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Civil religion

A separate article titled civic religion is about a very extreme form of what is here called "civil religion."

The intended meaning of the term civil religion perhaps varies according to whether one is a sociologist of religion or a professional political commentator.


Sociology of religion

The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. is often used for state funerals for political leaders.
The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. is often used for state funerals for political leaders.

In the sociology of religion, civil religion is the folk religion of a nation or a political culture.

It stands somewhat above folk religion in its social and political status, since by definition it suffuses an entire society, or at least a segment of a society; and is often practised by leaders within that society. On the other hand, it is somewhat less than an establishment of religion, since established churches have official clergy and a relatively fixed and formal relationship with the government that establishes them. Civil religion is usually practiced by political leaders who are laymen and whose leadership is not specifically spiritual.


Such civil religion encompasses such things as:

  • the invocation of a god in political speeches and public monuments;
  • the quotation of religious texts on public occasions by political leaders;
  • the veneration of past political leaders;
  • the use of the lives of these leaders to teach moral ideals;
  • the veneration of veterans and casualties of a nation's wars;
  • religious gatherings called by political leaders;
  • the use of religious symbols on public buildings;
  • the use of public buildings for worship;

and similar religious or quasi-religious practices.

Practical political philosophy

Professional commentators on political and social matters writing in newspapers and magazines sometimes use the term civil religion or civic religion to refer to ritual expressions of patriotism of a sort practiced in all countries, not always including religion in the conventional sense of the word. (The term civic religion is also used in a different way in the Wikipedia article with that title.) Among such practices are the following:


  • crowds singing the national anthem at certain public gatherings;
  • parades or displaying of the national flag on certain patriotic holidays;
  • oaths of allegiance, such as the Pledge of Allegiance used in the USA;
  • ceremonies concomitant to the inauguration of a president or the coronation of a king;
  • retelling exaggerated, one-sided, and oversimplified mythologized tales of great leaders or great events (e.g., battles, mass migrations) in the past (in this connection, see also romantic nationalism);
  • monuments commemorating great leaders of the past or historic events;
  • monuments to dead soldiers or annual ceremonies to remember them;
  • expressions of reverence for the country or the Constitution or the King;
  • public display of the coffin of a recently deceased political leader.

The two concepts are related

These two conceptions of civil religion substantially overlap. In France, such secular ceremonies are separated from religious observances to a greater degree than in most countries. In Britain, where church and state are constitutionally joined, the monarch's coronation is an elaborate religious rite celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the United States of America, a president being inaugurated is told by the Constitution to choose between saying "I do solemnly swear..." (customarily followed by "so help me God", although those words are not Constitutionally required) and saying "I do solemnly affirm..." (in which latter case no mention of God would be expected). In extreme cases such as North Korea, such expressions may take the form of veneration of a Great Leader that is required to exclude all other forms of religious expression, and dogmatic adherence to the philosophies of Great Leader, around whom a cult of personality is maintained. See civic religion.


The Ara Pacis, dedicated to Peace as a goddess, embodied the civil religion of the Roman Empire.
The Ara Pacis, dedicated to Peace as a goddess, embodied the civil religion of the Roman Empire.

The first government to have an identifiable state religion was the Roman Empire, whose first Emperor Augustus officially attempted to revive the dutiful practice of Classical paganism. Greek and Roman religion were essentially local in character; the Roman Empire attempted to unite its disparate territories by inculcating an ideal of Roman piety, and by a syncretistic identifying the gods of conquered territories with the Greek and Roman pantheon. In this campaign, Augustus erected monuments such as the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace, showing the Emperor and his family worshipping the gods. He also encouraged the publication of works such as Vergil's Æneid, which depicted "pious Æneas", the legendary ancestor of Rome, as a role model for Roman religiosity. Roman historians such as Livy told tales of early Romans as morally improving stories of military prowess and civic virtue. The Roman civil religion later became centred on the person of the Emperor through the imperial cult, the worship of the genius of the Emperor.

The phrase "civil religion" was first discussed extensively by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract. Rousseau defined "civil religion" as a group of religious beliefs he believed to be universal, and which he believed governments had a right to uphold and maintain: belief in a deity, belief in an afterlife in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished; and belief in religious tolerance. Beyond that, Rousseau affirmed that individuals' religious opinions should be beyond the reach of governments.

In the 1950s and 1960s, scholars such as Martin E. Marty and Robert N. Bellah studied civil religion as a cultural phenomenon, attempting to identify the actual tenets of civil religion in the United States of America, or to study civil religion as a phenomenon of cultural anthropology. Within this U.S. context, Marty wrote that Americans approved of "religion in general" without being particularly concerned about the content of that faith, and attempted to distinguish "priestly" and "prophetic" roles within the practice of American civil religion, which he preferred to call the public theology. Bellah wrote that civil religion was "an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation." Bellah identified the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement as three decisive historical events that impacted the content and imagery of civil religion in the United States.


Within the contexts of the monotheistic, prophetic, revealed faiths, civil religion can to be problematic from a theological perspective. Being identified with a political culture and a leadership hierarchy of an existing society, civil religion can interere with the prophetic mission of a religious faith. It is hard to make civil religion a platform for rebuking the sins of a people or its institutions, because civil religion exists to make them seem sacred in themselves.

The United States of America, while a group of British colonies, was settled in part by religious dissenters from the established Church of England, and who desired a civil society founded on a different religious vision. State churches have not existed in the United States since the early nineteenth century. Religious denominations compete with one another for allegiance in the public square. These facts have made public displays of religious piety by political leaders important to a large sector of the population; lacking an established church, they need public assurance of those leaders' religious beliefs.

This assertive civil religion of the United States of America is an occasional cause of political friction between the United States and its allies in Europe, where (the literally religious form of) civil religion is often relatively muted. In the United States, civil religion is often invoked under the name of Judeo-Christian tradition, a phrase once intended at the time to be maximally inclusive of the several monotheisms practiced in the United States, assuming that these faiths all worship the same God and share the same values. This assumption tends to dilute the essence of both Judaism and Christianity; recognition of this fact, and the increasing religious diversity of the United States, make this phrase less heard now than it once was, though it is far from extinct.

See also

External links

  • Civil Religion in America by Robert N. Bellah
  • Civil religion - entry in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society


Last updated: 02-10-2005 18:08:44
Last updated: 02-24-2005 15:05:15