03 Apr

Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” (1967)

“Civil Religion in America” examines Presidential addresses from Lincoln and Kennedy. Bellah argues that American civil religion is distinct from American religions and that it exhibits the defining characteristics and features of religion.


The phrase “civil religion” comes from Rousseau’s The Social Contract. There Rousseau argued that civil religion recognized: 1) the existence of God; 2) the life to come; 3) the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice; and 4) and the exclusion of religious intolerance. Civil religion for Rousseau was meant to unify the state, give authority to the state, and act as a binding force for members of society who practiced individual religions. America’s Founding Fathers did not rely on Rousseau’s phrase, but the ideas circulated among them. At the center of American civil religion is “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity” (8). While Bellah does not examine the emergence of American civil religion in the early Republic, he does look to the Founding Fathers and Presidential addresses to tease out its characteristics. 1) God is central. He is uitarian (yes, little “u”). He is austere and focuses on order, laws, and rights of human. He is not defined in terms of love and salvation. This God is not a deist. The founding documents recognized God as active in American history. 2) America is central because America is the new Israel, which can be rewarded or punished. 3) American Civil Religion centers on sacred, historical events like the American Revolution and the Civil War. 4) It has sacred scriptures like the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. 5) It has sacred heroes and martyrs like Washington and Lincoln. 6) It focuses on the sacred theme of sacrifice. 7) It has sacred places like the Capital, battlefields, and cemeteries. 8) It has rituals practiced on sacred days, like Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, and the Fourth of July. Bellah does not talks so much about the afterlife in American civil religion. But, one could argues that it is there.

Civil religion, Bellah argues, “at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experiences of the American people” (12). American civil religion is not anti-clerical or militantly secular. It borrows from the traditions of American religions and most Americans see no difference between them. Sometimes Americans disagree with American civil religion. Sometimes American civil religion upholds equality in the face of oppression. “The civil religion has exercised long-term pressure for the humane solution of our greatest domestic problem, the treatment of the Negro American” (15).

Civil religion changes and in the 1960s was involved in theoretical and theological redefinitions of which it was not aware. Americans challenged the centrality of God in America. Bellah argued that this would impact American civil religion: “If the whole God symbolism requires reformulation, there will be obvious consequences for the civil religion, consequences perhaps of liberal alienation and of fundamentalist ossification that have not so far been prominent in this realm” (15). Civil religion has helped America think and act through its most serious situations, including independence and slavery. The next issue to consider is what American civil religion will mean for the United States in the world. If America seeks after unlimited power and empire then, Americans must think about how American civil religion with affect the world. Americans would have to incorporate new international symbolism in civil religion. Bellah thinks this can be done: “Fortunately, since the American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality, the reorganization entailed by such a new situation need not disrupt the American civil religion’s continuity” (18). Bellah is confident that civil religion can transform as America becomes a world power. However, he is less sure how atheism will impact American civil religion’s reliance on God.


Bellah argues that civil religion is not the notion that Christianity is the national faith. Civil religion is also not Herberg’s “American Way of Life,” which suggests that civic religion in American is faith in faith. Herberg suggested that the increase in religiosity and church practice in 1950s America did not really reflect an increase in Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish religiosity or practice. Rather, it reflected Americans’ recognition that religion in general, or faith in faith, was important to American life. Going to a Protestant church was merely a ritual in the American Way of Life. It did not necessarily reflect one’s going to church to practice Protestantism in any particular ritual or creedal form. For Herberg, the American Way of Life was the secularization of American religions. One went to church or synagogues because that was what Americans did as part of the American Way of Life.

Bellah, on the other hand, argues that “there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” Civil religion and American religions flourish alongside one another. Americans are not able to see civil religion, Bella argued, because they do not recognize Durkheim’s notion of “religious dimension.” Durkheim argued that every group had a religious dimension which defined its overall identity. Bellah suggests that this dimension can be easily examined in southern or eastern Asia. American civil religion has not been recognized because of the way the West defines “religion.” Religion “denotes a single type of collectivity of which an individual can be a member of one and only one at a time” (19, n. 19). Durkheim argued that religion united clans of clan-based societies in its creation of a collective consciousness. Bellah argued that American civil religion united individual Americans in similar ways.

02 Apr

Abraham J. Heschel, God in Search of Man (1955)

Abraham J. Heschel was a Jewish scholar, theologian, and author. While living in Germany in 1938, Heschel was deported to Poland by the Gestapo (Nazi Germany’ secret police). In Poland, he taught Jewish philosophy and Torah at the Institute for Jewish Studies. Shortly before the German invasion of Poland, Heschel escaped. He made his way to London and then the United States with the support of Julian Morgenstern, president of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Morgenstern and other Jewish Americans helped prominent Jewish scholars’ living under the Nazi regime immigrate to the United States during World War II. Heschel began teaching at Hebrew Union College on his arrival in 1940. Heschel’s mother and sisters remained in Europe and were killed by Nazi forces. Heschel also taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York as a Professor of Ethics and Mysticism until his death in 1972. Heschel participated in the American Civil Rights Movement and spoke out against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Heschel wrote God in Search of Man in response to the religious climate he encountered in America.


God in Search of Man urged Jews to commit themselves to right living and right action. Observing Judaism meant engagement with the living God, the Torah, and God’s concerns in the mitsvah. Heschel argued that religion was not observation first, but a commitment and acquiescence to God first. Jews should show their commitment to God, not through piety and faith, but by taking action. Jews needed to live as Jews, not just believe as Jews. “Right living is a way to right thinking.” Deeds carried out according to the mitsvah were the tests, trials, and risks of life. They helped man become “aware of what his life really is.” Man’s ultimate embarrassment was that he had infinite responsibility to others, but finite knowledge and power. Heschel argued that Jews should take a “meta-ethical approach” to life. This approach meant not thinking about what we ought to do or individual deeds, but thinking about all of our deeds and “what is our right to act at all?” God and man are in a partnership in this meta-ethical approach. God and man share in the act of a mitsvah. But, this partnership also meant that man and justice are obligations to God. Man should follow Gods way, not just His individual laws. Acts taken as a whole, not particular acts, “can be established as a link between man and God.” Deeds can be divine, reflect the holiness of God, and “disclose a divine intention.” Humans must not only act in the name of God, but for the sake of God. According to Heschel, “Jewish law is, in a sense, a science of deeds.”

This way of living contrasts with religion in America, particularly Protestantism. Judaism is not faith alone, it is not about ideas, it is not about good intentions, it is not about individual, spiritual inwardness, and it is not about one’s own conscious. Judaism is “a demand rather than a dogma, a commitment rather than a feeling. God’s will stands higher than man’s creed. Reverence for the authority of the law is an expression of our love.” Jewish living is not a set of rituals, but an “order of all man’s existence, shaping all his traits, interests, and dispositions.” Judaism is not a cult or system of ceremonies. Judaism was right living through right action.

Excerpt from: Abraham J. Heschel. “God in Search of Man.” In American Religions: A Documentary History, 434-446. Edited by R. Marie Griffith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

31 Mar

Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955)

Will Herberg was an historian of American religion and a sociologist in the mid-twentieth century. Herberg published Protestant, Catholic, Jew in 1955. This book examined the increase in American religiosity and church membership after WWII. Herberg argued that the majority of Americans defined themselves either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. But, these American did not focus too much on creeds and theologies. Instead, they promoted religion as Americans’ faith in faith. Herberg called this the “American Way of Life.” Herberg’s work foregrounded the relationship between religion and nationalism, what scholars today refer to as American Civil Religion.


In the 1950s, Americans appeared more religious than ever before. According to recent polls, the majority of Americans identified themselves as either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. Church membership numbers had increased dramatically. Money spent on church construction also increased. Polls also suggested that Americans recognized religious leaders as the ones doing the most good for the country. Religion and the church gained respectability in American social life and politics. American used religion to talk about the “Godless” Communists. Americans also expected public officials to “testify to [their] high esteem for religion. Herberg argues that Americans recognized “religion as a ‘value’ or institution” in American life. Moreover, religion gained a new intellectual prestige in cultural life. Philosophers and theologians were successful in selling their “religious books” as many of them made the best-sellers lists. Religious ideas and topics were also popular in journals of literature, politics, and art. What did this new esteem of religion mean?

Herberg argued that despite people’s profession of religion, they were not actually more religious in any denominational or creedal sense. Rather, Americans’ increased religiosity was evidence of a common religion. Herberg defined America’s common religion as “the American Way of Life.” Robin M. Williams Jr.’s defined “common religion” as common ideas, rituals, and symbols that supplied an overarching sense of unity. According to Herberg, “The American Way of Life is, at bottom, a spiritual structure, a structure of ideas and ideals, of aspirations and values, of beliefs and standards; it synthesizes all that commends itself to the American as the right, the good, and the true in actual life.” The American Way of Life was “an organic structure of ideas, values, and beliefs that constitute a faith common to Americans and genuinely operative in their lives, a faith that markedly influences, and is in influenced by, the ‘official’ religions of American society.” The American Way of Life provided an undergirding unity among Americans with a particular value system as its center. This center upheld certain characteristics as foundational to American life: democracy, the Constitution, free enterprise, equalitarianism, economic competition, high mobility, idealism, individualism, “deeds, not creed,” progress, self-reliance, character, optimism, moralism, and activism. This American Way of Life “is, of course, anchored in the American’s vision of America.” Americans looked to the Puritans who defined America as “the new Israel” and “the Promised Land.” The American Way of Life was also a middle-class way of life. American perceive themselves as a middle-class people. Most importantly the American Way of Life had been shaped by American Protestantism.

Hererg argued that historical religions in America had been “Americanized” and imbibed these qualities.  The American Way of Life had secularized Judaism and Christianity so that they had become “integrated as parts with a larger whole defined by the American Way of Life.”  The American Way of Life promoted the belief of faith in faith. Americans held a common religion based on the elevation of religion as a value. Americans believed in the goodness of religion in general. Herberg attributes the seeming increase in piety, religiosity, and church membership to Americans’ participation in the American Way of Life. Practicing individual religion was a ritual in the American Way of Life.

For Herberg, the American Way of Life was detrimental to Judaism and Christianity. Herberg argues that the American Way of Life looked like the “civic religion of the American people.” According to Herberg, “civic religion has always meant the sanctification of the society and culture of which it is the reflection, and that is one of the reasons why Jewish-Christian faith has always regarded such religion as incurably idolatrous. Civil religion is a religion which validates culture and society, without in any sense bringing them under judgment.” Herberg calls for Americans to recognize the wrong in the American Way of Life, of common religion. He urges Americans to separate common religion from “real” religion. The American Way of Life opposes major tenets of the Jewish-Christian faith. The American Way of Life is too man-centered. There is no sense of the transcendent God and there is no sense of the “nothingness of man.” The American Way of Life promotes a religion that mobilizes God to serve man, instead of mobilizing man to server God. The American Way of Life does not call man to seek humility or his consciousness. Rather, “it is something that assures him about the essential rightness of everything American, his nation, his culture, and himself; something that validates his goals and his ideals instead of calling them into question…[it] offers him salvation in easy terms instead of demanding repentance and a ’broken heart.” For Herberg, the American Way of Life was “a strong and pervasive idolatrous element” in America. American civic religion had co-opted the Jewish-Christian faith in America. American civic religion was at odds with American religions. American civic religion was immoral and bad for the American people.