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Do the Civilly Religious Just Worship the State?

Published on 7th October 2019

When Robert Bellah published “Civil Religion in America” in 1967, he believed himself to be merely articulating “sociological common sense”; namely, that “any society, however secular, would have some sort of common religion.” This indeed was the thesis of Bellah’s article: that Americans subscribed to a national faith, complete with its own myths and rituals, that derived from but was not Christianity. What Bellah did not anticipate was the “visceral” response to his article, both positive and negative. Writing in 2006, nearly 40 years after the article’s initial publication, Bellah confessed that he had dropped the term “civil religion”—though he still insists on its existence—so as to distance himself from the “politically and ethically” repugnant critique repeatedly lodged against it: namely, that “civil religion is the worship of the state.”[1]

Bellah’s stance is not a revisionist one. He did indeed clearly reject this understanding of civil religion in his original article. Why then the persistence of this charge? In what follows, I hope to show that Bellah’s theoretically and empirically untenable conceptions of the American state and its role vis-à-vis civil religion facilitates the collapse of civil religion into nationalism and “worship of the state.” These problems are compounded, and in part created, by Bellah’s later attempts to defend civil religion by redefining it.

It is only slightly hyperbolic to suggest that there are as many conceptions of nationalism as nationalists—from generalized communal devotion to xenophobic patriotism. Fortunately, Bellah presents his own definition of nationalism, and it is in accordance with his definition that his argument will be evaluated. Like many political theorists, Bellah identifies the nation—the people—with the state (“the will of the people…is carefully institutionalized as the operative source of political authority”). Yet Bellah also argues that said will is not “the criterion of right and wrong.” Both the nation and the state that embodies its will are subject to a “higher criterion.”[2] This awareness of a transcendent moral reality both stems from “civil religion” and distinguishes it from “nationalism.” Defending his thesis in a note added to the 1991 reprint of his original 1967 essay, Bellah explained that civil religion is not the “idolatrous worship of the American nation”— that is, nationalism — but rather “the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it.”[3]

Bellah does not perceive a tension between American and global civil religion precisely because the former, in his view, is not a nationalistic creed. Since “the American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation,” but rather “an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality,” a globalist restructuring would not “disrupt” its continuity.[4]

Bellah’s differentiation between nationalism and civil religion is not tangential but integral to his entire project. He sought in civil religion “resources for the work of national self-criticism.”[5] That he write his original 1967 essay in the context of the Vietnam War is not a coincidence. He explicitly invokes civil religion “as a source of opposition” to the war, a conflict he believes is representative of America’s broader project of empire.[6] Bellah warns that “without an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment, the tradition of the civil religion would be dangerous indeed”— dangerous, because it would sacrilize the state’s pursuit of power. Bellah points to the Vietnam War, where he notes the American government’s willingness to justify selfish geopolitical maneuvers by invoking potent civil religious themes, recasting the “repressive and unstable military dictatorship in South Vietnam” as a “free people” worthy of American sacrifice. Such co-option of civil religion degrades it to mere nationalism. 

Evidently, then, Bellah adopts a cynical view of nationalism as a utilitarian tool for state-building. A religious national self-understanding centered on national self-interest rather than higher ethical ideals can only facilitate the worship of the state. Bellah sees in civil religion a solution to this menace—the same menace critics accused him of defending.

But while Bellah succeeds in defining and demarcating nationalism and civil religion, he forces himself into a theoretical quandary by not fully explicating the position of the state vis-à-vis both. After all, if the civil religion has been institutionalized and abused by the state, as Bellah admits that it has, what is to keep the state from always abusing it for its own self-interested ends? Bellah’s reliance on aspirational ceremonial speeches to make his case necessarily leads him to an aspirational characterization of civil religion. Without demonstrating the state’s adherence in practice to the principles it espouses in theory, Bellah has not dispelled the obvious concern that such moralizing rhetoric has a merely utilitarian function (i. e. mass mobilization for the state’s agenda) rather than authentic moral substance. He has not addressed fears that the state, via civil religion, seduces the nation into worshipping it.

In Bellah’s defense, he expounds on the state’s relationship with civil religion at greater length in a 1978 essay titled “Religion and Legitimation in the American Republic.” But his defense creates more problems than it solves. Bellah identifies two competing trends in American political thought: liberal constitutionalism and classical republicanism. A liberal state, as theorized by the likes of John Locke, is a valueless “legal mechanism” that simply maintains “public order.” At the heart of liberal theory is the “wildly utopian idea” that “a good society can result from the actions of citizens motivated by self-interest.”[7] Pitted against this liberal constitutional regime is the classical republican state, which “must attempt to be ethical in a positive sense,” “molding, socializing, and educating the citizens into those ethical and spiritual beliefs so they are internalized as republican virtue.” For this reason Bellah declares civil religion “indispensible” to republicanism. While a republic might theoretically engender “nothing more than the worship of the republic itself as the highest good” (that is, the worship of the state), Bellah insists the American republic encourages “the worship of a higher reality that upholds the standards the republic attempts to embody.” [8]

Bellah defends this assertion with a conceptual sleight-of-hand that can only be described as having his cake and eating it: he argues that American civil religion is at once institutionalized and marginalized. That is, since civil religion is expressed in the narrow and restrictive institution of the liberal state, it is too insubstantial to fully meet the “religious needs” of the American republic. American religious consciousness instead developed outside of formal political structures, by the nation rather than the state, in the form of “public theology”—a public religiosity conversant with but distinct from civil religion. Bellah concludes that “the public theology that came out of the national community represented the real republic.”[9] The American state is liberal, but the American nation is republican.

Bellah’s realignment of civil religion with the limited reach of the American liberal state enables him to rebut his critics in several ways. First, it denies the capacity and the will of the state to exploit institutionalized civil religion for its own nefarious purposes. As Bellah notes, “the state as a school of virtue is the last thing the liberal regime conceives itself to be”[10]—the implication being that the liberal regime would not inculcate even false virtue, in the guise of a corrupted, self-serving civil religion. Secondly, by locating national religiosity outside of the state, Bellah explicates a concrete mechanism by which the state can be held accountable to higher ideals — the virtuous character of the society that lends the state its political authority. The civil religion is thus too marginal to nationally instill worship of the state, but extant enough to reinforce public theology and thus cultivate the national community’s subscription to transcendent moral standards, a subscription that in turn restrains the government’s actions.

But what at first appears to be an elegant solution turns out to be anything but. Bellah’s reconceptualization of civil religion in his 1978 essay does more than nuance the term—it transmutes it into an entirely different concept from that originally outlined in “Civil Religion in America.” The civil religion that Bellah defends in the former is not the same one he defines in the latter. His new formulation undermines both the substance and influence of civil religion. While in his original 1967 essay Bellah noted the “important context” provided by the public school system—a system designed by the state—for “the cultic celebration of the civil rituals,” he later downplays the public school’s republican role in favor of the private church. Of the national holidays instituted by the state “to integrate the family into the civil religion” and the “local community into the national cult,” he makes no mention. At times Bellah outright contradicts himself. In the 1967 essay, he identified the notion of America as “God’s New Israel” as “a continuous one in the civil religion,”[11] while in 1978 he claims such symbolism “was pretty well eliminated from the formal civil religion” from the outset.[12]

Bellah’s persistent displacement of the functions previously ascribed to state-institutionalized civil religion to the nonpolitical public theology might indeed problematize a critique of civil religion as “worship of the state,” but it ultimately leaves the original debate surrounding civil religion and the state untouched. In a sense, Bellah straw-mans his own argument: he defends a version of “civil religion” at odds with the one attacked by his critics.

Such logical difficulties present themselves even before considering the empirical dubiety of Bellah’s characterization of the American state as classically liberal. While this may have been true in 1787, it is certainly not today. Since 1960, the US government has increased its spending fivefold, established dozens of new agencies, and massively expanded its surveillance program.[13] Indeed, the idea that the US is a “neutral” liberal state that merely enables the coexistence of self-interested individuals collapses in the face of illiberal realities like military conscription, a reality that predates the 1960s. What is conscription but the involuntary sacrifice of the citizen for the state’s sake? 

The modern state’s omnipotence also problematizes Bellah’s vision of a republican nation socially and culturally isolated from government. As noted by Wael Hallaq, the modern state—through schools, armies, prisons—is “geared…towards fashioning the subjectivity of the new citizen.”[14] In other words, the nation’s consciousness, religious or otherwise, must be molded in some sense by the ubiquitous state. The sharp distinction between nation and state required for Bellah’s conception of a “republican nation” is unsustainable.

But if the American state is not liberal, might it still be republican? This is, after all, the vision implied by Bellah in his original 1967 essay: the state, by institutionalizing civil religion, fosters a virtuous national community that holds itself to higher ethical principles. The difficulty of this optimistic outlook, however, is that modern political theory has almost entirely rejected the Hegelian notion of the ethical state. Max Weber’s now-widely accepted definition of the modern state — a bureaucratic organization with a monopoly on violence within its territorial jurisdiction — has reconceived the state as “materialist, empiricist, and ethically neutral.”[15] Hence Graeme Gill’s observation that the modern state “does not seek to enter the moral realm.” Instead, it aims to be a “[guarantor]..of the established social order”—a positivist, instrumentalist role devoid of ethical content.[16] It’s not merely that the modern state opts not to cultivate moral virtue a la the classical republic; it is that the modern state is structurally incapable of cultivating morality. The modern state cannot any more be moral than a color can be round. Thus Bellah’s hope that civil religion might compel the state to both disseminate and adopt virtuous standards is idealistic to the point of impossibility.

Ultimately, Bellah’s questionable theorizing of the state leaves him vulnerable to criticisms that conflate civil religion with state-worship. If we accept that America is an archetypical Weberian modern state, that the modern state is inherently amoral, and that civil religion has been institutionalized by this amoral state, then we must arrive at the conclusion that civil religion cannot perform a genuine ethical function and thus must necessarily reduce to an instrumentalist glorification of the nation-state—that is, worship of the state. Bellah’s conceptual reinvention of civil religion in his 1978 essay attempts to save it from such a fate, but his argument suffers from contradicting rather than refining his original vision, in addition to advancing a dubious understanding of the American state. Ultimately, for all that Bellah “politically and ethically” rejects the idea of civil religion as nationalistic state-worship, he appears incapable of escaping its orbit—not unlike the citizen of the modern state.


[1] Bellah, Robert Neelly, and Steven M. Tipton. The Robert Bellah Reader. Duke University Press, 2006, p. 15

[2] Robert N. Bellah, Civil Religion in America, Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, "Religion in America," Winter 1967, Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 1-21.

[3] Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, p. 168

[4] Robert N. Bellah, Civil Religion in America, Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, "Religion in America," Winter 1967, Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 1-21.

[5] Bellah, Robert Neelly, and Steven M. Tipton. The Robert Bellah Reader. Duke University Press, 2006, p. 221

[6] Ibid, p. 14

[7] Bellah, Robert Neelly, and Steven M. Tipton. The Robert Bellah Reader. Duke University Press, 2006

[8] Bellah, Robert Neelly, and Steven M. Tipton. The Robert Bellah Reader. Duke University Press, 2006, p. 255-259

[9] Ibid, p. 255-259

[10] Ibid, p. 258

[11] Robert N. Bellah, Civil Religion in America, Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, "Religion in America," Winter 1967, Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 1-21.

[12] Bellah, Robert Neelly, and Steven M. Tipton. The Robert Bellah Reader. Duke University Press, 2006, p. 257

[13] DiIulio, John J. "10 Questions and Answers about America's "Big Government"." Brookings. February 28, 2017. Accessed September 27, 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2017/02/13/ten-questions-and-answers-about-americas-big-government/.

[14] Hallaq, Wael B. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernitys Moral Predicament. Columbia University Press, 2013.

[15] Nelson, Brian R. The Making of the Modern State: a Theoretical Evolution. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. p. 107-108

[16] Gill, Graeme J. The Nature and Development of the Modern State. Palgrave, 2016, p. 4-10