American Civil Religion

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American civil religion, also referred to as American civic religion, is a concept developed by Dr. Robert Bellah.

What is civil religion? The theory goes something like this: America does, in fact, have a national religion, but it’s more akin to Confucianism, a civic religion of a sort, than it is Christianity. Shinto, or Judaism, are also good points of reference, blurring the line between “culture” and “religion.”

In short, even looking for a clear line between “religion” and “culture” is sort of a Western thing. For many non-Westerners, their religion is simply a thing their people do providing a spiritual aspect. Shinto doesn’t have a Pope or even a singular set of beliefs. It’s just what the Japanese do when they’re “doing religion.”

Divine Natural Law, Natural Rights, and Other Mythologies

American values carry a sort of quasi- or pseudo-religious quality. Obvious examples include the sanctity of American institutions, freedom flowing from a higher power, and the divinely inspired nature of rights.

George Washington
An 1867 lithograph depicting George Washington as a child confessing to his father that it was he who cut down the cherry tree.

American civil religion also has a set of myths and legends that run the gamut from George Washington cutting down the cherry tree to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

America also has a public religion expressed by a vague belief in Judeo-Christian principles. This is best expressed by President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous, insightful and oft-misquoted “and I don’t care what it is.”

It’s an interesting and important concept, but not without legitimate criticism. The term “religion” is heavily loaded, bringing connotations of “the sleep of faith,” “religious fanaticism,” and “cults.” For a critical mass of Westerners, “religion” is too closely associated with abandonment of reason, brainwashing, and lockstep thinking.

Nothing like politics, of course.

Do All Cultures Have a Civil Religion?

Perhaps another factor is at work here. Maybe all cultures have a civic religion and that we can see conservatism as an attempt to preserve the religion as is, while liberalism is a sort of reform movement. Radicalism is an attempt to impose a new civil religion on the population.

Much of this comes down to how we choose to define the word “religion,” and thus is largely a matter of semantic games. Again, drawing a line between religion and culture is difficult and the line we draw is often blurry, even in the West. There is no “Irish Catholicism,” but there are lots of “Irish Catholics.”

But the core of the theory holds true: Communities have a set of shared values which they elevate to a semi-religious status in as much they are held largely without question and are attributed to some primary force, rather than the product of their collective creators.

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