Right Functionality

The second path to wisdom might be called right functionality. Sociologists typically offer two kinds of definitions of religion. Substantive definitions, such as the one arrived at via the previous path, focus on what religion is. Functional definitions emphasize what religion does or how religions function in society. For historians, however, the questions answered by the former lead logically to those raised by the latter. The simpler the substantive definition, the more possibilities exist for a multiple functionality. This path leads (rightly, of course) to a simple truth: civil religion performs many functions within the society it deems sacred. Borrowing from the sociological tradition of Émile Durkheim, Bellah emphasizes the role of social integration. For him, civil religion functions similarly to Mead’s “religion of the Republic,” binding together citizens who are otherwise divided by more sectarian faiths. In this manner, generalized civil religions integrate or unify citizens in much the same ways that more sectarian forms of religion did in Catholic medieval Europe or Anglican England—premodern societies before the rise of church–state separation.

Civil religion accomplishes this integration by providing a sense of ultimate meaning for the society. Even if the traditional religions or denominations divide the loyalties of citizens, the civil or national religion can provide a belief system about the nation around which all or most citizens can rally. This creed of civil religion expresses Americans’ conviction of their nation’s exceptionalism by embodying what they believe to be America’s divine purpose. These beliefs are called to mind by the sacred symbols (the flag), sacred rituals (pledging allegiance), sacred objects (the Liberty Bell), sacred holidays (the Fourth of July), sacred spaces (the Lincoln Memorial), and sacred personages (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln). By reference to these components, Americans celebrate their country’s unique status and recommit themselves to its values and its task in the world.
Legitimation, or sanction, for the national polity is another function of civil religion. This use arises, argues sociologist Marcella Cristi, from the traditions of Rousseau. Unlike Durkheim, who saw an integrative religion arising naturally and inevitably from the structure of society, Rousseau viewed civil religion as the conscious creation of political leaders seeking to exert influence or even control over the citizenry. In such a context, a nation’s leaders may deliberately put civil religion to use for the purpose of legitimating their particular political order. Crist appropriately criticizes American scholars for overemphasizing civil religion’s integrative function, with little analysis of it as a “consciously ‘designed’ religion that leaders have to create and encourage.”

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