Civil religion

Civil religion

The intended meaning of the term civil religion often varies according to whether one is a sociologist of religion or a professional political commentator. The following discussion includes both perspectives followed by a brief history of the concept.


Origin of term

Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the term in chapter 8, book 4 of The Social Contract, to describe what he regarded as the moral and spiritual foundation essential for any modern society. For Rousseau, civil religion was intended simply as a form of social cement, helping to unify the state by providing it with sacred authority. In his book, Rousseau outlines the simple dogmas of the civil religion:

  1. Deity
  2. life to come,
  3. the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and
  4. the exclusion of religious intolerance.[1][2][3][4]

Italian Historian Emilio Gentile has studied the roots and development of the concept and proposed a division of two types of religions of politics: a civil religion and a Political religion.[5]

Sociology of religion

The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. is often used for state funerals for political leaders.

In the sociology of religion, civil religion is the folk religion of a nation or a political culture.

Civil religion stands somewhat above folk religion in its social and political status, since by definition it suffuses an entire society, or at least a segment of a society; and is often practiced by leaders within that society. On the other hand, it is somewhat less than an establishment of religion, since established churches have official clergy and a relatively fixed and formal relationship with the government that establishes them. Civil religion is usually practiced by political leaders who are laypeople and whose leadership is not specifically spiritual.


Such civil religion encompasses such things as:

  • the invocation of God in political speeches and public monuments;
  • the quotation of religious texts on public occasions by political leaders;
  • the veneration of past political leaders;
  • the use of the lives of these leaders to teach moral ideals;
  • the veneration of veterans and casualties of a nation's wars;
  • religious gatherings called by political leaders;
  • the use of religious symbols on public buildings;
  • the use of public buildings for worship;
  • founding myths and other national myths

and similar religious or quasi-religious practices.

Practical political philosophy

The Arc de Triomphe in Paris commemorates those who died in France's wars.

Professional commentators on political and social matters writing in newspapers and magazines sometimes use the term civil religion or civic religion to refer to ritual expressions of patriotism of a sort practiced in all countries, not always including religion in the conventional sense of the word.

Among such practices are the following:


  • crowds singing the national anthem at certain public gatherings;
  • parades or display of the national flag on certain patriotic holidays;
  • oaths of allegiance, such as the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States;
  • ceremonies concomitant to the inauguration of a president or the coronation of a king;
  • retelling exaggerated, one-sided, and simplified mythologized tales of Founding Fathers and other great leaders or great events (e.g., battles, mass migrations) in the past (in this connection, see also romantic nationalism);
  • monuments commemorating great leaders of the past or historic events;
  • monuments to dead soldiers or annual ceremonies to remember them;
  • expressions of reverence for the country or the Constitution or the King;
  • public display of the coffin of a recently deceased political leader.

Relation between the two conceptions

These two conceptions (sociological and political) of civil religion substantially overlap. In Britain, where church and state are constitutionally joined, the monarch's coronation is an elaborate religious rite celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In France, secular ceremonies are separated from religious observances to a greater degree than in most countries. In the United States of America, a president being inaugurated is told by the Constitution to choose between saying "I do solemnly swear..." (customarily followed by "so help me God", although those words are not Constitutionally required) and saying "I do solemnly affirm..." (in which latter case no mention of God would be expected).


Prehistory & Classical antiquity

The emperor Marcus Aurelius, his head ritually covered, conducts a public sacrifice at the Temple of Jupiter

Practically all the ancient and prehistoric reigns suffused politics with religion. Often the leaders, such as the Farao or the Chinese Emperor were considered manifestations of a Divinity. Tribal world-view was often Pantheistic, The tribe being an extension of its surrounding nature and the leaders having roles and symbols derived from the animal hierarchy and significant natural phenomena (such as storm).

The religion of the Athenian polis was a secular polytheism focused on the Olympian Gods and was celebrated in the civic festivals. Religion was a matter of state and the Athenian Ecclesia deliberated on matters of religion. Atheism and the introduction of foreign gods were forbidden in Athens and punishable by death. Socrates was charged, tried, found guilty and condemned to death by drinking hemlock by the Athenian ecclesia. The charge was that he worshipped gods other than those sanctioned by the polis.

Rome also had a civil religion, whose first Emperor Augustus officially attempted to revive the dutiful practice of Classical paganism. Greek and Roman religion were essentially local in character; the Roman Empire attempted to unite its disparate territories by inculcating an ideal of Roman piety, and by a syncretistic identifying of the gods of conquered territories with the Greek and Roman pantheon. In this campaign, Augustus erected monuments such as the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace, showing the Emperor and his family worshiping the gods. He also encouraged the publication of works such as Virgil's Æneid, which depicted "pious Æneas", the legendary ancestor of Rome, as a role model for Roman religiosity. Roman historians such as Livy told tales of early Romans as morally improving stories of military prowess and civic virtue. The Roman civil religion later became centered on the person of the Emperor through the imperial cult, the worship of the genius of the Emperor.[6]

Modern era

The phrase "civil religion" was first discussed extensively by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1762 treatise The Social Contract (although this is a translation since Rousseau wrote in French). As typically interpreted, Rousseau defined "civil religion" as a group of religious beliefs he believed to be universal, and which he believed governments had a right to uphold and maintain: belief in a deity; belief in an afterlife in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished; and belief in religious tolerance. Beyond that, Rousseau affirmed that individuals' religious opinions should be beyond the reach of governments.

In the 1960s and 1970s, scholars such as Robert N. Bellah and Martin E. Marty studied civil religion as a cultural phenomenon, attempting to identify the actual tenets of civil religion in the United States of America, or to study civil religion as a phenomenon of cultural anthropology. Within this U.S. context, Marty wrote that Americans approved of "religion in general" without being particularly concerned about the content of that faith, and attempted to distinguish "priestly" and "prophetic" roles within the practice of American civil religion, which he preferred to call the public theology.[citation needed] In "Civil Religion in America," a 1967 essay, Bellah wrote that civil religion in its priestly sense is "an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation." Bellah describes the prophetic role of civil religion as challenging "national self-worship" and calling for "the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged."[7] Bellah identified the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement as three decisive historical events that impacted the content and imagery of civil religion in the United States.


The Christian flag displayed alongside the flag of the USA next to the pulpit in a church in California. Note the eagle and cross finials on the flag poles.

Within the contexts of the monotheistic, prophetic, revealed faiths, civil religion can be problematic from a theological perspective. Being identified with a political culture and a leadership hierarchy of an existing society, civil religion's priestly role, can interfere with the prophetic mission of a religious faith. This has been the challenge religion faces upon entering the public sphere throughout all ages and cultures. At times of national crisis civil religion commonly renews itself by becoming a platform for rebuking the sins of a people or its institutions, and by calling on citizens to be true to the nation's deeper values.

The United States of America, while originally developing out of a group of British colonies, was settled in part by religious dissenters from the established Church of England, who desired a civil society founded on a different religious vision. Other religious traditions were strongly represented in areas eventually incorporated into the US (such as former Spanish, French, and Russian colonies and Mexican territory), through significant immigration of diverse populations, and the continual presence of indigenous Native American groups. Consequently, there has never been a national church in the United States and individual state churches have not existed in the United States since the early nineteenth century. Religious denominations compete with one another for allegiance in the public sphere. Secularism and agnosticism are also publicly legitimated and widespread. These facts have made public displays of religious piety by political leaders important to a large sector of the population; lacking an established church, they may seek public assurance of those leaders' religious beliefs or general sense of moral conviction.

This assertive civil religion of the United States is an occasional cause of political friction between the U.S. and its allies in Europe, where (the literally religious form of) civil religion is less extreme. In the United States, civil religion is often invoked under the name of "Judeo-Christian tradition", a phrase originally intended to be maximally inclusive of the several monotheisms practiced in the United States, assuming that these faiths all worship the same God and share the same values. This assumption tends to dilute the essence of both Judaism and Christianity; recognition of this fact, and the increasing religious diversity of the United States, make this phrase less heard now than it once was, though it is far from extinct. Some scholars have argued that the American flag can be seen as a main totem of a national cult.[8] Arguing against mob violence and lynching, Abraham Lincoln declared in his 1838 Lyceum speech that the Constitution and the laws of the United States ought to become the ‘political religion’ of each American.[9]


  1. ^ Bellah, Robert Neelly (Winter 1967). "Civil Religion in America". Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96 (1): 1–21. Archived from the original on 2005-03-06. 
  2. ^ Meyer-Dinkgrafe, Daniel (2004). European Culture in a Changing World: Between Nationalism and Globalism. Cambridge Scholars Press. ISBN 1-904303-33-1.  p. 30
  3. ^ Juergensmeyer, Mark (2003). Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24011-1.  p. 245
  4. ^ Shanks, Andrew (2000). God and Modernity: A New and Better Way to Do Theology. Routledge (UK). ISBN 0-415-22188-9.  p. 29
  5. ^ Gentile, Emilio: Politics as Religion (2006) Princeton University Press
  6. ^ O´Donovan, Oliver: The Desire of the Nations (1996) Cambridge University Press
  7. ^ Robert N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America", originally in Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Winter 1967, Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 1–21.
  8. ^ Marvin and Ingle (1996)
  9. ^ Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois January 27, 1838 [1]

See also


  • Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial (1992), Robert N. Bellah, University of Chicago Press ISBN 0-226-04199-9
  • A Nation of Behavers, Martin E. Marty (1976), U. Chicago, ISBN 0-226-50892-7
  • "International Civil Religion: Respecting Religious Diversity while Promoting International Cooperation" (2011), Amos Prosser Davis, U.C. Hastings International and Comparative Law Review; <>.

External links

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