January 26, 2017 / Derek Vreeland

Four Things You Need to Know about American Civil Religion

In 2010, I had a friend who attended Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Hope” rally in Washington DC. My friend was all excited about all the talk he heard about spiritual awakening. Sadly my friend did not know the difference between the Christian faith and American civil religion.

According to sociologist Robert Bellah, American civil religion is “certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share…(values) expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals.” [1]

We do not have to look to hard to see the common beliefs, recognizable symbols, and shared rituals associated with American life. Americans believe in freedom, individual rights, and free enterprise. American flags and monuments proudly display American heritage and pride. Americans don’t go to work on the fourth of July (at least most don’t!) and they stand facing a flag whenever the national anthem is played or sung.

While some would argue that the separation of church and state prohibits the commingling of religion and civic governance, we only have to look at the recent presidential inauguration for examples of American civil religion on public display.

Clergy offered prayers.

Hands were placed on Bibles.

Oaths were made with a reverberating “So help me God.”

Some people aren’t aware that American civil religion exists and that it is not the same as Christianity. Let me offer four things you should know.

#1 American civil religion is not altogether a bad thing

Religion in general is a social construct comprised of those things which bind us together. Citizens of a given nation need a certain set of values and principles to keep them together, to keep them from fighting and ripping the nation apart. Civic religion offers shared values and certain practices or rituals that reinforce those values.

Civic religion offers shared values & certain practices or rituals that reinforce American values. Share on X

Mark Galli argues that while civil religion in America is both empty and broken, it has value in:

  1. Fostering a sense of gratefulness among its citizens
  2. Establishing the fact that the nation itself is subordinate to something greater than itself
  3. Creating a sense of social order. [2]

Appealing to a god, even “Nature’s God,” has its value. Plus Americans all benefit from holding in common the rights and value of each individual person. They are able to work for the common good when submitted to the rule of law, and work to change unjust laws.

Americans may disagree on the criteria by which they value the fairness of laws, but they agree that freedom is found for individuals under the rule of law established by a representative form of government. These are just a few of the values within American civil religion that reveal its usefulness.

#2 The God of American civil religion is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus

The Christian religion became a treasure trove of language, narrative, and metaphors from which American founders could draw upon to write and speak about the formation of a new republic.

The Declaration of Independence, one of the two sacred documents in American civil religion, uses the phrase “Nature’s God” and “Creator.” George Washington in his inaugural address in 1789 did not mention “God” or “Christ,” but spoke of the “Almighty Being who rules over the Universe,” “propitious smiles of Heaven,” and “divine blessing.”

This kind of language comes from the repository of biblical literature which describes the God who rules the nations, the King of the kingdom of heaven, and the blessings found in that kingdom.

The God of American civil religion is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus. Share on X

President Trump in his inaugural address mentioned god in quoting from the Psalms, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” He continued on to say these “people of God” will be protected by God. He concluded his address as many modern presidents have, with the phrase, “God bless America.” From Washington to Trump, American presidents have used words and images drawn from the Christian faith without grounding them in specific, and exclusively, Christian doctrines.

Robert Bellah points out that the early American leaders did not intentionally leave out more explicitly Christian language in their speeches because they were afraid to offend the non-Christian minority of their day. Rather they were allowing their rather vague religious tone to spread through the country in a way that would bind Americans together. They felt free to borrow some of the more nondescript references to “God” and “Providence” never assuming civil religion would overtake the reach and purposes of the Christian faith. However due to the similarity in the way American civil religion and Christianity use language, some Christians assume they are talking about the same thing.

Some assume civil religion & Christianity are the same because of similar language. Share on X

According to Bellah, “The God of the civil religion is…much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love.” When Jefferson, Washington, and Trump mention God without a specific Christian context, they are talking about the God of civil religion and not the God of Israel, the God and Father of Lord Jesus Christ. They are referring to a divine, transcendent being, but they are not referring to the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

#3 American civil religion serves the interests of America, not the church

At one time in my life I assumed the expressions of civil religion in public life were nothing more than sentimental tips of the hat to the religious segment of the American public. As I have matured in the faith, I have abandoned that assumption.

The symbols and rituals of American civil religion are not token props within American society. They are deeply emotive emblems with the power to shape people’s hearts and imaginations. Just try to remove the American flag from the worship space of a church that has displayed the flag for decades.

If rituals connected to civil religion meant nothing, then why the public uproar over Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players choosing not to stand during the singing of the national anthem?

Sports venues have become a place where American civil religion is on display. There we find songs and rituals reinforcing the American identity. At the last NFL game I attended, we were asked to stand before the singing of the national anthem. The announcer said, “To honor America, please stand and remove your hats…” The crowd of over 75,000 stood, removed their hats, grew quiet, and instinctively put their hands over their hearts. All of this is done to honor America not Jesus. These things are done to serve the interest of America and not the church of Jesus.

I am not placing value judgment on individual Christians’ participation in such acts of civil devotion. Everyone has to decide for themselves how to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar” in those situations. Nevertheless the fact remains that symbols and rituals of civil religion are powerful. They shape us and ultimately they serve the ends of strengthening our love for America, not Jesus.

Yes, you can love America. (I discuss that at length here.) You can’t love America more than Jesus, because when the American way clashes with the Jesus way, whichever you love more will direct your heart. The core of Christian discipleship is following Jesus as representatives of God’s kingdom, working with Jesus to build his church.

When the American way clashes with the Jesus way, the one you love more will direct your heart. Share on X

#4 American civil religion is a false hope for salvation

The Psalmist reminds us, “The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue” (Psalm 33:17 ESV).

The war horse, a picture of military might, cannot rescue us from those things which deeply enslave us. Alliance to civil religion cannot save us either. It is a false hope for salvation. It has the power to shape us and motivate us, but in the end it lacks the power to save.

According to Jason Foster, It is a false gospel on par with the prosperity gospel, “It’s a gospel that suggests one’s greatest source of identity and value can be found in one’s nationality….It’s way more American than Christian, and it’s ultimately just another prosperity gospel that promises security through something other than Christ.” [3]

The God of American civil religion is not the Christian God and the gospel of American civil religion is not the Christian gospel. Our gospel offers more than the vague notion of a divine being out there somewhere. The Christian gospel offers the surprising, and somewhat scandalous, news that the Creator God, the God who rules the nations, the God of Israel, has descended from heaven (where God has smiled) to earth. Through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, God has demonstrated his love and faithfulness to the covenant God made to Abraham. And now, week by week, followers of Jesus celebrate Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and are being transformed into the very image of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. In Christian community we find the Gospel, the hope of salvation, a hope civil religion can never offer.

In community we find the Gospel, the hope of salvation, a hope civil religion can never offer. Share on X


[1] From Robert Bellah’s essay “Civil Religion in America” first published in 1967. http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm

[2] http://www.patheos.com/Topics/Does-America-Need-a-Civil-Religion/Vital-Paradoxical-Mark-Galli-10-30-2013

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-god-and-country-christianity-is-just-another_us_57e0324ee4b0d5920b5b32db