America and Religion – Two Streams, Part I: American Civil Religion

On January 20th, the world witnessed the inauguration of the 45th President of the Unites States. American flags were waving! The Star-Spangled Banner sung! And as is the normal custom when a newly elected President is sworn in, the President-elect swore to preserve, protect, and defend the U.S. Constitution.

From Sunday to Sunday, American Christians continue to gather in churches all across the Union to worship the risen Lord Jesus Christ. If you are familiar with American society, especially the South, you will know that there is no short supply of churches.

What I am arguing in this blog are “two streams” of religion in American society. One stream is the “Religion of the Republic”,[1] “American civil religion” as it has been called which weds God and nation together.[2] The other stream is Christianity.[3] Any attempt to understand American religious history – and perhaps American history as a whole – is incomplete without some understanding of the place of these two streams within American society. Their impact is monumental. Now I am well aware that there are several traditions in the United States including Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. This particular blog will focus on the two predominant streams in American history, American civil “religion” and Christianity. In Part I of this short blog series, we will look at the former, America civil religion. Next time we will look at Christianity.

Now, a “heads up” is needed here: This blog has nothing to do with partisan politics. Nor is it about the results of the most recent Presidential election. Nor is it about Republicans vs. Democrats. And it is certainly not a blanket endorsement of all American actions and policies. This must be kept in mind as we proceed. This blog is about American religious history (which, for me personally, is far more interesting than partisan politics). One other “heads up”: This blog is somewhat longer than my blogs usually are. Nevertheless, I encourage you to read it in its entirety, even if you have to do so in bits and pieces.

What is American Civil Religion? 

Scholars have debated the existence of this thing called “American civil religion,” and what it means since 1967.[4] Sociologist Robert Bellah proposed its existence in 1967 in an insightful article called “Civil Religion in America.”[5] In my opinion, there is much validity to Bellah’s proposal regarding the existence of an American civil religion, and others have picked up on his observation. What is civil religion? According to Stephen Prothero, it is the notion that there is a religion of the nation, a God of the nation that in the context of American civil religion, presumably all Americans can worship.[6] This understanding of God conflicts with the revelation of the true God in the Bible who is revealed uniquely in Jesus Christ, and approached only through Jesus Christ.

American civil religion is not to be identified with any one world religion such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. It is a religion of the nation. In the case of the United States, it is American civil religion. It has its own symbols, beliefs, myths, rituals, ceremonies, days of thanksgiving, and days of remembrance.[7] It is perhaps best explained using examples related to American history that all would recognize: It’s “scripture” would be documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.[8] It’s “heroes of the faith” would be men like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr.[9] It has “holy days” such as July 4th – Independence Day![10] Its hymns include songs like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.”[11] According to Peter Gardella’s explanation of the meaning of “religion,” it appears possible that American civil religion may not absolutely require a divine or supernatural element, but does include certain values that hold it together: political democracy, world peace, cultural tolerance, and personal liberty.[12] And according to Robert Bellah, the inauguration of an American president is a key ceremonial event in the American civil religion.[13] It reiterates the religious legitimation of America’s chief political authority.[14]

American civil religion is perhaps better understood in contrast to the religion and political set up of the Old World from which America was born out of. Unlike Britain, which America’s Founding Fathers declared independence from, the new nation was not to be governed by a King, nor was it to have one State religion (such as what Britain has in the Church of England). There was to be no “Church of America”. A monarch would not govern America, but rather the people through their elected representatives. Also, there was to be no Pope or religious leader similar to a Pope. People would be free to worship as their conscience dictated. Thus, there was no crown to unite the nation, and no creed to unite its worship. Rather than have a national church, the United States developed a civil religion.

It is this “religion” that we see expressed in events like the inauguration of an American President. It is not Christianity, but a religion of the nation. This “religion” of the nation sees the American cause, its symbols, its anthem, and its historical documents as points of unity. It understands America to be “one nation under God”, but not necessarily God as revealed in the Bible. There are common components of religious orientation that many Americans share that have played a significant role in the development of American institutions and also provide a religious aspect to American life, including the political realm.[15] This public religious dimension to American life – again, not to be equated with any one faith such as Christianity or Judaism – is expressed as a set of symbols, rituals, and beliefs – American civil religion.[16] This civil religion is the attempt to bind together the American ideal to the divine, giving its symbols (such as the flag), it’s anthems (such as the star-spangled banner), its documents (such as the Declaration of Independence) a religious fervor and a providential aspect to them.

Deism and the Founding Fathers

It is the acts and words of America’s Founding Fathers that shaped the tone and form of American civil religion as it has been preserved since then.[17] Robert Bellah notes that to his best knowledge, the phrase “civil religion” was never used by the Founding Fathers, though similar ideas were found among 18th century Americans. Several of the Founding Fathers were not Christians but rather Deists, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.[18] This is very important. It is not accurate to say that the Founding Fathers sought out to establish a decidedly Christian nation. They did not. Several of the Founding Fathers were also Freemasons, a fraternal order that affirms the existence of one supreme God. However, the Masonic understanding of God is closer to the deistic view of God than it is to what the Bible actually reveals about the true God Himself!

Deists had reduced what was “essential” to religion to an affirmation of the following five things: that God exists, that He is to be worshipped, that practicing virtue is the true worship of God, that people must repent of wrong deeds, and that there are future punishments and rewards.[19] Notice the complete absence of any reference to God’s current, personal, and relational interactions with humanity; Jesus Christ; atonement; redemption through the work of Jesus Christ; or the universal lordship of Jesus Christ. Deism is not Christianity. American deists added to these five elements a belief in God as an overriding and governing providence who determines and steers the destinies of nations.[20]

Deism was related to the rationalistic tendencies of the Enlightenment.[21] Deists rejected dependence on Biblical revelation,[22] which of course discloses that God is revealed uniquely in Jesus Christ. Instead, they appealed only to unaided natural reason.[23] Deists were rationalistic. They rejected divine revelation, and instead endorsed natural reason and rationalism, hallmarks of the Enlightenment, an 18th century intellectual movement which included ideas that were centered on reason as the primary source of legitimacy and authority.[24] We can see from this that the civil religion that would develop in America would be one closely associated with rationality and reason as opposed to Biblical revelation. This “natural religion” would be available to all through “natural reason”.[25]

American Exceptionalism, Liberty, and a Sense of Mission

This notion of self-betterment through reason and rationality is related to one critical aspect of American civil religion that actually has a counterpart in American Christianity that we’ll briefly consider next time: the idea that America had a divinely given purpose in the world. It is at this point that we need to introduce what is known as American Exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is the idea that America is an exception[26] relative to other nations. The exception pertains to America’s self-assumed character as a bearer of liberty and freedom, and a sense of moral superiority over the Old World[27] which often featured the tyrannical rule of a despot. According to Seymour Martin Lipset, the idea of America can be described in five terms: Equality, Freedom, Populism, Individualism and laissez-faire (non-interventionist).[28]

The Deistic idea that God determines and directs the destinies of nations comes into play here. America was understood to be a providential undertaking in the practice and preservation of liberty, freedom, equality, democracy, etc. Such an undertaking stood in stark contrast to the despotism and tyranny that often occurred in Old World Europe. This grand, national experiment in liberty and freedom was to also have a sort of “redemptive” influence on the rest of the world. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others asserted that the United States had been born as a design of providence.[29] The purpose was for the enlightening of the ignorant and the freeing of the servile part of mankind all over the earth.[30] Here again we see civil religion. In this case, it is the mission of America. Corrigan and Hudson identify two versions of America’s mission. The first version stressed the function of America as a “light to the nations, using its example and the power of its attraction in conveying the liberation of mankind.[31] The later version of America’s mission focused on America’s role as the “liberator of the oppressed.”[32] One has to wonder if the motivation behind America’s intent to spread democracy in recent times – particularly to the Middle East – is not rooted in this civil “religious” sense of mission.

The idea of America and liberty is clearly demonstrated in New York City. The official name of the Statue of Liberty is “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Here we not only see the attention given to liberty itself, but also to the American sense of mission. Referred to as the “Goddess of Liberty” by Peter Gardella,[33] the statue is obviously not a Christian symbol, but represents the American civil religion and the idea of liberty that characterizes it. Gardella notes that the statue represents the oldest value of the America civil religion – individual liberty.[34] It also represents the newest value of the American civil religion – multicultural tolerance.[35]

The “Deification” of George Washington

Civil religion is also clearly seen in the U.S. Capitol, where there is a painting inside the Capitol dome called The Apotheosis of Washington. “Apotheosis” means “deification” – becoming a deity. The painting depicts the deification of George Washington. This is clearly not a Christian concept, but is a great example of the religious tone associated with certain elements of American civil society.

Some Mottos and The New Order of the Ages
There are mottos on American money that seem to associate the American enterprise with both the divine, and having a unique position in history. One motto, located on the one-dollar bill, is the Latin Phrase, ANNUIT COEPITS which means He/She/It has favored the beginnings/undertakings, and which in this context indicates that what began in 1776 – the year America was born as a nation – is favoured by the powers that exist,[36] the powers apparently referring to divine powers.[37] This motto is taken from words written by Virgil, a Roman poet, in his poem Aeneid where a prayer is made to the pagan Roman god Jupiter asking for help in a daring enterprise.[38] There is also the motto “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill. According to Peter Gardella, the symbols of American currency imply that the God referenced by the dollar bill is a “god” like the pagan Roman deity Jupiter, not the Lord Jesus Christ.[39]

The U.S. One Dollar Bill also features an eye in a triangle over an unfinished pyramid. The eye refers to God, but not the God of Christianity or Judaism.[40] The eye is a notable symbol of God for Freemasons.[41] The Masonic society rose to prominence among American elites.[42] George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others were Masons. The Latin phrase underneath the unfinished pyramid NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM means “A new order of the ages.” This motto also derives from Virgil, who wrote this motto in celebration of the start of a new order with the Roman Emperor Augustus.[43] It was Charles Thompson who added this motto to the Great Seal of the United States just underneath the base of the unfinished pyramid which has inscribed on it the Roman numerals MDCCLXXVI (which means “1776”).[44] In doing so, Thompson stated a claim that in 1776, a new era of history had begun – “year one” of a Messianic age.[45] According to David Ovason, Charles Thompson believed that the American civilization would ultimately create a new world order.[46] Two things are apparent in this: 1. American civil religion – the blending of the nation with the divine, and 2. the idea of America having a distinct historical place in what was believed to be the start of a “Messianic age.”

The idea of an American mission related to liberty and freedom was clearly apparent in President George W. Bush’s 2005 inauguration speech. He also identified the NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM – the “new order of the ages” as “an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled.” One cannot assess Bush’s own religious convictions solely based on the quote that follows, as some of these American ideals can be shared by people of various religious beliefs. Yet the quote is fascinating in light of what we have discussed above. Bush said the following:

We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom, not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability—it is human choices that move events; not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation—God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages, when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty, when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now,” they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty. 

When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said, “It rang as if it meant something.” In our time, it means something still. America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength, tested but not weary, we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom. 

May God bless you, and may He watch over the United States of America.[47]

Concluding Thoughts on American Civil Religion

One important point should be made here which we will return to next time. American civil religion is not to be understood as something that is deliberately set up in competition with more traditional religions in American society such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. The very idea of American liberty includes the freedom of worship for all. There are values associated with American civil religion that are also embraced by Christians: individual freedom, freeing the oppressed, liberty, the right to worship God as one so chooses without having to fear persecution; all of these things are values that Christians would affirm, and that all should affirm! This may partly explain why Christianity and civil religion – completely incompatible with each other with respect to the identity of God and the nature of salvation – have co-existed in American society as two distinct religious streams. On some points, they converge. On others, they diverge. The Founding Fathers intended that America would consist of a separation of Church and State. No national church would exist. What has instead developed is a civil religion – an American civil religion with a distinct American ethos. Americans of all faiths can fly the flag. All can sing the anthem. American patriotism transcends religious boundaries.

That being said, it is important to conclude this blog by pointing out something that you may have already picked up on. One major flaw with American civil religion when tied to a deistic “god” is that at its core it embraces a false “god”. Associated with it is not the one true God who is revealed in the Bible, and who is revealed incarnate in Jesus Christ, but a substitute “deity.” Furthermore, when presented in distinctly religious tones, American civil religion represents an attempt to bind secular civil institutions to God. This is both unbiblical and dangerous. Again, the problem here is not American patriotism but the attempt to bind that patriotism to God in such a way as to give it a sort of religious meaning or undertone.

Another flaw pertains to the deistic underpinnings of American civil religion. It is a Christ-less, blood-less (blood here being in reference to the blood Jesus shed on the cross for our sins) “religion.” It attempts the betterment of society and humankind, but does so apart from the true redeemer, Jesus Christ. Civil religion builds upon humanity’s perceived moral capabilities. It champions natural reason over divine revelation. It affirms rationality over faith in that divine revelation. Though it affirms a deity, it is a deity that looks in favor upon a form of human redemption via moralistic, rationalistic achievement rather than redemption through the just punishment of sin (in Christ) resulting in new life (in Christ). Natural reason and rationality have their place. Christianity is not opposed to those things. But reason and rationality have a limit. We cannot come to know the identity of God via reason. Nor can we overcome our sin problem by reason. What we need is a Savior from sin, and the revelation of who God is, and who God is in Christ Jesus. Divine revelation is needed here, and personal faith in that divine revelation. Jesus Himself is that Savior we need. Reason and rationality fall short of being able to provide these things. The Bible is clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NASB) and that the only salvation from this condition is through faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16) who’s death on the cross was a substitutionary death to pay the penalty for sin that you and I deserve to suffer (Romans 5:7-9).

As we’ll see next time, a contrast to a naturalistic, deistic religion – to which American civil religion is tightly related – is Christianity. And ironically, or perhaps providentially, the liberty and freedom that the Founding Fathers sought to establish and preserve in America actually served as an open door for the free practice and evangelical spread of the Christian faith in America and beyond. More on that next time!

[1] John Corrigan & Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America, 8th Edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010), 109.

[2] Peter Gardella, American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Back Cover.

[3] Corrigan & Hudson, 111.

[4] Gardella, 1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Stephen Prothero, “Interview,” “God in America,” PBS.org  http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/interviews/stephen-prothero3.html#3 (accessed January 21, 2017).

[7] Corrigan & Hudson, 109.

[8] Prothero.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gardella, Back Cover.

[12] Ibid, 5, Back Cover.

[13] Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Robert N. Bellah.com http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm

(accessed January 21, 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Corrigan and Hudson, 94.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment

[25] Corrigan and Hudson, 109.

[26] Ian Tyrrell, “What, exactly is ‘American Exceptionalism’? This Week http://theweek.com/articles/654508/what-exactly-american-exceptionalism (accessed January 21, 2017).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Arnon Gutfeld, American Exceptionalism: The Effects of Plenty on the American Experience (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2002), 34.

[29] Corrigan and Hudson, 109-110.

[30] “Works of John Adams,” ed. C. F. Adams (Boston, 1850-1856), I, 66, in Corrigan & Hudson, 110.

[31] Corrigan and Hudson, 110.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Gardella, 201

[34] Ibid, 215.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Gardella, 115-116.

[37] Ibid.

[38] David Ovason, The Secret Symbols of the Dollar Bill: A Closer Look at the Hidden Magic and Meaning of the Money You Use Every Day (New York: Perennial Currents, 2004), 85.

[39] Gardella, 116.

[40] Gardella, 114.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., 115.

[44] Ibid., 114-115.

[45] Ibid., 115.

[46] Ovason, 86.

[47] George W. Bush: “Inaugural Address,” January 20, 2005. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=58745.

2 thoughts on “America and Religion – Two Streams, Part I: American Civil Religion

  1. Great blog post and very relevant.

    I had one question is the American civil religion essentially the same as “American culture “? As I was reading culture kept popping into my head as a synonymous term but I am not sure if this is correct or not.

    • Thanks Shanique! And excellent question!! To be honest, I’m not sure I have a direct answer for you! I would argue that there is a difference between American culture and civic religion. However, it is completely understandable that you might be tempted to see the term as synonymous. Ultimately, I would draw a distinction though. For example, one might argue that Baseball and NFL Football are part of American culture. But those things, I would think, would not necessarily exemplify American civil religion. I think American culture and American civil religion are very closely related though on some points, and probably intersect or intertwine with each other on some points. Great question though. The thought actually crossed my mind to put your question to my History of American Christianity professor. I may still do that – he would provide a clearer and more accurate answer…ha ha!! If I do I’ll send you his response!

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