Civil Religion

The United States is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. Although the country is predominantly Christian, doctrinal differences among Christian denominations are often as deep as the differences between Christians and Jews or Muslims. Adherents of virtually every religion on the globe live in the U.S., and recent polls put the number of secular Americans (those unaffiliated with any religious body) at approximately 16%.

This diversity poses a significant challenge to America’s social and governing institutions: what commonalities enable and define the collective civic enterprise? What makes one an American? The United States’ national motto is e pluribus unum, “out of the many, one.” Prominent social and political theorists have long argued that a common belief structure, or “civil religion,” is required in order to turn the many into the one.

The term “civil religion” was first coined in 1967 by Robert N. Bellah, in an article that remains the standard reference for the concept. The proper content of such a civil religion, however, has been the subject of debate since the Revolutionary War. Over the past decades, as the nation’s diversity has dramatically increased, that debate has taken on added urgency, with political theorists, sociologists and scholars of religion all offering their perspectives to political and religious leaders.

In a culture as diverse as that of the United States, a “civil religion” or common value structure provides citizens with a sense of common purpose and identity. Despite the claims of some conservative Christians, Christianity does not provide that social glue; the United States is not and has never been an officially Christian Nation, although it has historically been culturally Protestant.

The U.S. Constitution contains no reference to deity, and specifically rejects the use of any religious test for citizenship or public office. In order to be consistent with the Constitution, any civil religion must respect the nation’s commitment to individual autonomy in matters of belief, while still providing an overarching value structure to which most, if not all, citizens can subscribe. This is no small task in a nation founded upon the principle that government must be neutral among belief systems. This constitutionally-required state neutrality has long been a source of considerable political tension between citizens intent upon imposing their religious beliefs on their neighbors and those who reject efforts to enforce religious hegemony. Thus far, no proposed value system or theorized civil religion has been entirely able to resolve that conflict.

To the extent that Americans do endorse an overarching ideology or civil religion, it is a belief system based upon the values of individual liberty and equal rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Bellah, Robert N. “Civil Religion in America.”  Daedalus, 1967; reprinted in Daedalus 134, 4 (Fall 2005), 40-56.]