The Apotheosis of President George Washington, who is shown as having ascended to a divine status. The fresco was painted by Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi in 1865 and is visible through the oculus of the dome in the rotunda of the United States Capitol. 

This week’s reflection is a bit longer than usual. Please bear with me…

Some have argued, and still do, that Christianity is the national faith in the United States. Others argue that historically Christianity, the Deism of the founding fathers, and other religious traditions have long inspired U.S. Americans. Today of course Christian nationalism is very much in the news.

Religion and values in U.S. American society has been my academic and research focus for the past thirty years. I would argue that, for a very long time, there has been a well-institutionalized civil religion in the United States, alongside of and clearly differentiated from the established religious traditions like Christianity and Judaism. 

All religions are systems of beliefs and practices that help people answer their deeper questions about identity, life, and meaning. U.S. civil religion has all the qualities of a religion. It has foundational sacred texts with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The National Archives building in Washington DC, in fact, is designed like a temple; and the nation’s sacred scriptures are displayed in an altar-type protective reliquary. (Many years ago, when we were little kids, my sister and I visited the National Archives. We walked in, looked around and the first thing we did, as good Catholic kids sensing a church-type environment, was genuflect. Then we were embarrassed and just started laughing.)

U.S. civil religion has national saints like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. (I don’t think there will be a Saint Donald Trump. But many of his followers would love that.) The U.S. has a broad collection of laws establishing codes of conduct. The key civil religion symbol of course is the Stars and Stripes. There are abundant sacred shrines in U.S. civil religion: places like the Capitol in Washington DC; the Lincoln Memorial; the Statue of Liberty; Arlington National Cemetery, where the “martyrs” are buried; Mount Rushmore, commemorating four civil saints; the Vietnam Memorial; and a great variety of statues and memorials scattered across the country. I have been to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC many times. What always strikes me is how silent people become when they walk up the statue of Abraham Lincoln.

And of course we have civil religion holy days like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Washington’s Birthday, Martin Luther King Day, and of course Thanksgiving.

U.S. civil religion has been a deeply felt and strongly patriotic universal religion of the nation. It does not compete with established religions but exists alongside them and is supported by them. In many U.S. church sanctuaries, for example, the American flag hangs as a traditional adornment. People growing up outside the United States, like my European friends, cannot understand the U.S. reverence for the flag and that U.S. citizens are expected to hold their hands over their hearts during a rendition of the national anthem or when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In Belgium the flag comes out when there is a big football game.

The U.S. civil religion concept, originating  in the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) with echoes in Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859), made its first major impact on the sociological study of religion in the United States with the publication of an essay titled “Civil Religion in America,” written in 1967 by the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah (1927-2013). “While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith,” Bellah observed, “few have realized that there actually exists alongside the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” (One of my delights some years ago was a series of informal conversations and lunch with Robert Bellah and his wife, when they visited our university.) 

Civil religion is unique in U.S. culture because it does not claim an identifiable social group but the entire society itself; or as British writer G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936) once observed: The United States is “a nation with the soul of a church.”

U.S. civil religion has not only the common features of a religion but a regularly expressed belief in Divine Providence that looks over America: “In God we trust,” and annuit coeptis – translated as He favors our undertakings” – on the one dollar bill, by way of example.  In 1956, during the height of the Cold War struggle with the officially atheist Soviet Union, Congress passed a joint resolution, signed by President Dwight D.Eisenhower (1890 – 1969), declaring “In God We Trust” to be the national motto of the United States.

Up until the Civil War (1861 – 1865), U.S. civil religion focused on the American Revolution (1765 – 1791) as the final act of the Exodus from the old world across the sea. George Washington was seen as the divinely appointed new Moses who led his people out of the old world tyranny of the British Empire. 

With the Civil War, new themes of death, sacrifice, and rebirth entered U.S. civil religion. They were symbolized in the life and death of President Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865); and, at the end of the Civil War, in a series of national, civil religion, Holy Week events. Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807 – 1870) surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) on April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday. When he was shot on Good Friday, April, 14, President Lincoln shed his blood for his country. Lincoln died on Saturday and so, on the following day — Easter 1865, “Reconstruction” resurrection began under President Andrew Johnson (1808 – 1875). 

A few years before his own death, the American poet, Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977), understood the civil religion impact of Lincoln and offered this reflection: “The Gettysburg Address is a symbolic and sacramental act. 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.”

Following the Civil War, the great number of war dead required the establishment of several 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 on the Robert E. Lee estate across the river from Washington.

Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War. Memorial Day integrates people and local communities into a national observance, just as Thanksgiving Day, which was institutionalized as an annual national holiday under the presidency of Lincoln, serves to integrate families into a national civil religion celebration of unity and gratitude for the blessings of Divine Providence.   

Post WWII America was fertile ground for American civil religion; and President Dwight David Eisenhower its strong advocate. With the support of people like the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale (1898 – 1993) and the Rev. Billy Graham (1918 – 2018), Eisenhower presided over a vigorous assertion of the place of religion in public life. Even when, as he said, he didn’t care what the religion was. He established the annual “presidential” prayer breakfast, and the presidential practice of ending speeches with “May God bless America.” With Eisenhower’s support, Congress inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and placed “In God We Trust” on all currency. Few Americans opposed such steps. Protestants and Catholics were happy, and Jewish Americans felt they could live with Eisenhower’s vague public religiosity. 

A very popular civil religion spin-off fellow at this time was the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and his “Positive Thinking” religio-psychiatry.  Peale was probably the most famous clergyman in the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s. When Donald Trump was a child, the Trump family regularly attended Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Years later, Peale presided over Trump’s first marriage to Ivana (1949 – 2022) in 1977. It was Norman Vincent Peale, by the way, who taught Donald Trump to promote and worship himself.

U.S. civil religion has never been anticlerical or militantly secular. It has consistently borrowed from set religious traditions in such a way that the average U.S citizen has seen no conflict between the two. In this way, civil religion, with no opposition from the churches, has been able to construct powerful symbols of national solidarity and to activate deep levels of personal engagement for the attainment of national goals. And here one really must also acknowledge the contribution of public schools as shapers of civil religion values. 

Sustaining the whole panorama of American civil religion are key biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But how should people understand these themes today? Do they correctly understand them? Even Robert Bellah observed years ago that “civil religion has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes.” 

Today civil religion is buried in Christian nationalism and various fundamentalist movements. We see it being used in a rather fanatic way to justify racism, police brutality, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia. 

U.S. civil religion has taken a complicated shift since January 6th 2021, as the American political idea has been linked to Christian nationalism. Among those who invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6thwere many who said they were led by their Christian beliefs. Interestingly, however, members of the Capitol Police warned the protesters that they they were violating the “sacred space” of the Capitol.

The religious nationalism present at the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington stands, however, in clear contrast to the U.S. tradition of civil religion, which places sanctity in the symbols (such as the Capitol building with Saint George Washington portrayed in the rotunda dome) and ceremonies that represent U.S. guiding principles like national unity and the dignity for all. 

In his inaugural address, on January 20, 2021, President Biden condemned the violence at the U.S. Capitol in the language of religion, asserting the sacredness of American democratic traditions. “On this hallowed ground where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation,” he said, “we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.” 

John Carlson, associate director of religious studies at Arizona State University, and interim director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, wrote on the day after the Biden inauguration that U.S. civil religion was on full display during the inauguration:  “Presidential inaugurations serve as the high holiday of our American civil religion: In front of ‘the temple of our democracy’ — the Capitol — presidents and vice presidents take their ‘sacred oaths’ by placing their hands upon special bibles, often with histories as rich as the ceremony itself. The president’s inaugural address serves as a kind of sermon or catechism to the masses….’Civil religion,’ then, is a scholarly term for the common understanding of principles, ideals, narratives, symbols and events that describe the American experience of democracy in light of higher truths.”

My head-scratching these days: Is the concept of U.S. civil religion still useful for understanding socio-cultural life in the contemporary United States? If not, how should one think about religion in the U.S.A. today? How do we interpret what is happening –- socio-politically —  in the contemporary United States?  What will be the implications of the November 2022 midterm elections, when, according to a Washington Post analysis, a majority of Republican nominees for House, Senate, and key statewide offices — 299 in all — have denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential election?

I still reflect on the stirring words and phrases from Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem: “The Hill We Climb.”

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,

but what stands before us.

We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,

we must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms

so we can reach out our arms

to one another.

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

12 thoughts on “An Historical Reflection about U.S. Civil Religion

  1. Jack – this is exactly the wisdom I was waiting for, and you completely satisfied my need and hopefully, the needs of others, with this effort. I would suggest, for maximum effect, that you share this with Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and as many other federal leaders as you possibly can. I think it should be a primer for them in order that they know how to properly recognize the legitimacy of this national religion and be able to honor it while being able to effectively articulate the distinction between it and religious nationalism. I am hopeful that you can do that; and as I get back into the saddle from Greece/Turkey, I will be making some calls myself to ascertain how to forward it to people like Cory Booker and other senators.
    Thanks so much!


    1. Thank you, Joe! Yes, indeed. All our political leaders would be happy to know of and to read such a current description of our civil religion and to have just the right words to express it. I second your suggestion to send it to all our congress people, especially those you mention.

  2. Thanks very much. I was left wondering if part of our current situation is the result of we Americans not sufficiently transmitting our civil religion via civics in the public school system? Not the whole reason for or fracture for sure, but part?

  3. For Another Voice 10/13/22

    I love this. To articulate the perennial trouble with Civic Religion as a social phenomenon has troubled me for decades, but, at last, here in your piece is the prize. Thank you!

    Back in the ‘60s, one of the basic analyses [an admonition really] came from Thomas Luckmann, a German: “The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society” (1967), a concise treatment of social and political trends that co-opted religion in the work of the state. He was looking forward, perhaps thinking the West had learnt a lesson about fascism and Nazi Germany, but his worry has legs, still on point today. (Has there been no progress? Well, the struggle must continue, vigilance forever.)

    Personally I have always mentally substituted the term “civic religion” for “civil religion.” Both refer to a form of nationalism, too easily becoming uncivil in conduct toward “others.” For me, the danger of nationalism is that it is intentional, exclusive, derisive, divisive and intermittently despotic. Loyalty to some leader or some party trumps open truth and humanist integrity.

    To be honest with myself, “civic religion“ could also be a synonym for “patriotism,” in its best light. Patriotism, as a virtue associated with respect, critical thinking, and one’s duty as a citizen of a particular community within a country in which life can flourish in the society under construction there, has become categorically different and separate from religion, which is one of the basic human needs. Patriotism, too, includes a militarist element, rooted in rebellion. Not to confuse content and conduct, it seems clear that rash, agonistic conduct, which is one of the “products of our culture,” as you said on Sep. 29, should not precede or eclipse critical thinking about the content and context that inspires an ethical culture. Culture elicits an ethical loyalty to one another, and critical respect for leadership, within the limits of freedom, does it not? “Think first what you are doing, not, Do whatever you think.”

    The struggle for humanity, or “the hill we must climb” to paraphrase the amazing Ms. Gorman at the inauguration, is a “matter” of balancing the agonistic and the ethical along the axis of identity– the “spirit” of what it means to become more fully human: individually, culturally, and possibly beyond. Here the mystery of the Incarnation is most intense, that Jesus of Nazareth comes to us as One, unknown, and trusting us to do likewise what He alone in His time did for others. At the heart of religion there are no substitutes. God may be indivisible, but nations are not.

    Thank you for asking your questions out loud, the sound of head scratching is getting louder.

  4. Dear Jack,
    Your analysis of “civil religion” here in the United States is thoughtful and thought provoking. We Americans, I feel, have a hyper-inflated self image that has often in the past been worthy of our perceived identity. During world wars one and two, we were the “saviors” of civilization. Although one could argue that we only engage militarily when it is in our own self interest, we have intervened in other conflicts when we perceive that democracy and self determination have been threatened. If we were a Hollywood cowboy movie, we would perceive ourselves as “the good guys.” The analogy of our patriotism as a religion breaks down, however, when we look at what Jesus has asked of us all and how we live His expectations. Sometimes I scratch my head, too, when I see that both religion and patriotism are, at times, form rather than substance. Your quote of Robert Bellah that “civil religion has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes” really touched me. Shouldn’t practice of faith, in the words of St. Francis, “make me a channel of God’s peace?” Likewise, shouldn’t our national political “religion” truly bring “liberty and justice for all?” We Americans, like all humans, need our practices to match our beliefs. If the cross or the flag do not represent behaviors for the good, then those symbols mean nothing. You have given us a huge amount to think about, dear Jack!

  5. Wow! Thanks, Jack. I’ve never been one who favors our “US civil religion” (patriotism), as to me, it lacks one important feature, that Jesus had and preached always – HUMILITY.

    1. Thanks Patti. Yes I agree with you. While I have always been fascinated by US civil religion, I must admit that it reinforces an arrogant sense of US American superiority. I am absolutely not “anti-American” and still very actively a US citizen living abroad. We balance and humility.
      Many very kind regards

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