Right Definition

We begin, as one might expect, with right definition. However one may define it, the phenomenon has many names. “Civil religion” is the most common, but some scholars prefer “civic faith,” “public religion,” “public piety,” “public theology,” “public philosophy,” or any number of others. Some of these are distinctions without a difference, but some are not. The path of right definition, however, is a path of simplicity whereby all these names become essentially synonyms. Rousseau conceived of it as a religion focused on the meaning of the society that consciously constructed it. Bellah argued that this “religious dimension” was properly to be considered to be well institutionalized in American life but clearly differentiated from the organized churches.
Outside the sociological sandbox, even before Bellah’s more famous formulation, the historian Sidney Mead seemed to be talking about the same phenomenon but calling it the “religion of the Republic.” This “religion of democracy,” Mead argued, unified Americans who were otherwise divided by the more sectarian theologies of the churches. In a number of writings, John F. Wilson indicated his preference for the name “public religion,” which exists but fails to meet the criteria of a religion socially differentiated from America’s religious or political institutions. It has no clearly identifiable offices of leadership, no binding membership requirements, no life cycle of rituals to meet members’ needs, and no fully coherent theology (including affirmation about existence). Gradually, as the debate unfolded over the last third of the twentieth century, a consensus among historians (and a number of sociologists) came to agree with Wilson that while it does not meet the definition of full-fledged, full-orbed, differentiated religion, civil religion does exist as a “cluster of meanings” central to American culture and attached to the nation.
This cluster of meanings is expressed in ideological themes that symbolize what Americans have historically articulated as the ultimate meaning of their society. To a great extent, these themes derive from the Puritan experiments in the colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts—that is, Puritan self-conceptions of being God’s “Chosen People” entrusted with an “errand in the wilderness” to build a “city on a hill.” This Christian society, or “Bible commonwealth,” would in turn become an exemplar for corrupt Old England and eventually the rest of the world.
Partly because of New England’s leadership in the American Revolution, the Puritans’ deuteronomic theology (“Success is a sign of God’s blessing; failure betokens a divine curse”) increasingly interpreted military victories against the heavily favored British army as miraculous interventions proving divine favor on the fledgling United States. By the successful end of the war, the status of New Israel—complete with George Washington as the new Moses—had been transferred from one region to the entire nation. The new New Israel’s appointed task was also changing. Increasingly derived from “Providence” instead of God or Jesus, America’s role was increasingly expressed in less religious language. The United States was also becoming less an exemplar of a pure Christian society than a passive example—and still later an active guardian—of liberty and an asylum for the world’s oppressed. After the revolution, as argued by Paul C. Nagel, from the end of the Washington presidency to the Spanish-American War, Americans viewed their nation as a “sacred trust” and themselves as stewards.
Carlton J. H. Hayes’s classic perception of nationalism as a religion preceded the civil religion debate but, without using the term, grapples with the same phenomenon as Bellah. In this vein, historian of religion Catherine Albanese suggests “religious nationalism” as a useful shorthand for civil religion. Keeping all such conceptions in mind, it appears that any ideological construction that relates the nation in some special way to the sacred would fit under the wide umbrella of civil religion. Thus the path of right definition leads to more simplicity than Bellah’s original conception. Whatever name one chooses to give it, civil religion can best be understood as a cultural blending of religion and patriotism that interprets the nation as unique by virtue of its special relationship with that society’s conception of the sacred. As such, in the American context civil religion could be accurately conceived as American exceptionalism in a religious mode. Civil religion is the system of mythic meanings, embedded and diffused throughout their culture, by which Americans interpret the ultimate meaning of their nation. A general definition like this makes it possible to find the themes of civil religion sprinkled rather liberally in the nation’s political and religious institutions, rather than clearly differentiated from either. One can thus find creedal or ritual expressions of civil religion in both church services and political rallies.

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