If you’re celebrating the Fourth of July holiday this week, you may find yourself with your hand over your heart as the national anthem is played. Perhaps a patriotic parade will march through your neighborhood. Maybe you will end the evening relaxing on a picnic blanket, watching a firework show and celebrating America.
Between fireworks, grilling out and patriotic tunes on the radio, you’ll probably find yourself participating in civil religion this week.
“What?” you may ask, “I’m participating in civil religion?”
Even though the first amendment demands that congress should make “no law respecting an establishment of religion,” United States citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation, almost universally participate in civil religion.
One cannot study the concept of civil religion without getting to know Robert Bellah, an America sociologist. In his 1967 article, “Civil Religion in America,” Bellah elaborated on a principle originally introduced by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who had written on the concept of civil religion and its importance in establishing a unified national identity.
Bellah writes, “While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of ‘The American Way of Life,’ few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.”
Civil religion is much more than just a potpourri of politics and religious practices, and it isn’t just extreme patriotism (that would be nationalism). Instead, Bellah describes civil religion as a “shared reverence for sacred symbols drawn from a nation’s history.” Civil religion goes beyond patriotism because it acknowledges the presence of not just a love of a country but also a higher being.
This civil religion can be traced all the way back to the founding of America. George Washington spoke of “that Almighty Being” in his 1789 inaugural address. Lincoln mentions the “providence of God” in his second inaugural address. Kennedy asks God’s “blessing and His help” in his inaugural address in 1961. Countless politicians have ended speeches with the phrase “God bless America,” regardless of which side of the aisle they sit on and where they worship on Sunday morning.
Most recently, Trump invoked God during his own 2017 inaugural address, saying, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity.”
American civil religion boasts of prophets (George Washington), martyrs (Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy), sacred temples (the Lincoln memorial, the Washington monument and the Thomas Jefferson memorial), sacred documents (The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution), and even songs (The Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, and America the Beautiful).
Without too much trouble, you can find American flags proudly displayed in public spaces and in private homes. Schools take breaks for national holidays like President’s Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Most of grew up reciting a pledge to the star spangled flag.
These historical figures, practices and artifacts inspire a patriotic love of America and an emotional link to the nation’s history.
Civil religion can even be found on our currency – Since 1983, “In God We Trust”, the official motto of the United States, is emblazoned on all US coinage.
But in whose God do we trust? The God of Christianity? Judaism? Islam? Baha’i? Buddhism? . Our melting pot nation contains a large mix of religious beliefs and backgrounds. American civil religion applies to all citizens of the United States
Therein lies the reality of civil religion – it is not a substitute for traditional religion at all. Instead, it carefully selects aspects of traditional religious practices so that the average American citizen (regardless of his or her personal religious affiliation) sees no conflict between the practice of civil religion and his or her own privately held religious beliefs.
Bellah writes, “What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion-there seems no other word for it-while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.”
President Dwight Eisenhower is known for his statement: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith – and I don’t care what it is.”
Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy and countless other presidents refer to a higher being in their famous speeches. Yet the deity they refer to is ambiguous and not tied to any specific religion or denomination. Washington does not mention where he worships on Sunday morning. Lincoln does not mention his Baptist upbringing. Kennedy strategically left out any mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, or anything that would associate him with his personally held (although not personally practiced) Catholic beliefs.
Yet, despite its vagueness, American civil religion is not a bad thing overall. It fosters a sense of togetherness for American citizens, reminds us that there is something greater than ourselves, and establishes a sense of order and tradition. Calling upon a higher figure has value in American history and especially in today’s political turmoil.
It is okay to participate in civil religion this Fourth of July week – but don’t forget that you’re a practicing Catholic. The God we worship as Catholics is unambiguous and truly present on the altar every time the Mass is celebrated. In the Catholic Church, we find a deeper and stronger faith, truth and hope than American civil religion can never offer.
Chloe Langr is a very short stay-at-home-wife, whose growth has probably been stunted by the inhumane amounts of coffee she regularly consumes. She recently graduated with a degree in history from Washburn University. When she is not buried in a growing stack of books, she can be found spending time with her husband and Wilson (their rabbit), geeking out over Theology of the Body, or podcasting. A regular contributor to Aleteia and Epic Pew, you can also find more about her work on her blog, Old Fashioned Girl