bits from bob....

The Impact of Civic Religion in the United States

by Bob Young
©, 2013, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]


Hudson and Corrigan (Religion in America, 5th ed., Macmillan, 111-115) mention the development in the United States of a civil or civic religion. Civil religion refers to the idea that in the United States a kind of religion developed, a nonsectarian faith, with sacred symbols drawn from national history. The concept goes back to the 19th century but was more fully developed by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967 in an article, "Civil Religion in America" (Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96 (1): 121). Civil religion is seen by some as a cohesive force whose common set of values fosters social and cultural integration. According to Bellah, Americans embrace a common "civil religion" with certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals, parallel to, or independent of, their chosen religion. The development of civil religion, coupled with the elimination of state churches, led to a unique role for organized religion and for the churches in the United States.

One can also observe that "Manifest Destiny" was likely a part of the development of a civic, national religion. Frederick Merk describes "Manifest Destiny" as a concept born out of "A sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example...generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven" (Manifest destiny and Mission in American History, Harvard University Press, 1963).

Civic religion exists in parallel to the churches, but in some ways serves to oppose church religion. If civic religion is the religion of the republic and is public, church religion is personal. The former bonds the nation, the latter rescues from sin. Civic religion existed in the United States virtually from the initial settlement of the nation as a way of understanding the God-given destiny of those who established the new nation with religious freedom. The existence of a civic religion explains in part how a nation which separates church and state, favoring no religion or denomination over any other, can continue to have opening prayers for legislative sessions as well as other public reminders of religion, while denying the display of the Ten Commandments and nativity scenes in the public arena. Indeed, as Newbigin (Foolishness to the Greeks, Eerdmans) has observed, the impact of civic religion has been to remove individual religion from the public arena.

In this essay I briefly survey the history of religion in the United States, focusing especially on the impact of civic religion and the role of the Restoration movement as an indigenously developed religious group. Second, I summarize the impact of civic religion on current understandings and practice of religion in the U.S. Finally, I describe the nature of the challenge before the churches in the 21st century.

Religious History in the United States

One of the current challenges to New Testament Christianity and evangelism in the United States is the fluid faith of those who espouse the Christian religion. This fluidity is a product of the civic religion which in the early days of the nation failed to or refused to define specifically the Christian faith, and in the current world fails to define religion. Near the beginning of the 21st century, David Brooks (New York Times Syndicate) wrote of this fluid religion in his observations concerning the religious backgrounds of current political leaders such as George W. Bush (Episcopal to Presbyterian to Methodist) and Howard Dean (Catholic to Episcopal to Congregationalist, whose children considered themselves Jewish). He observed that Wesley Clark had a Jewish father, was raised Methodist, became a Baptist, converted to Catholicism as an adult, and was then attending a Presbyterian church. Indeed, faith-hopping has become the norm in American religion. In the United States it is generally taken for granted that people will encounter different religious needs and meanings in different stages of their faith journey, the answer to which is to participate in different versions of Christianity based on those individual needs or preferences.

Given that the American Restoration Movement is the largest indigenous religious group in North America, one must ask where the Restoration plea fits into the history of our nation and especially against the backdrop of civic religion. Although the space limitations of this essay do not allow an extensive survey of the beginnings of the Restoration movement, I affirm that the Restoration began and has until recent years continued as a counter-cultural movement (cf. Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, Abingdon). The growth of the Restoration movement, even with its various divisions, continued strong so long as the parameters of biblical faith were clearly defined and deemed essential in the cultural context of civic religion. Present religious tendencies blur the shape of New Testament faith and contribute to increased faith fluidity, even among those who were or are members of the New Testament church.

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States almost 200 years ago, he was amazed by the deeply religious character of the United States combined with a lack of denominational strife. He observed that Americans did not seem to care if their neighbors held false versions of the faith. A few years earlier than de Tocqueville's visit, the early calls for Restoration were being heard. Apathy concerning beliefs is certainly not a description of the initial development of the American Restoration Movement. In fact, it mattered a great deal whether one's belief system was false or valid. The early years of the Restoration are marked by religious debates and disagreements, with Presbyterians, with Baptists, and ultimately with almost everyone who disagreed about anything. Unfortunately, even disagreements about minutiae were sufficient to initiate another division, even in matters not overtly connected to the faith. Disagreements about what the Bible says, or worse, knowing but ignoring the Bible message, were sufficient to deny Christian fellowship. Despite this unfortunate extreme (which demonstrates well the focus on doing exactly what the Bible says), one must not lose sight of the fact that the Restoration effort, indigenous to the United States, attempted to define the Christian faith and was a counter-influence in the context of shared, nonsectarian civic religion.

This Restorationist approach to Christian faith is not consistent with the civic religion which assumes that all differences in the various versions of Christianity are temporary and that distinctions will ultimately fade because "we are all trying to get to the same place." An "end justifies the means" philosophy finds all ultimately within the embrace of God's grace.

Until recent years, civic religion was almost exclusively based in Christianity. The "civic" version of Christianity as a part of our nation's history has meant that the American populace has been more than willing to embrace different denominations on different points at different times in their lives. In fact, the majority of those who claim to be Christians in North America have trouble taking seriously the importance of religious doctrine at all. Brooks quotes historian Henry Steele Commager, "During the 19th century and well in to the 20th, religion prospered while theology slowly went bankrupt."

Impact of Civic Religion

This movement of Christian faith to the private realm, exalting personal preferences and needs over any biblical message, has altered culture, politics, and religion. Brooks lists three outcomes: (1) Americans are tolerant in their belief that all people of good will are on the same side, (2) American versions of faith have tended away from severity toward optimism, positive thinking, good will, and experience over intellect, and (3) American religion and politics are extremely flexible.

Contemporary Challenges Before the Church

All of this presents to the church a renewed challenge to understand how the gospel is to make a difference in the kind of world in which we live. First, the church must answer the challenges being posed concerning the nature of the word of God. Is the Bible an objective revelation of truth which applies to every person, or is it to be understood subjectively in the context of personal needs and hopes? Tolerance may not be an option if what God says matters. The belief in an unchanging message from God is counter-cultural, but Christianity has generally existed as a counter-cultural movement and has thrived most when it was most out of step with the surrounding culture. Second, the church must think clearly about its own nature. If the biblical message matters, the message of the cross cannot be relaxed into a "feel good religion." The competition for attendees (often more than for members) tends to lead toward worship that feels good, entertains, and encourages, but that fails to emphasize any authoritative revelation from God. Small groups focus on relationships and encouragement and seek to provide personal guidance. Third, the church must affirm the preaching of the Word of God. When preaching the Word of God seems out of step with reality, even out of vogue, the tendency is to dilute or redefine preaching. The church must know its identity and avoid the siren song that calls it to popularity. Alan Wolfe (The Transformation of American Religion) observe that today evangelical churches are not counter-cultural nor dissenters, but are mostly a part of the mainstream American culture. The counter-cultural voices have largely been stilled and Christian churches have more and more decided to join the culture rather than challenge it.


Less clear in the current religious milieu of our nation is the future of non-Christian religions. However, if the experience of the last 200 years is any indication of how powerful a civic religion can be in diminishing denominational differences within the Christian community, one may safely assume that coming years will find the lines between Christianity and non-Christian belief systems blurring into oblivion so that we can tolerantly co-exist, hopeful that all will end up in the same place, blissfully developing goodwill toward one another as the ultimate aim of religion. In fact, such has already begun to occur among leading Christian thinkers.

We live in a challenging time. Will the New Testament church, and those whose history is in the Restoration go along with this religious "pablum," or will the church rise up to continue the battle for the eternal salvation of souls? I think we're going to need to decide the answer soon.

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Last updated August 31, 2013