Civil Religion Essay

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Civil religion refers to the cultural beliefs, practices, and symbols that relate a nation to the ultimate conditions of its existence. Bellah (1967) argues that civil religion is an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality, and can be found in presidential inaugural addresses, sacred texts (the Declaration of Independence) and places (Gettysburg), and community rituals (Memorial Day parades). Like Rousseau and Durkheim, Bellah sees legitimation as a problem faced by every nation, and civil religion as one solution under the right social conditions. Civil religion comes into existence only in the modern period when church and state are legally separated as well as structurally differentiated.

Bellah s essay stimulated debates and research. Wimberly (1976) found evidence for the existence of civil religion as a dimension of society in the USA distinct from politics and organized religion. Some research also tested the concept of civil religion cross-nationally, finding unique constellations of legitimating myths and symbols in Israel, Japan, Mexico, and Sri Lanka. Before a consensus could emerge on civil religion, however, the concept lost favor among sociologists (Mathisen 1989).

The emergence of religious nationalism worldwide highlighted the divisive potential of politicized religion over against the integrative effect of civil religion. Examining the situation in the USA after the rise of the New Christian Right in the 1980s, Wuthnow (1988) found not a single civil religion, but two — one conservative, one liberal — in dispute and therefore incapable of creating a unifying collective consciousness. By the 1990s, other concepts emerged, most notably ”public religion and concern with the role of religion in ”civil society.


  1. Bellah, Robert N. (1967) Civil religion in America. Daedalus 96: 1—21.
  2. Mathisen, J. A. (1989) Twenty years after Bellah: whatever happened   to   American   civil religion? Sociological Analysis 50: 129—47.
  3. Wimberly, R.   (1976) Testing the civil religion hypothesis. Sociological Analysis 37: 341—52.
  4. Wuthnow, R. (1988)  The Restructuring of American Religion. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

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