American Civil Religion: An Idea Whose Time Is Past
25 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2009
Date Written: March 2009
From the founding of the United States, Americans have understood loyalty to their country as a religious and not just a civic commitment. The idea of a 'civil religion' that defines the collective identity of a nation originates with Rousseau, and was adapted to the United States Robert Bellah, who suggested that a peculiarly American civil religion has underwritten government and civil society in the United States.
Leaving aside the question whether civil religion has ever truly unified all or virtually all Americans, I argue that it excludes too many Americans to function as such a unifying force in the present. I discuss the general content of American civil religion, and then briefly examine how it has been deployed to sacralize four historical 'moments' in American history, the Founding, the Civil War, the Cold War, and the contemporary Culture Wars. I argue that religious pluralism and sectarian activism in the United States make a unifying civil religion improbable from a practical standpoint, and that the tendency of civil religion to devolve into idolatry, i.e., the sanctification of the government and its goals, makes it normatively unattractive, particularly for religious minorities. I close by suggesting that American civil religion can genuinely include and unify all Americans only if it drops its religious component, and that American society has sufficient cultural resources to inform a 'secular' civil religion.
This paper was delivered at a symposium entitled 'Civil Religion in the United States and Europe: Four Comparative Perspectives,' held at Brigham Young University Law School on March 12-14, 2009.
Keywords: Robert Bellah, Civil Religion, Idolatry, Pledge of Allegiance, Pluralism, Religion, Sectarianization, Ten Commandments
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