhat ambiguous, since the civil government was also understood to be ordained of God. The Anabaptists contended however, that the holy Scriptures and the lordship of Christ, not the civil authorities, were the normative standard for the faith and practice of the church. Indeed the church, in the Anabaptist view, was a counterculture, an alternate social order that often found itself in conflict with the state.
Civil religion, in Mennonite eyes, blurs the historical distinction between the political and sacred orders, confers a divine legitimacy on the state, and lures the faithful into a patriotic embrace of nationalism. Indeed, many Mennonite authors have argued that civil religion fosters national idolatry, a worship of the nation-state and its powerful interests in ways that divert the faithful from the radical demands of the God of the New Testament. Mennonites have argued that the God of American civil religion is a provincial deity, a tribal God who typically blesses the political status quo and frowns sternly on other forms of governments, especially nondemocratic ones. Mennonite authors have contended that the star-spangled God of American tribal religion threatens to usurp the biblical notion of a God who sends rain on the unjust as well as the just and welcomes followers from every tribe, nation, and ethnic enclave. A civil religion that wraps the destiny of a particular nation up with the promises of a tribal God is an affront to the universal character of the God of holy Scripture whose purposes transcend the destiny of particular nations. While this critical view of civil religion prevailed among academicians, many Mennonites were comfortable with the religious flavor of the God-and-country patriotism.
Mennonite concern with civil religion peaked with the patriotic celebrations surrounding the American bicentennial in July 1976. In the 12 months preceding the bicentennial celebration, the Gospel Herald, weekly publication of the Mennonite Church (MC), printed 23 articles, including three editorials, which dealt with civil religion. A variety of authors pointed out the dangers of uncritical national worship and called the readers to repentance and obedience to the God who loves all nations and all cultures. Other Mennonite papers carried articles with similar concerns during this time. The Mennonite Central Committee distributed a "Civil Religion" packet containing 11 articles describing and critiquing civil religion and 9 other articles which discussed appropriate ways to celebrate the bicentennial. A summary pamphlet in the MCC packet warned that the danger of civil religion "lies in being seduced into uncritical celebration of the nation state, forgetting our higher loyalty to God." Several Mennonite regional conferences issued statements criticizing the "strong spirit of nationalism" and calling their members to "reaffirm their allegiance to the Lordship of Christ and his supranational kingdom."
The Herald Press publication of Our Star-Spangled Faith provided a Mennonite critique of civil religion that circulated beyond Mennonite circles. In the same manner, the publication of A Dream for America offered proposals by a Mennonite scholar for celebrating the national dream without the entrapment of idolatrous nationalism. The common theme in all of these Mennonite publications warned, that an untamed civil religion would degenerate into a national idolatry that would not only supplant the prophetic teaching of the New Testament, but would also confer a divine blessing on the state, thereby legitimating militarism and oppression in the name of God.
Bellah, Robert. The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.
"Civil Religion and Bicentennial," a resource packet of 20 items. Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1976.
Kraybill, Donald B. Our Star-Spangled Faith. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.
Kraybill, Donald B. "Civil Religion vs. New Testament Christianity." Gospel Herald (11 May 1976): 402-03.
Lapp, John A. A Dream for America. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.
Lapp, John A. "Civil Religion Is But Old Establishment Writ Large," in Kingdom, Cross and Community, ed. J. R. Burkholder and Calvin Redekop. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976: 196-207.
Lapp, John A. "Understanding Civil Religion." Christian Living (October 1973): 15, 24.
Richey, Russell E. and Donald G. Jones, eds. American Civil Religion. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 163-165. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Kraybill, Donald B. "Civil Religion, United States." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C514.html.
APA style: Kraybill, Donald B. (1987). Civil Religion, United States. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C514.html.