Robert Bellah introduced the concept of civil religion to sociological debates surrounding the role and function of religion in society in the early 1960s. One of his best known works is his 1967 journal article ‘Civil Religion in America‘.
Robert Bellah argued that ‘civil religions’ had become the main type of religions in the 20th century, as mainstream, traditional religions declined. Civil religions effectively performing many of the same functions of ‘traditional religions’, just without the concept of a god or higher power.
He defined ‘civil religion’ as any belief system which didn’t rely on a conception of a God, or gods, but which still inspired a passionate mass response with members displaying a high degree of commitment to that belief system.
Historical examples of belief systems which might be regarded as ‘civil religions’ include Nazism, and other forms of nationalism, and at a more international level, Marxism. Such movements provided their adherents with an idea of the ‘true path’ to a ‘better life’, to be achieved through obeying certain moral codes as well as a degree of commitment to charismatic leaders. These movements also had plentiful symbols and rituals to generate a sense of shared identity.
Bellah argues that ‘Americanism’ is the civil religion of America. The civil religion of Americanism stresses a commitment to the ‘American way’: a belief in the ‘free market’ and a drive to make the most of available opportunities. It also emphasizes a commitment to God, but that God is an American first, rather than a Catholic, Jew or Muslim, and he welcomes everyone from all backgrounds who are willing accept commitment to the American dream.
According to Bellah, the American Civil Religion unites people across all sexes, classes and ethnic backgrounds.
It is possible to see expressions of the American Civil Religion in many aspects of American life:
- Most obviously is the daily ‘pledging allegiance to the flag of America that children do in schools.
- We see it in yearly rituals such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
- The national anthem being sung at the beginning of various sporting events, most notably the Super Bowl.
- Numerous Presidential speeches and address praise America, with the phrase ‘God Bless America’ featuring frequently.
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Are national sporting events manifestations of a civil religion?
Bellah argues that civil religion developed especially strongly in America because it is a relatively new nation, based on immigration from multiple countries. A civil religion which emphasizes both a belief in God, but with that God coming second to the idea of America itself, has served to quickly unite people with diverse beliefs into one nation under God.
Criticisms of the concept of civil religion
- It is quite a loose concept in that it is possible to interpret any nationalistic activity as being part of a ‘civil religion’.
- It is unlikely that people taking part in watching sporting events, or even ‘pledging allegiance’ to the flag are as committed in their belief in America as traditionally religious people are to their religions.
- To criticise Bellah’s concept of Americanism specifically it is clear that not all Americans have been united equally into the American nation. American Muslims have experienced particularly high levels of ostracism since September 11th for example.