What is Civil Religion?
Civil Religion and American Civil Religion Explained
“Civil Religion” is the civic “religion” of a nation. It doesn’t describe the theological religion of a nation, but rather a quasi-religious shared identity built around national symbolism and customs.
In other words, civil religion describes the symbolism and customs that bind a nation together and give it an identity (for example in America: the Statue of Liberty, Constitution, Founders, National Anthem, ideals of Liberty and Justice, etc).
These things of the state are almost religious in nature, Jefferson like a profit, the Constitution like the Commandments, the National Anthem like a hymn, the statue of Liberty like the Christian cross, the pledge like a daily prayer, etc, hence the term “civil” “religion.”
With that in mind, using the term more broadly and speaking loosely, one might say that anytime two or more people share an identity related to any sort of symbolism related to culture within a state, they are participating in a Civil Religion of sorts (not a national civil religion, but a sort of sub-national offshoot of this).
So a town can have its own civil religion (Punxsutawney Phil is part of the civil religion of Punxsutawney Pennsylvania for example), a political party for sure has its own Civil religion (Republicans deify Reagan, Democrats deify JFK), or neighbors on a block can share in their own sort of cultural identity lifted to the status of civil religion, or a state as a whole can, etc.
The concept, of a civic religion binding people, more than the specifics of the size and qualities of the state, are what matter here.
In a totalitarian state, all people may be required to share a civil religion, but in free states people must be inspired to embrace a civil religion and may hold more than one civil religion (sharing a national civil religion with all, but sharing specific civil religions with only some).
For example, in America, most would identify with essential Americanism like liberty, but otherwise people may identify with a unique mix of specific theologies, brands, political parties, political ideologies, music types, etc. Here, all these identities are each (speaking loosely and drawing meaning from the concept of a national civil religion) a type of civil religion and all combined they also form their own type of civil religion and create their own in-groups (for example, center left punk rock libertarians who wouldn’t vote for Johnson).
In all cases, speaking broadly:
symbols + shared identity in a state = “civil religion”
FACT: This concept was first properly discussed in name in The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was later popularized in Civil Religion in America by Robert N. Bellah. In both cases the focus is on a national identity, and not sub-national identities. That said, in my opinion the phenomena clearly occurs on many different levels of society, and thus I can’t see limiting the term to nations or to one nation like the United States.
NOTE: In states without an official national religion, like China, at times the Civil Religion of the state can actually take its place. Consider, in Iran, Islam is the national religion (and of this there are two sub-national groups, Sunni and Shi’)… but in World War II Germany, the German Civil Religion as dicated by the NAZI party was the region of the state essentially).
TIP: Sharing an identity is great for binding a people together, but it by its nature creates in-groups and out-groups. This can cause tension with groups who share different civil religions within a state, for example Democrats and Republicans and it can cause tension between groups like non-immigrants and recent immigrants. Rousseau believed that civil religion and theological religion were important in ensuring unity within a country. As for example, it is hard to inspire an army to fight if they don’t have a strong sense of what they are fighting for (defense of an in-group, defense of an ideology, defense of a theological force) and which out-group they are fighting against (against an out-group, against an another ideology, against an other theological force).
The Importance of Civil Religion in the Western State
As one might have already gleaned from the above, the concept of Civil Religion is at the heart of the original purpose of religion, at the heart of militaries, at the heart of WW2, at the heart of nations, and honestly is one of the most important and powerful concepts in the English language.
In America our civil religion is liberalism, republicanism, democracy, enlightenment, truth, justice, and liberty for all… and don’t you forget it.
Really, don’t forget it, the main tactic of extremist groups like communists and fascists is to sell you an extreme and divisive civil religion based on opposition and making out-groups out of those one should share identity with.
In fact, I would say, the main problem today in our society is people have forgotten America’s “true civil religion” as laid down by the enlightenment philosophers and founders. We still are bound by the symbolism, but with all the political division and polarization we have drifted away form the shared identity which is necessary to ensure the continued existence of our citizens, branches, and other aspects of our culture and government.
I could go on about this, but I’ll save that for an other essay.
Below we explain Civil Religion (the national iconography, ritual, ideology, traditions, and symbolism of a state) by looking at the symbols of American Civil Religion (like the National Anthem, Lady Liberty, ideologies like liberalism and capitalism, and other Americana), at past Civil Religions (like Athena in Athens, and Athenian Democracy, or for the Spartans Lycurgus of Sparta, their principles of austerity and equality, and their and Laconic wit), and at Rousseau’s original concept of Civic Religion.
TIP: The concept is closely related to identity politics, identity politics describes the politics of identifying with things. So that includes identifying with a civil religion and all the symbols of that religion.
An Introduction to the Concept of Civil Religion
The specific meaning of Civil Religion (or Civic religion) is Rousseau’s idea of national symbolism as a state religion of sorts. It is a comment on the true nature and purpose of Greek Gods like Athena in forming a state identity (so it is about “religion”, but not just a purely faith based religion).
More broadly, “civil religion” can be thought of as a symbol or set of symbols that people create a religion of any sort around.
If people identify with a genre, a label, an idea, a quote, a concept, a political party, a movie etc, what arises from that “worship” is a sort of civil religion.
Identity politics is all about creating, speaking very loosely, a civil religion. It is all about a symbol or set of symbols that connect people indirectly through the symbol giving them a sense of shared purpose and identity.
Everyone’s least favorite WWII “civil religions” (Fascism and Communism) knew this well. Think about how propaganda works! The whole idea of those populist radical movements, especially fascism, was to create a Civil Religion.
With that said, the concept isn’t good or bad on its own, it is a neutral thing that is powerful. Good in the right hands (like America in general), bad in the wrong hands (like the authoritarian statists of WWII).Civic Ronald Beiner on Civil Religion.
FACT: The [unofficial] national anthem of the U.S. used to be Hail, Columbia! The national icon used to be Lady Columbia. Both reference Christopher Columbus.
TIP: Anyone who reads Rousseau’s Social Contract carefully is sure to be struck by his concept of Civic Religion. This most certainly included sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967 who popularized the concept of American Civil Religion in his article, “Civil Religion in America.”Professor Robert Bellah Part 1. Professor Robert Bellah and Professor Mark Juergensmeyer discuss religion and secularism in the context of the 21st Century.
What is Civil Religion? What is Civic Religion?
Speaking of Rousseau’s term specifically, Civil religion describes faith within a state meant to promote specific political values (it is a religion of the civil state, not a divine religion per-say, but it can include this).
The dogmas of civil religion ought to be simple: they should affirm the afterlife, a God with divine perfection, the notion that the just will be happy and the wicked punished, and the sanctity of the social contract and the polity’s laws. – Rousseau
The concept of Civil Region was first coined by Rousseau in 1750 to describe the value of religion and national emblems within a state in terms of uniting the state and reinforcing its culture.
Rousseau stated that religion was largely practical in nature, and this is vital for any thinker to understand. Religion isn’t just about faith and spirituality, it is about an invisible glue that binds together a people.
Civil Religion, which Rousseau calls Civic Religion in a chapter dedicated to this in his book Social Contract -Book 4 Chapter 8, describes the origin of religion as a tool of the state and its related emblems of worship in terms of their moral and ethical symbolism. His concept was that before men would follow laws, they would follow gods.
At first, men had no kings except the gods and no government except theocracy. They reasoned like Caligula—·a Roman emperor who thought he was a god·—and at that period the reasoning was correct. Men’s thoughts and feelings have to go through a long period of change before they can bring themselves to take their equals as masters and to expect to profit by doing so. – Rousseau
This aspect of religion is useful for binding the people of a nation together based on nationalism, pride, morality, and ethics (rather than by force). Religion united the old nations and made them unique. It also lent itself to war, as no two value sets were the same, even if they were similar. We can see similarities in the British Britannia, the Italian Italia Turrita, the ancient Roman Libertas, the French Marianne, the Athenian Athena, or the American Lady Liberty and Lady Columbia (the Goddesses of Liberty). However, they each have subtle national differences.
Of course, though, with every people creating its own god, there were as many gods as there were people in the old days.
As if Moloch, Saturn, and Chronos could be the same god! As if the Phoenician Baal, the Greek Zeus, and the Latin Jupiter could be the same! As if there could be any common residue in imaginary beings with different names!
Rousseau wasn’t saying this to denigrate religion. He did not say that the prohibitions against shellfish and pork were an old version of a WHO press release or that the Ten Commandments were similar to basic social laws or a Bill of Rights. He said this to make us realize the importance of religion in the state and understand how different religions do or don’t work well with the state and to make us see the importance of non-religious faiths like those in America.
…there’s [also] a purely civil profession of faith, the content of which should be fixed by the sovereign—not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments that are needed for to be a good citizen and a faithful subject. – Rousseau
If we take this concept further, we can see how people and groups create identities from a set of symbols, giving them an civil religion with little-to-no nationalistic purpose. Understanding this concept, and then running with that to see how it fits into other areas (like branding a company) helps to expand the concept into a less divisive and more useful one.
NOTE: To be clear, Civil Religion isn’t a statement on putting identity before faith, it is a statement about shared faith in non-religious symbolism. The term religion is really used “symbolically” here.Prof. Philip Gorski: Civil Religion.
TIP: A central concept here is the danger in the purely civil faith and the divine faith having conflicting dogmas. Is it useful to have an army put God before the state? What should we make of an army full of those who think the only true reward comes after death? Don’t we want to incentivize winning and survival in a war?
American Civil Religion
In America, when we pledge our allegiance to the flag or sing the National Anthem, we are practicing the non-religious kind of American Civil Religion.
Likewise, the national personifications Lady Liberty (or formerly Lady Columbia) in America and the Bald Eagle symbolize our values. We can even see the founders and documents like the Constitution and Bill of Rights as aspects of Civil Religion. We can see Lincoln, Kennedy, or the Rebel Flag and Robert E. Lee this way as well. The North and South and Republicans and Democrats are emblems and symbols of our values. Each region has its own deities and zealots of sorts.
When we tell a police officer we invoke our 5th amendment rights, speak freely citing freedom of speech and the 1st amendment, carry a gun citing the 2nd amendment, we are quoting the American Bible so to speak. When we start and end an argument by saying Jefferson once said, or Madison once said, or Washington once said, we are preaching American gospel.
When you consider the pioneering spirit, intense individualism, the love of liberty and capitalism, and other facets of Americanism, you can see how our civil religion reinforces the values of the state. When you think about our freedom of religion and religious tolerance, you realize that this is a core aspect of Americanism that acts as a substitute for a state-enforced religion. This is only one of many reasons why America isn’t, and is well suited not being, a Christian nation (not that there isn’t a Christian aspect to our Civil Religion for many, there is, it is only that religious liberty comes first).Civic Religion. Mr. Smith experiences Civil Religion on his trip to Washington. It is inspiring and helps imbue him with American principles and values. This is Civil Religion in action. Hail Columbia! Liberty and Justice for all, amen.
TIP: This list of national symbols of the U.S., as featured on Wikipedia, is a non-exhaustive list of symbols that are emblematic of American Civil Religion. I would also include the founders, key wars, liberty bonds, apple pie, and more, but again the list is non-exhaustive and meant as an example.
TIP: Civil religion is, in my mind, a naturally arising system. James Madison is revered due to his character and impact on America. The same is true for Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. America values individualism and heroes. Thus, we get many icons around which to form our Civil Religion. Our heroes perpetuate the values that created those icons in the first place.
William Jennings Bryan was one such icon. Do you see Lady Columbia chopping off the arms of the octopus? Does the imagery follow history, or does it speak something inherent in the human condition? That is the question.
Thoughts and Opinions on Civil Religion to Illustrate its Importance
Civil Religion is the glue that binds a people together, especially in a nation where there is no state religion. Without a binding force there are factions. When there are factions there is tension. This tension can be good if kept within the bounds of reason, but when factions war, it chips away at the binding force and causes disharmony. One could point to the major political parties in the U.S., especially in the Civil War era, as an example (but the concept is meant to be understood generally).
Therefore, speaking in metaphor: If the father and mother both try to sell their child a different ideology, and if those ideologies conflict, that can be confusing for the child… but that is OK, it forces the child to reason and think critically (making its own choices).
However, if the mother and father start lying to the child, indoctrinating them with half truths, telling them the other parent is the enemy (something they have perhaps come to believe themselves), then this schizophrenic state can be a little “counter productive” (to say the least).
Zeus says “stop”, no Athena says “go,” Hermes says “down is up,” but Pluto says all who think “down is up” are trying to destroy the country; it is confusing to have the Gods in conflict in a single state.
In other words, when our civil religion is that of propaganda and not enlightenment principles, or worse when the citizens are given no clear identity to bind them (and are told that in an A/B choice there is only one answer), they start to abandon the whole mess and look for identity in things like brands (via consumerism) and in fringe religions (like fascism and communism).
Meanwhile, when a state has clear justifiable principles and unity as an overarching binding force, the overarching national pride makes moving as a single unit that much easier (for better or for worse, every authoritative nationalist knows this). It is in this way a single Civil Religion and national identity binds a nation together (and likewise, the exclusion of some groups in a nation tears the nation apart).
When a liberal in a liberal state turns to fringe talking points, it is essentially, a failure of the state.
It is like a military who offers no direction, values, duty, or honor, or a gang with no colors or rule-set. It is like a military who can’t agree on which direction to march so it splits its ranks and wastes time arguing.
Dividing ones own people into many factions, and pushing the idea that other factions should be rejected, is on some level not just a bad policy, it is irresponsible parenting.