By Robert A. Vella

Over the weekend, I watched a very interesting lecture on C-SPAN3 which discussed the concept of civil religion in America, its importance for social cohesion, and the cultural disunity that has resulted from its demise.  Wikipedia defines it thusly (clarification by me):

American civil religion is a sociological theory that a nonsectarian [i.e. secular] quasi-religious faith exists within the United States with sacred symbols drawn from national history. Scholars have portrayed it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration. The very heavy emphasis on nondenominational religious themes is quite distinctively American and the theory is designed to explain this. The concept goes back to the 19th century, but in current form, the theory was developed by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967 in his article, “Civil Religion in America”. The topic soon became the major focus at religious sociology conferences and numerous articles and books were written on the subject. The debate reached its peak with the American Bicentennial celebration in 1976.[1][2][3][4][5] There is a viewpoint that some Americans have come to see the document of the United States Constitution, along with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights as cornerstones of a type of civic or civil religion or political religion.

The speaker’s historical review of civil religion in America concludes with a pivotal set of events which effectively destroyed it over the course of two decades triggering the nation’s current descent into political and cultural polarization:

  • The political rise of the Christian right led by televangelist Jerry Falwell and his “moral majority.”
  • The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 which enabled the above.
  • The neoliberal corporatization of the Democratic Party which fractured the opposing secular center-left.

Watch the lectureAmerica’s Civil Religion and Cultural WarsProfessor Philip Gorski discussed the history of civil religion in America and shared his views on the cultural wars dividing the nation. 2017 was the 50th anniversary of sociologist Robert Bellah’s essay on American civil religion, a term given to a shared set of values, beliefs, and rituals.

8 thoughts on “Has the demise of Civil Religion caused the demise of America?

  1. Wow, very inreresting.

    Belief systems are an intriguing thing to observe and discuss. Most people adhere to them without ever considering the implications of “joining” an organization that basically tells you what to think.

    I look forward to watching this. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Robert. Well worth the listen and a concise historical reach across America’s current divisions This offers a remarkably clear sense how we might regain our national character. (Especially liked his suggestion to take days to not go shopping and perhaps spend time just engaged with civic life). Much wise historical insight for our own troubled time.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Robert:
        I just finished “American Covenant; a History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present” by Prof. Philip Gorski.
        Thank you for sharing his ideas. I’d always wondered how, what are the virtuous aspirations of the Abrahamic religions, became so cynically co-oped by the once republican, Republican Party. In short (well there’s no shortcut to explain) it’s always to distort religion and governance for power and influence. I think/hope that for most Americans we intuitively know we aren’t quite as divided as candidates and a hyperbolic media portray. That in fairness, compassion and a shared history of striving for a (reasonable) sense of equality, “we” are a nation that might yet endure.
        For me, climate change is the apocalyptic wake up call. How strange that, a truly great nation, America, abrogates our shared humanity – the very us from whence we come.
        Thank you again,

        Liked by 1 person

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