The End(s) of American Civil Religion

I have spent my entire professional career writing and teaching about the relationship between religion, politics, and law in the American context. I’ve dutifully taught about American civil religion (ACR), although I’ve always found the concept a bit murky. 

ACR has been a part of the American political landscape since the earliest colonial settlements, but it was rarely identified as such until the publication of Robert Bellah’s ground-breaking 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America.” This article launched a virtual cottage industry of efforts to define, evaluate, and, sometimes, criticize the phenomenon.  

Hillsdale’s Richard Gamble begins his essay, “Reformation and Revival in American Civil Religion,” by wistfully observing that he had thought that academics had “moved past” the “problem of civil religion,” only to be proved wrong by “the recent flood of books and articles on Church and State, Christianity and politics, Christian Nationalism, National Conservativism, exceptionalism, and integralism.” Alas, this observation only makes the waters murkier for me, as it suggests that every work that touches on the connection between faith and politics in America is about ACR. 

Adding to my confusion, in his introductory paragraphs Gamble implies that unnamed contemporary authors are calling for a “reenergize[d]” or “revived “civil religion.” He gives no examples of such individuals in these paragraphs, but later suggests that The Faith and Liberty Bible (FLB) was responsible for causing him to “plunge back into civil religion.” Alan Crippen, the general editor of the FLB, generously lists me, along with Daniel Dreisbach, Jonathan Den Hartog, Thomas Kidd, Jeffry Morrison, and Sarah Morgan Smith, as associate editors of the work, although it would probably be more accurate to call us outside consultants. But I do not consider myself an advocate of ACR, and would not describe any of the above-mentioned individuals as such. 

The FLB includes an introductory essay by the historian Wilfred McClay that acknowledges that ACR has been used for good and bad ends, and warns of a civil religion “unchecked by the sense of national and personal sin.” He closes it by suggesting that we should “wish for a suitably chastened civil religion, drawing from the deep roots of the American past.” It is reasonable to read this line as calling for a “revival of civil religion” but, as I explain below, I don’t see how the FLB as a whole does so. If it does, the waters become even more murky.

I have a great deal of respect for Gamble, both as a person and a scholar, so I’ll take his essay as an opportunity to offer what seems to me to be a workable definition of ACR and suggest how we might evaluate it. I look forward to his response, and am optimistic that the exchange may help clarify what ACR is and how we should think about it. 

Towards a Workable Definition of Civil Religion 

Outside his brief mention of the FLB, Gamble engages only one advocate of ACR by name: Robert Bellah. Bellah, he observes, was an activist who believed that ACR could be used to advance a progressive political agenda. I think that Gamble is absolutely correct on this point. Instead of restating and agreeing with this argument, I’ll explore Bellah’s 1967 essay in more detail than Gamble does to highlight key features of ACR. 

Bellah begins his essay by discussing the three references to God in John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address. He observes that these references frame his address, and that they are generic references to a deity that would be acceptable to virtually all Americans at the time. Religious language was used by Kennedy to unite Americans, and to inspire them to pursue good ends. 

President Washington made similar references in his first inaugural address, the 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, and Farewell Address. Even at a time when virtually all Americans of European descent would have identified themselves as Christians, 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. 

All presidents, Bellah observed, have followed this pattern. 

This is not to say the content of civil religion has remained constant. Bellah notes that the founders often utilized biblical images and rhetoric that were “Hebraic without being in any specific sense Jewish,” whereas Abraham Lincoln incorporated symbolism that was “Christian without having anything to do with the Christian church.” By casting the Civil War as a punishment by a just God, Lincoln hoped to encourage Americans to reconcile “[w]ith malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Bellah’s description of President Lyndon Johnson’s speech urging members of Congress to support the Voting Rights Act of 1965 exemplifies well the way ACR may be used to support good ends. Johnson began and ended his appeal with theological and even biblical arguments, and made it clear that he believed it was God’s will that Congress pass the Voting Rights Act. 

The Second World War was the most obviously just war America has fought, and it does not seem unreasonable for the president to attempt to comfort and inspire Americans by suggesting (not requiring) that they pray for the success of this critical invasion.

Of course, ACR involves more than just religious speech by government officials. Bellah discusses the creation of “hallowed monuments,” such as Arlington National Cemetery, and ritualistic exercises, such as Memorial Day and Thanksgiving Day which, “with the less overtly religious Fourth of July and the more minor celebrations of Veterans Day and the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln . . . provide an annual ritual calendar for civil religion.” 

It seems reasonable to conclude in light of Bellah’s 1967 essay that a major feature of ACR involves elected officials using religious language acceptable to most citizens to unify and inspire Americans to pursue certain ends. As well, it includes celebrations, practices, and monuments that may have been created by private citizens and organizations, but which have come to be adopted/supported by state or national governments. 

For the purposes of clarity, I propose that we consider ACR to be:

  1. the use of religious or religious-like speech and practices
  2. by American governments and/or government officials
  3. to attain certain ends. 

Perhaps certain non-governmental practices, such as overtly patriotic church services held around the Fourth of July, should be considered ACR as well. But Bellah does not discuss such practices in his 1967 essay, and Gamble only briefly mentions them in his. As such, I’ll leave such possibilities for a future day. 

What’s Wrong with a Little Civil Religion?

Gamble does not like ACR, but his reasons are a bit vague. He suggests that if we consider the “history of dissent from the ACR” we could recognize its evils, but he gives few specific examples of such dissent. There is no doubt that individuals and communities have objected to aspects of ACR, such as the use of religious rhetoric to support some or all of America’s wars. Gamble mentions the Wilson Administration’s “providing sermon outlines” that churches could use “for the new feast day of Liberty Loan Sunday.” I agree that this is troublesome on many levels, and not just for pacifists. 

On the other hand, some religious Americans undoubtedly objected to Franklin Roosevelt’s June 6, 1944 request that Americans join him in praying for the success of D-Day. It is not clear to me that this manifestation of ACR is problematic. The Second World War was the most obviously just war America has fought, and it does not seem unreasonable for the president to attempt to comfort and inspire Americans by suggesting (not requiring) that they pray for the success of this critical invasion. And there is always the possibility that President Roosevelt actually believed that such prayers could make a difference. If he did, why wouldn’t he ask Americans to join him in praying for its success?

Consider as well that there is no doubt that some northerners objected to Lincoln’s use of ACR to attempt to reconcile the north and the south, and that some southerners objected to Johnson’s use of ACR to encourage Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. That some individuals and communities object to something is not evidence that it is wrong. 

As citizens, we should primarily evaluate the use of ACR in light of the ends towards which is it directed. Believers might also choose to critique civic officials when they misuse holy texts or make poor theological arguments, even if in the support of good ends. 

What American Civil Religion in Not

The first paragraph of Gamble’s essay suggests that any book and article about “Church and State, Christianity and politics, Christian nationalism, National Conservativism, exceptionalism, and integralism” is about ACR.  But I’m sure he does not mean this. He must understand that many of these works are simply studying and evaluating the interaction of faith and politics in ways that have nothing to do with ACR. What about The Faith and Liberty Bible? Gamble writes that this work “weaves American civil religion through the text of Scripture” and, perhaps, even “advocates a revival of civil religion.” He doesn’t reference McClay’s essay, and every example he discusses comes from the main text of the FLB. 

The FLB is an initiative of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, which is part of the American Bible Society. It includes the text of the Bible and more than 810 text boxes that contain quotations by individuals often using biblical passages to advance the values of faith, hope, justice, liberty, love, or unity, usually in the American context. In many cases, brief headnotes provide contexts for the quotations. As well, scattered throughout it are essays highlighting ways in which citizens have appealed to the Bible to advance positive goals. 

So, for instance, the page containing the text of Exodus 10 includes a quotation from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel prize acceptance speech where he observes that:

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, “Let my people go” [Exodus 5:1, 8:1, 9:1, 10:3]. This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story. [Scriptural references in the FLB]. 

The next page contains a similar text box concerning Frederick Douglas’s use of Exodus 12 in his famous 1854 speech “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” 

King and Douglas were not elected officials, and their speeches were not endorsed by any governments. Indeed, throughout their careers they used biblical and theological arguments to challenge official government policies. Their speeches should in no way be seen as ACR. 

The vast majority of the quotations in the FLB are from citizens like King and Douglas (featured 19 and 13 times, respectively), often advocating for liberty, equality, and justice. It does contain quotations from sitting presidents and other elected officials that may fairly be characterized as ACR (including Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer) but, to the extent to which these quotations come from speeches meant to unify or console Americans, or to inspire them to pursue virtuous ends, it is not clear to me that they are problematic. 

Gamble seems concerned that the FLB includes quotations from non-Christians, including Albert Einstein, and theological radicals like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Because they are from private individuals in their private capacities, the speeches from which the quotations are taken should not be considered ACR. As with King and Douglas, they challenged official government policies. Einstein’s 1939 radio address was on behalf of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and Stanton’s speeches either criticized slavery and its supporters or advocated for women’s rights. Consider one example from the Seneca Falls Declaration, of which Stanton was the primary drafter:

Resolved, that woman is man’s equal—was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such . . . 

Stanton was not an orthodox Christian, although she may well have believed the words quoted above. But, in any case, quotations such as these were included because they are excellent examples of private individuals appealing to the Bible to inspire Americans to seek good ends. 

Gamble is concerned that ACR may improperly conflate the United States of America with the Kingdom of God. I share that concern. It is possible to find examples of American leaders equating the two, but not in the FLB. Indeed, Gamble observes that the FLB “goes out of its way not to be nationalist, imperialist, jingoist, and self-congratulatory . . .” 

Nevertheless, Gamble suggests that the project, as a whole, somehow “nationalizes the Bible.” To illustrate the point, he asks “How would we react to a Russian, German, British, of French version [of the FLD]?” Personally, I would love to see such Bibles. Of course, citizens of other countries have appealed to the Bible to advance values such as faith, hope, justice, liberty, love, and unity. To highlight the ways citizens of one country have done this in no way implies that this country has “some special relationship to the Bible that others do not.”

If ACR refers to any connection between faith and politics, it is too broad of a concept to be of any use. I suggest we define it narrowly, as I do above, and then analyze the extent to which it is used for good or bad goals. I’m open to the possibility that this definition needs to be expanded to include things like voluntary patriotic exercises by churches and singing the Star-Spangled Banner before sporting events, but it should never be applied to religious speech by private individuals who are addressing matters of public concern.