The American Civil Religion—Destructive, Useless, or Beneficial?

[1] “Why does the President of the United States insist on ending his speeches with ‘God Bless America?” asked a European friend testily. “Doesn’t God bless all nations?” she angrily continued. Furthermore, she complained, this religiously-laden political rhetoric proves that Americans persist in thinking that God is on their side. Whatever she understood of the American civil religion-which wasn’t much-she certainly didn’t like.

[2] But it doesn’t take Europeans to despise American civil religion. Writing in a recent Christian Century article, Rodney Clapp laments the “overwhelming support for the phrase (‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance) among conservative evangelicals.” If those evangelicals knew how the current Supreme Court justices argue for retaining the “under God” clause, they wouldn’t be so enthused about it. He points out that the justices argue for it by emptying the phrase of religious content, which makes it basically useless. It is mere “ceremonial deism” that affirms our country’s history or its present national ideals.

[3] Moreover, if the tenets of the civil religion were given real content, Clapp argues, that content immediately would become idolatrous because it implies that God works his will in history through nations, especially America. It troubles him that some evangelicals indeed do invest it with such idolatrous content. Rather, Clapp aligns himself with those of Hauerwasian or “radical orthodox” persuasion who believe that the church is the preeminent historical agent of God’s mission in the world. For them, an insurmountable gulf is fixed between America, its civil religion, and true Christianity. Thus, since “under God” makes the Pledge either a useless or destructive piece of the civil religion, Christians ought to join with atheists in seeing to it that “under God” is dropped from it.

[4] Lutheran theologians have not been any friendlier toward the civil religion. To those of the Wisconsin or Missouri Synods, any practice of the civil religion is automatically “unionistic” or “syncretistic” because it gets the Lutheran Christian involved in a doctrinally heterodox religion. To more mainstream Lutherans, the civil religion violates the demand for secularity in the left hand, or earthly, kingdom. Lutheran theologians such as George Forell and William Lazareth hold this point of view, which has generally defined official Lutheran teaching on the matter. Forell, for example, agrees that a nation needs a “public philosophy” that often has references to God in it. While this “invented God” of the “public philosophy” may be politically necessary, such a “god” is an idol in the light of Christian freedom.” The confusion of such civil religion with real Christianity is a great danger to the latter. Better that we keep the public space secular, relying on commonly shared reason to guide our deliberations. (Proclamation of the Gospel in a Pluralistic World, 32)

[5] While the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation for Church and State may be too zealous in purging the public sphere of all religious symbols and language for the groups mentioned above, those two activist organizations nevertheless are moving in a direction approved by many Europeans and most mainstream Protestant and Lutheran theologians. In short, the American civil religion does not garner much affection from these elite quarters. Yet it is practiced by millions of Americans. My own view is that it is important to have a more positive, yet critical, appropriation of the civil religion. However, before we can make a case for that more positive view of the civil religion, we’d better define it.


[6] Robert Bellah described the American civil religion in his celebrated essay of 1967, “Civil Religion in America:” “What we have, from the earliest years of the republic, is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity….American civil religion has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations.”

[7] Avery Dulles, writing in a recent issue of First Things (Jan., 2005) argues that the civil religion is a beneficial legacy of deism, now long dead as a religious movement. “Positive deism” as he puts it, bequeathed these beliefs: the existence of a God who created the world and humans in his image, whose will providently orders nature and history and which transcends and judges all human actions, an objective moral law that is grounded in the divine will to which all humans should adhere, and a judgment that will reward the just and punish the wicked in an afterlife. Practically, these beliefs lead to democracy, human rights, equality of opportunity, and ordered liberty. When America approximates these tenets in its national life, it is blessed in its own internal life and thereby becomes a “city set upon a hill, a shining beacon to the nations.” It then has the mission to further these universal ideals and practices in the world. (Incidentally, when Presidents end their speeches with “God bless America,” they are invoking God’s favor on America insofar as it approximates these ideals and practices.)

[8] John Witte, Jr., in his Religion and the American Constitutional Experience, shows how John Adams argued for a “mild and equitable establishment of one public religion” that would balance the many “private,” i.e., denominational, religions and would provide a common vehicle for those “private” religions to express their more specific convictions publicly. This public or civil religion did not compete with or reject the various forms of biblical religions that were so numerous and vital in American life. Nor was it in any way considered to be an “establishment of religion,” which to the Founders meant the establishment of a specific church. Rather, it produced a favorable climate in which those various forms could thrive. Indeed, this “deist minimum,” to use Dulles” phrase, became the lowest-common-denominator public religion that gave America its identity and mission. It is the kind of common religion produced by a highly religious people without an established church. It, like deism itself once was, is dependent on the more specific biblical traditions that abound and thrive in America.

[9] From a Lutheran theological point of view, the civil religion is a religion of the First Article. It affirms God the Creator, Sustainer, Command-Giver, and Judge. It provides a ground for human rights and obedience to the commandments of God. Properly viewed, this civil religion has no redemptive capacities, but it does give a religious foundation to what Lutheranism has termed “civil righteousness.” Like all human religious projects, it can be perverted and misused, but that is not necessarily the case, which we shall argue later.


[10] As the reader has no doubt perceived, I have already given a positive twist to the civil religion in the very definition I have offered. But let me offer more systematic reasons why the civil religion should be more positively, but yet critically, appropriated.

[11] 1. The American civil religion is irrepressible. As long as America remains a religious country, persons of specific religious traditions will utilize the civil religion to express religious sentiments in times of national emergency, during moments of civic importance, or amid the rituals of the civic religion itself. The aftermath of the horrible attacks of 9/11/01 featured a veritable explosion of civil religion. “God Bless America,” that quintessential American song, became the national anthem. It was sung in almost ever venue imaginable and its title was omnipresent. The Virginia legislature ruled that the phrase “God Bless America” should be posted in every school in Virginia. Our local newspaper, never prone to much civil religious enthusiasm, printed full page lay-outs of “God Bless America” for at least a week.

[12] On less extreme occasions, such as high school commencements, Americans want to open those moments of civic importance to divine transcendence. They want to thank God for the blessings of public education and the achievements of their sons and daughters. They also want to give religious legitimization to the hopes and dreams of their young. And they will do so, one way or another. Further, on the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Memorial Day the civil religion will be used to show gratitude for the nation, its bounty, and those who have served in the armed forces of our country. The inauguration of Presidents will inevitably be laced with the rituals, symbols, and language of civil religion to mark the solemnity of the occasion and to place the President’s vision into a wider and deeper context. (Will the ACLU one day try to acquire restraining orders on this kind of behavior, which is obviously sponsored by the government?)

[13] True, the civil religion on many of these occasions offers no more than mediocre religious glosses on national events and purposes, but sometimes the civil religion can be elevated to sublime heights by wise and skilled leaders. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural represent the zeniths of civil religious usage. Lincoln’s interpretation of the terrible tragedy of the Civil War and his summons to reconciliation and resolution are incontrovertibly profound. Martin Luther King, Jr., used both the civil religion and biblical rhetoric to summon the nation to extend rights to black Americans that had been so long denied.

[14] It is instructive that both these great monuments of civil religious rhetoric were sustained and infinitely enriched by the more specific biblical themes that lay beneath (and above) the rather thin tenets of the civil religion. These great Americans-Lincoln and King-under-girded the rather abstract themes of the “religion of the republic” with the flesh and bones of their specific biblical faiths.

[15] If then, the civil religion is irrepressible and can be used for great and beneficial effect, why should we turn our backs on it and let it decline into religious nationalism? It seems far wiser to participate in it and elevate it as much as we can. This will mean striking notes-divine judgment and guidance-that are often neglected by those who want only to use it for national self-congratulation. As the biblical religions can be used merely for the self-interest of individual believers, so the civil religion can used merely for the self-interest of the nation. But it need not be so. If the civil religion is shored up by believers of the historic biblical faiths, it can be used for noble purposes. Indeed, perhaps other Lincolns and Kings will come along to summon the nation to a fuller realization of its ideals.

[16] 2. The Civil Religion provides an important transcendent dimension to American life.

[17] The phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance illustrates this possibility well. “Under God” means that the nation is beholden to something beyond itself, God. God, not the nation, establishes the basic rights of each human at their creation. God’s will is the benchmark for the policies and actions of the nation, not the peoples’ or the nation’s will. God judges the performance of the nation, not something or someone less. (“The Almighty has his own purposes.”) The nation respects conscientious objection to war among those who call upon that higher law. It often listens to words of judgment and exhortation that are offered by great practitioners of both the biblical and civil religions.

[18] Moreover, the precepts of the civil religion give legitimization to the American ideals of democracy, liberty, equality, and opportunity, since they flow from fundamental convictions about the sacredness of every individual. The civil religion cements the identity, social solidarity, and mission of the nation around these ideals. It provides a transcendent frame of reference that can inspire and guide policy.

[19] Certainly the specific biblical religions can exercise some of these functions, but since none are “established” they cannot summon the populace through a commonly-shared religious framework. The civil religion provides such a framework. It can serve as a workable reminder to the nation that finally it is not its own law and judge. Those who wish to achieve a “naked public square” may find that when God officially disappears from the life of a nation, the nation may stray into some strange paths on its own. The public squares of the Communists and Nazis did not remain naked even though they rejected their own Christian-based heritage; they were filled with demonic pseudo-religions accountable to nothing above or beyond the will of the party or nation.

[20] 3. The civil religion provides a common set of meanings through which more particular traditions can address the nation and its issues. Philosophers have often called for religious persons and groups to use “public reason” to make their cases for this or that policy. But what if “public reason” really turns out to be the commonly shared language of the civil religion? This, of course, is not what the secular philosophers had in mind. But in America it simply could be the case that fundamental arguments about identity, basic values, and mission might well be more intelligible in the language of civil religion than in some secular substitute. For example, the debate over abortion might well be addressed more powerfully in the language of the civil religion (endowed by their Creator with certain ‘inalienable rights’) than in the argot of secular utilitarianism or libertarian free choice.


[21] Given all this, we are left with two questions. Though the civil religion might in principle be capable of beneficial effect, can it practically be so used? And, secondly, will the civil religion continue to exist in an era of increasing pluralism?

[22] It is indeed true that the civil religion can be used unhelpfully, even destructively. It is destructive if it is used only to bless uncritically, and not to judge and guide. However, the positive engagement of living biblical traditions with the civil religion will help prevent such an outcome. There is a time to bless and affirm, but that will be done willingly by many persons and groups. The need to inspire the people around worthy values-justice, human rights, democracy, liberty-is a more difficult matter. Even more difficult is the word of judgment that needs to come when we betray or fall short of those worthy values. When persons and groups from the specific biblical religions take up those tasks in creative ways, then the civil religion will continue to be beneficial. It will continue to be a commonly-shared framework of meaning for those specific traditions to express their words of affirmation, inspiration, and judgment. I believe that there are enough Jewish and Christian-and perhaps Muslim-groups and persons that are constructively engaged with the American project to take up the challenge.

[23] Will the civil religion continue to be irrepressible? Or will it be repressed by the growing pluralism, ideological multiculturalism, and relentless litigation by the ACLU and its allies who wrongly consider the use of the civil religion an establishment of religion? (Unfortunately, Supreme Court justices have bought the argument that the use of the civil religion is such an establishment; hence the effort to reduce that usage to harmless “ceremonial deism.”)

[24] The consequences of the loss of the civil religion would be severe. Without the minimal consensus provided by the civil religion, the nation may lose a sense of identity and mission. Cardinal Dulles worries that the loss of such a minimal consensus could lead to the lack of “a corporate vision sufficient to sustain the sense of mission and collective purpose that have characterized it (the nation) at its best.” Witte worries that too little of such a mild establishment “allows secular prejudices to become constitutional prerogatives.” The gravest danger could be on the judicial front.

[25] The situation is indeed worrisome, but I believe the forces of assimilation into that minimal consensus are very powerful and will not be easily repressed. The vast majority of the American people is inspired by the civil religion and uses it profusely. They then elect political representatives who guard and express that civil religion. It is unlikely that those elected representatives will allow the judiciary to wipe out the civil religion from the public practices of America. The civil religion will be alive a long time in this country. It is up to the biblical religions to engage and use it creatively.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.