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The Father of America's 'Civil Religion' Has Died

George Frey/Getty Images

Last December, at the prayer vigil in Newtown, Connecticut, Barack Obama delivered one of the best speeches of his presidency. He grieved and consoled, speaking both as a father and as the head of state. Then, pivoting to the need for gun control, he became resolute: “We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end.”  

Yet the president concluded in an entirely conventional fashion: “May God bless and keep those we've lost in His heavenly place. May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort. And may He bless and watch over this community, and the United States of America.”

The sociologist Robert Bellah, who died on July 31st at the age of 86, gave words like that a name—“civil religion”—which he borrowed from Rousseau. And he taught us to take them seriously. They expressed, argued Bellah in a 1967 essay, “a theme that lies very deep in the American tradition, namely the obligation, both collective and individual, to carry out God’s will on earth.”

Americanism is not simply a creed which nearly every politician and many ordinary citizens embrace as fervently as a religion. It draws much of its strength, Bellah maintained, from the self-confident coupling of the secular and the spiritual. To drive this point home, he took examples from two centuries of U.S. history—from “all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, drenched in Biblical phrases, to Lyndon Johnson’s assertion, in proposing the Voting Rights Act, that God “really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.”

Talk of “civil religion” has become so familiar in the contemporary U.S. that most who use the term probably cannot identify the man who initiated it (at least in English). The same is true of “identity crisis” and “the invisible hand.” Every day, one reads or hears civil religion being preached or invoked: in the Pledge of Allegiance and on every piece of currency, in debates about placing the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns and walls, and in the ubiquity of “God Bless America” on bumper-stickers, in the perorations of political speeches, and during the seventh-inning stretch.  

But attention should be paid to the commonplace. “Bellah founded a whole new enterprise for religious studies scholars: probing the political significance of religious ideas and the religious significance of political ones,” his fellow sociologist Mark Juergensmayer wrote in an obituary. Any author who probes the statements and motivations of Osama Bin-Laden, Glenn Beck, or Sarah Palin is indebted to that 1967 essay and to the discussions it sparked at academic conferences for well over a decade.

Today, as those last two examples suggest, the most ardent civil religionists tend to be found on the Right. Conservatives view religious faith as the cornerstone of American exceptionalism and allege that the founders of the republic meant to establish a Christian nation. Secular Europeans have been poking away at such religious arrogance for a very long time. In 1912, hearing that a Massachusetts judge sentenced a labor militant to jail for being “on strike against God,” George Bernard Shaw jibed, “Delightful. Medieval America always in intimate personal confidence of the Almighty.”

But liberals and leftists in the U.S. have frequently embraced the same tradition, usually to make the case that protesting the status quo can be as legitimate as, and more virtuous than, defending it. During the 1890s, leaders of the radical People’s Party, composed mostly of evangelical Protestant farmers, compared their determination “to restore the republic to the hands of the plain people with which class it originated” to the second coming of Christ. In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. told an audience of bus boycotters in Montgomery, “we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.” Obama struck a similar chord early in his Second Inaugural Address when he referred to the Declaration’s “exceptional” view of “unalienable rights” and quickly added, “while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

As it happens, Bellah conceived his influential essay, in part, out of a desire to promote civil religion of the more aspirational kind. Americans, he insisted, were facing a “time of trial” as momentous as that of the Revolution and the Civil War. In assaulting Vietnam, the nation was “succumbing to that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past.” He urged readers to emulate Thoreau and Lincoln, “prophetic voices” who had opposed America’s equally unjust war against Mexico in the 1840s. “Without an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment,” Bellah cautioned, “the tradition of the civil religion would be dangerous indeed.”

Like it or not, religion in America has always been an intensely public affair. Since the days of the Spanish missionaries and the Puritan fathers, pious authorities have proclaimed that God is on their side. Since the struggle for independence from Great Britain, patriotic rebels have often made that claim about themselves. As Bellah understood, civil religion has never been an alternative to any deistic faith; it adapts selective elements of the national tradition “in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two.” Still, one can’t explain why so many Americans continue to say they live in the best country in the world without grasping the enduring belief that, as Melville wrote, “we…are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”

Michael Kazin’s most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is editor of Dissent