PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
Here are fragments from two unpublished articles I’ve written relating to the category “American civil religion”:
But the problems with civil religion went much
deeper. There was a growing suspicion
that it was an ideological slogan masquerading as an analytical category. In academic circles the term is always linked
with the famous 1967 article by Robert Bellah that brought it back into
intellectual currency. Bellah seemed to
be calling the U.S. back to some imagined core of universally shared, or at
least universally valid, moral values that this nation was supposed to embody
and promote. It was hardly an accident
that his article made such a big splash precisely as most intellectuals began
to question, if not directly protest, the war in
Ironically, the questions stimulated by the war
eventually proved the undoing of the civil religion industry. Was
By the mid-‘70s, with the Vietnam war over, questions of diversity and multiculturalism began to dominate the academic agenda. In some quarters this raised other questions that seemed even more pressing: What are the sources of, the grounds for, and the route to national unity? When those questions were raised, though, many saw them as a thinly veiled attack on diversity, an effort to impose a specific set of values, which were supposedly the truly American values. The study of civil religion could not escape a similar suspicion. The way the issue had been framed, by Bellah and others, almost demanded the assumption that there was some basis for national unity. And most of the work tended, in varying degrees, to blend historical analysis with homiletic exhortation. It still called Americans back to some purported set of fundamental national values. Whatever these values might be, they had clearly originated among an elite group of white males. So there was understandable concern that the very term “civil religion” might help to foster cultural imperialism and protect the privileged status of white male discourse.
These critiques played a central role in moving the
civil religion discussion out of the academic mainstream. To some extent, though, civil religion left
the mainstream simply because that mainstream had shifted. In the 1980s, the political issues raised by
The timing was unfortunate, because at exactly that moment history was providing a magnificent case study for students of civil religion: the rise of Ronald Reagan. Academic historians of religion should have been overjoyed to have a president who talked about “a city on a hill” fighting off “the evil empire” and the political importance of prophecies of Armageddon. What great material! In fact, though, we had little to say, at least in print. We pretty much left the field to colleagues in other disciplines and to journalists. Some, like Gary Wills (1987), did a fine job. But the data and the situation cried out for informed analysis from our discipline. One fine example of what could be done was the work of Edward Linenthal, who studied the rise of Reaganism, as promoted by the Committee on the Present Danger (1989a), and one crucial result of Reaganism, the Strategic Defense Initiative (1989b).
Linenthal’s studies of the Reagan era, like his later
studies of battlefields (1991) and places of commemoration (1995), offer a
valuable reminder that the symbols of what we once called civil religion have
never carried any simple monolithic meaning.
Rather, they have been sites of often bitter contestation. There never has been a single civil
religion. There have been only an
unending stream of civil religions.
Innumerable individuals and groups have framed their worldview and their
ethos in terms akin to what Bellah and others have called civil religion. All those worldviews and ethoi are perfectly
valid subjects of study. Although we can
People outside of religious studies have never ceased talking about civil religions. (Indeed, they usually use the term “civil religion” to denote the whole field of what we would call “public religion.”) If we don’t have anything to say about the subject, we leave it to others who are not as expert in the study of religious forms. If the subject is going to be discussed anyway, we ought to do what we can to keep the level of that discussion as high as possible, and to have our fair share in controlling the shape of the discourse. Along the way we can also explain why we prefer to talk about civil religions, in the plural, and we can explain the distinction between public and civil religions.
We should try to keep some control over the discussion
of civil religions, not for reasons of professional ego, but because academic
life ought to be, above all, an exercise in good citizenship. As scholars and teachers, we have a
responsibility to serve the public in a time of bitter debate and considerable
confusion. This point is often made to
justify the study of religion as it is practiced in other nations. How can we be informed citizens and uphold
democratic values in a world torn by religious strife, the argument goes,
unless we understand the religious issues involved? If this argument is valid for
How, then, shall we understand civil religions? Linenthal’s work and the recent work of other
Although civil religions always involve place and
performance, they are primarily modes of discourse, intersections of language
and power. Their distinctive mark is
that they blend some kind of religious language with some kind of language
The scholarly tradition begun during the 1960s under
the slogan “civil religion” still offers useful resources that can help us in
this study. Of course those resources must
be used carefully. The academic study of
religion speaks a very different language now than it did a quarter-century
ago. We ask new kinds of questions: How is discourse constructed? Who has privileged access to shaping its
formulation? How is it related to social
institutions and constellations of power?
Since the first English immigrants arrived here, European Americans have
been manipulating the language to create images of “
Today we will recognize such descriptions and debates as discursive constructions, often with ideological overtones, deeply embedded in and influenced by religious (especially Christian) language, symbols, traditions, and doctrines. Historians of religion have a special expertise that allow us to uncover the layers of discursive construction at work in civil religions, analyze how they work, and examine theirs interactions with each other and with political, economic, and social processes, as well as with places and performances.
Demerath N.J. II
and Rhys H. Williams. 1985. “Civil Religion in an Unicivil Society,” Annals of the
Tabor. 1989a. “War and Sacrifice in the Nuclear Age: The Committee on the Present Danger and the
Renewal of Martial Enthusiasm,” in Ira Chernus and Edward Tabor, eds., A
Shuddering Dawn: Religious Studies and the Nuclear Age.
1989b. Symbolic Defense: The Cultural
Significance of the Strategic Defense Initiative.
1991. Sacred Ground: Americans and Their
1995. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to
It may seem odd to look to “the ‘60s” to understand
the decline in studies of civil religion materials. The study of civil religion under that
particular name began with Robert Bellah’s article, “Civil Religion in
One reason is a lack of intellectual coherence. The term was so broad and vague that no one was ever quite sure what it meant. In the ‘70s, efforts to classify and categorize types of civil religion got so complicated, it seemed the term could mean just about anything. As N.J. Demerath and Rhys Williams observed, “Discussion of the universal meanings of civil religion tenets has become an enterprise in scholasticism.” Some scholars rightly worried that it might really mean nothing at all. In 1979, John F. Wilson demonstrated at length that, under a careful analysis, the concept of civil religion could quickly crumble for lack of intellectual coherence and empirical justification.
But the problems with civil religion went much
deeper. It was hardly an accident that
Bellah’s article made such a big splash precisely as most intellectuals began
to question, if not directly protest, the war in
But the questions stimulated by the war eventually
proved the undoing of the civil religion industry. Was
In some basic respects, the civil religion literature seemed inimical to these new concerns. The way the issue had been framed by Bellah and others rested on the Durkheimian assumption that there must be some consciously affirmed basis for national unity. So students of civil religion asked, either explicitly or implicitly, whether diversity carried too far might not tear the nation apart. For them, it was more urgent than ever to seek the sources of, the grounds for, and the route to national unity. Most of the writing about civil religion tended, in varying degrees, to blend historical analysis with homiletic exhortation. Many agreed with Wilson that Bellah and those who followed him were promoting a revitalization movement, calling the U.S. back to some purported core of universally shared, or at least universally valid, moral values that this nation was supposed to embody and promote.
This generated a concern that the study of American civil religion might be a thinly veiled attack on diversity, an effort to impose a specific set of values, which were supposedly the truly American values. Whatever these values might be, they had clearly originated among an elite group of white males. So there was concern that the term “civil religion” was an ideological slogan masquerading as an analytical category, a slogan that helped to foster cultural imperialism and protect the privileged status of white male discourse. In a recent brief survey of the study of civil religion, Robert Wuthnow noted among the reasons for its decline the desire for “a positive evaluation of diversity.” Looking back 25 years after Bellah’s seminal article, Phillip Hammond (who sympathized and eventually collaborated with Bellah) saw this as the issue that “most profoundly disturbs critics of Bellah’s formulation of the American civil religion.”
Yet Hammond seemed to confirm some of the suspicions
of the critics by advancing the view that there are objective laws governing
social relations that “exist independent of people’s knowledge of them,” laws
that were virtually identical with “America’s ‘legitimating myth.’” A decade later (35 years after his initial
essay), Bellah seemed to confirm some of those suspicions, too. In the Preface to Richard Hughes’ book Myths America Lives By, Bellah asserted
that “the role of world empire has been thrust upon us. … Everyone in the world
today has two nationalities—the one they were born with and the American. …
Chosen it seems we are, if not by God then by geopolitics. … Chosenness today
is our burden.” Bellah added: “Richard Hughes writes as a Christian and so
do I.” Hughes endorsed Bellah’s views and added his
fear that those who find no positive value in
Very few, if any, scholars of religious studies could fairly be characterized as “fundamentalists of the left.” Yet by the mid-1980s, many were vigorous proponents of a multicultural approach to scholarship that went significantly beyond what scholars of civil religion like Bellah, Hammond, and Hughes seem prepared to accept. There were fewer and fewer scholars who feared any “peril of disintegration” from a full embrace of diversity. On the contrary, as Wuthnow noted, there was a growing belief that, if there were a civil religion, it would “benefit from internal conflict and disagreement that encourages it to change or engage in self-criticism.” However, the overwhelming response from this emerging majority of scholars was not to call for a revisioning of civil religion, but simply to ignore it. Most scholars lost interest in civil religion because they had a different set of questions to ask, questions to which the civil religion literature seemed perhaps inimical, but more clearly just irrelevant.
Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in
 Robert Wuthnow, “Civil Religion,” in Robert Wuthnow, ed. Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1998), 156.
 Ibid., 6.
 Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By; foreword by Robert N. Bellah
 Ibid., 4. See my review of Hughes’ book in Journal of the American Academy of Religion (forthcoming).
 Wuthnow, “Civil Religion,” 156.