Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Originating in the work of Rousseau, with echoes in Tocqueville, this concept made its major impact on the social scientific study of religion with the publication of an essay titled "Civil Religion in America," written by Robert Bellah in Daedalus in 1967. The article caused an almost unprecedented burst of excitement among sociologists and other scholars of religion. Soon the topic became the major focus at professional conferences in the social scientific study of religion, and numerous articles and books—most being conceptual and historical, some being empirically based—began to appear.

In social scientific usage, cultural institutions are usually matched by certain kinds of social groups. Religion, for example, is socially embodied in associations called churches, education in schools, the economy in businesses, and so on. Civil religion is unique in U.S. culture—and arguably in other cultures as well—in that it does not claim an identifiable social group short of the entire society itself.


The concept refers to a "transcendent universal religion of the nation" and resonates well with the functional sociology of Émile Durkheim and Bellah's mentor, Talcott Parsons. Indeed, it was Parsons who was originally intended to write the Daedalus article (Bellah 1989).

Bellah's article claimed that most Americans share common religious characteristics expressed through civil religious beliefs, symbols, and rituals that provide a religious dimension to the entirety of American life. Later, he adds that civil religious principles transcend the nation and represent a "higher standard" by which the nation should be judged (Bellah 1970:168, 1974:255). Therefore, civil religiosity is posited to be a common, if not socially integrative, set of beliefs in transcendent principles and reality against which the historical experience and actions of the nation should be evaluated.

Bellah's definition of American civil religion is that it is "an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation," which he sees symbolically expressed in America's founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called "God," an idea that the American nation is subject to God's laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. Bellah sees these beliefs in the values of liberty, justice, charity, and personal virtue and concretized in, for example, the words In God We Trust on both national emblems and on the currency used in daily economic transactions. Although American civil religion shares much with the religion of Judeo-Christian denominations, Bellah claims that it is distinct from denominational religion. Crucial to Bellah's Durkheimian emphasis is the claim that civil religion is definitionally an "objective social fact."

Although other American scholars had articulated civil religion types of ideas (for example, Martin Marty's "religion-in-general" [1959] and Sidney Mead's "religion of the republic" [1963]), the publication of Bellah's essay at the height of national soul-searching during the Vietnam War occasioned Bellah's place as a major interpreter of American religion in the second half of the twentieth century and caused an enormous and prolonged outpouring of scholarly activity. The nature and extent of this work may be examined best through the Russell Richey and Donald Jones anthology American Civil Religion (Harper 1974), a bibliographic essay by Phillip Hammond (1976), Gail Gehrig's monograph American Civil Religion: An Assessment (Society for the Scientific Study of Religion 1981), and James Mathisen's 20-year review essay (1989).

Finding Civil Religion

A subsequent "civil religion debate" began that focused on several interrelated issues at the heart of which, however, was a definitional question: In other words, what really qualified as both civil and religion in the concept? For example, W. Lloyd Warner (1961) had previously delineated a dynamic in the United States that he called Americanism : How did civil religion differ from this? Did people have to know they were civil religious to be civil religious? Was civil religion in America more than "an idolatrous worship of the American nation"? (see Mathisen 1989:130). Some general tendencies may be noted here.

First, there was a systematic critique of the concept of civil religion qua religion , principally from the historian John F. Wilson (e.g., 1979). This was partially offset, on the other hand, by a shift in Bellah's own work, wherein civil religion became an increasingly evaluative concept, as in his bicentennial volume The Broken Covenant (Seabury 1975). No doubt, the U.S. bicentennial provided a major impetus to civil religion discussion, so much so that Mathisen refers to the period 1974-1977 as the "Golden Age" of civil religion discussion.

Although the civil religion thesis claims that civil religion exists symbolically in American culture, such symbols must be perceived and believed by actual people if the symbols are to be said to have meaning. Several studies by Ronald Wimberley (1976) and others (Wimberley et al. 1976) developed statements on civil religious beliefs and obtained responses on them from various public samples. The findings show that people do affirm civil religious beliefs, although most would not know what the term civil religion means. Examples of civil religious beliefs are reflected in statements used in this research such as these: "America is God's chosen nation today." "Holidays like the Fourth of July are religious as well as patriotic." "A president's authority . . . is from God." "Social justice cannot only be based on laws; it must also come from religion." "God can be known through the experiences of the American people." These large surveys and factor analytic studies helped to give empirical credence to Bellah's conceptual argument that civil religion is a distinct cultural component within American society that is not captured either by American politics or by denominational religiosity.

Further research sought to determine the locus and incidence of civil religion in the population: "Who is civil religious?" (Christenson and Wimberley 1978). These studies found that, indeed, a wide cross section of citizens do share such civil religious beliefs. In general, however, college graduates and political or religious liberals appear to be somewhat less civil religious. People identifying with major Protestant denominations and Catholicism show similar levels of civil religiosity. Groups having denominational roots within the United States—Mormons, Adventists, and Pentecostalists—score the highest on an index used to measure civil religiosity, while Jews, Unitarians, and those with no religious preference tend to score the lowest. Despite individual variation on the measures, the "great majority" are found to share the types of civil religious beliefs Bellah suggested.

Still further research evidence suggests that civil religion plays a role in people's preferences for political candidates and policy positions. For example, Wimberley (1980) found that civil religious beliefs were more important than political party loyalties in predicting support for Nixon over McGovern among a sample of Sunday morning church attenders surveyed near the election date. The same was the case for a general representation of residents from the same community. In a statewide survey, Wimberley and Christenson (1982) found no social indicators to be especially strong in showing people's public policy preferences, but civil religiosity was second only to occupational status in predicting one's policy outlooks. Another analysis of these data shows that civil religious beliefs do not conflict with the principle of church and state separation (Wimberley and Christenson 1980).

Regrettably, there has not been a consistent, sustained attempt to measure the civil religious dimension in American culture through time or to determine its effects on, say, American politics through time. The reaction that greeted the original publication of Bellah's essay can hardly be detached from concern over the politics of Vietnam and its aftermath. The switching of attention in the study of the religion-and-politics area from civil religion to the "New Christian Right" that has been evident over the last two decades may obscure the role of civil religion in the processes of selective agenda successes and failures on the part of the Christian right as well as the secular left (see Williams and Alexander 1994). Not to be ignored either is John Murray Cuddihy's earlier, provocative work, No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste (Seabury 1978), wherein the case is made that civil religion constitutes a set of platitudes that substitute for either serious religious or serious political action.

The Larger Scene

Various studies—some quantitative but more of them qualitative—attempted to test the civil religion hypothesis cross-nationally. These studies were largely uncoordinated; hence their effects are difficult to assess. Some took the view that because civil religion in the Durkheimian perspective is an "objective social fact," then every nation should have some form of civil religion; therefore any particular nation's civil religion should be able to be detailed by an observant social scientist. Others took the point of view that "civil religion in America" might be a unique phenomenon, hence comparative studies should show how other societies are or are not like the United States, and hence do or do not have a civil religious component. Particular interest focused on the Canadian case—why it seemed as though Canada lacked a civil religion, and whether or not, if it lacked a civil religion, Canada were a "true" nation. Relatively little attention in these cross-national studies as a whole, on the other hand, was paid to the French intellectual tradition out of which the civil religion concept emerged.

The civil religious inquiry has also spawned a number of related concepts as more or less direct responses to civil religion. These include civic religion, diffused religion, and implicit religion, among others. In this context, the publication of the English translation of Thomas Luckmann's book The Invisible Religion (Macmillan 1967) in the same year as Bellah's essay is not an insignificant coincidence. Both works received considerable attention, and they provided fertile soil for the growth of an extensive conceptual apparatus for studying religion in contemporary society and culture. The two works also provide new frameworks for the classical sociological debate over public versus private religion.

By the mid-1980s, the concept of civil religion itself had become institutionalized within social scientific and other scholarly work. Bellah himself consciously chose to drop the use of the term in his magisterial collaborative assessment of American public morality and American individualism Habits of the Heart (University of California Press 1985; see Bellah 1989). But recent publications indicate that the wind has not gone from civil religion's sails (see Linder 1996, Marvin and Ingle 1996). There now seems to be a firm consensus among social scientists that there is a component of Americanism that is especially religious in nature, which may be termed civil religion , but that, at the same time, this component is markedly less in its significance than the "transcendent universal religion of the nation" that late-eighteenth-century French intellectuals envisioned.

Overall, the available social scientific research finds that civil religious beliefs do exist in people's minds in the United States, that these beliefs are widely shared and provide a basis for pluralistic social integration across the society, and that civil religious beliefs may be a relatively important factor in making a difference in public preferences for presidential candidates and social policies.

See also Robert N. Bellah, Public Religion

Ronald C. Wimberley and William H. Swatos, Jr .


R. N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America," Daedalus 96 (1967):1-21

R. N. Bellah, Beyond Belief (New York: Harper, 1970)

R. N. Bellah, "American Civil Religion," in American Civil Religion , ed. R. E. Richey and D. G. Jones (New York: Harper, 1974): 255-272

R. N. Bellah, "Comment," Sociological Analysis 50(1989):147

J. A. Christenson and R. C. Wimberley, "Who Is Civil Religious?" Sociological Analysis 39(1978):77-83

P. E. Hammond, "The Sociology of American Civil Religion," Sociological Analysis 37(1976):169-182

R. D. Linder, "Universal Pastor," Journal of Church and State 38(1996):733-749

M. E. Marty, The New Shape of American Religion (New York: Harper, 1959)

C. Marvin and D. W. Ingle, "Blood Sacrifice and the Nation," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64(1996):767-780

J. A. Mathisen, "Twenty Years After Bellah," Sociological Analysis 50(1989):129-146

S. E. Mead, The Lively Experiment (New York: Harper, 1963)

W. L. Warner, The Family of God (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961)

R. H. Williams and S. M. Alexander, "Religious Rhetoric in American Populism," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33(1994):1-15

J. F. Wilson, Public Religion in American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979)

R. C. Wimberley, "Testing the Civil Religion Hypothesis," Sociological Analysis 37(1976):341-352

R. C. Wimberley, "Civil Religion and the Choice for President," Social Forces 59 (1980):44-61

R. C. Wimberley and J. A. Christenson, "Civil Religion and Church and State," Sociological Quarterly 21(1980):35-40

R. C. Wimberley and J. A. Christenson, "Civil Religion, Social Indicators, and Public Policy," Social Indicators Research 10(1982):211-213

R. C. Wimberley et al., "The Civil Religious Dimension," Social Forces 54(1976):890-900.

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