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. 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 lecture: America’s Civil Religion and Cultural Wars – Professor 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.