American Civil Religion

I wrote a little piece on deism for a new BJU Press Bible textbook recently,

Deism believes there is a God, but that He hasn’t spoken to us. He is there, but He’s silent. We’re left discerning truth about him from nature. Deism, however, has no simple definition and no organization to speak of. There are no self-consciously “Deist” institutions, whether schools, publishing houses, government-lobbying groups, or think-tanks. Deists have a website (deism.com), but no physical headquarters.

One of our outside theological consultants who reviews my text suggested, somewhat saucily,

How about the U.S. government! 🙂

I laughed and then I thought, “He’s right.” So I added a little section on “civil religion,” an idea introduced into our national discourse by sociologist Robert Bellah back in a famous 1967 essay. To read what I wrote about the topic, you’ll have to buy the book when it comes out… But in my research I ran across a choice quote I thought I’d share. Richard V. Pierard in the Encyclopedia of Christianity says that “civil religion” is

the operative religion of a political community—the system of rituals, symbols, values, norms, and allegiances that determines its life, invests it with meaning and a destiny, and provides it with an overarching sense of spiritual unity that transcends all internal conflicts and differences.

Civil religion is a consensus of religious sentiments, concepts, and symbols that the state utilizes—either directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously—for its own political purposes. This general religious faith normally encompasses the entire society, but it does not necessarily compete with the particular faiths of sectarian or denominational groups, which can claim the allegiance of only a part of the populace. (In fact, the latter read into the civil religion whatever meaning they choose.)

(Emphasis mine.) If civil religion isn’t part of your mental equipment in political evaluation, it needs to be.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

3 thoughts on “American Civil Religion”

  1. I don’t know… the definition you quoted (“the system of rituals, symbols, values, norms, and allegiances that determines its life, invests it with meaning and a destiny, and provides it with an overarching sense of spiritual unity that transcends all internal conflicts and differences.”) sounds to me like “culture” correctly defined.

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