Epilogue: The Civil Religion Proposal

Varieties of Civil Religion
by Robert Bellah and Phillip E. Hammond

Epilogue: The Civil Religion Proposal

The civil religion debate, to which Robert Bellah refers in the Introduction to this volume, has in some measure mellowed into dispassionate analysis. An issue that at first evoked more heat than light has become a serious item on research agendas. Civil religion has survived quarrels over its utility as a concept -- even its existence as a phenomenon -- and gone on to become a major topic of textbooks, monographs, and learned journals. Sociologists have picked up the theme, of course, but so have theologians, political scientists, and historians. The Journal of Church and State devoted all of its Winter 1980 issue to the matter, to name just one recent example.

Yet even with this mellowing, civil religion discussions retain something of an advocacy quality. They often have an urgent air, a whiff of the pulpit. Why is this the case? What is it about civil religion, especially American civil religion, that not only attracts scholarly interest but lends a sense of advocacy?

John F. Wilson addresses this question after noting the proliferation of what he calls "public religion proposals." He suggests that such proposals are "potential revitalization movements occasioned by widespread loss of internal confidence in American society and changed external cultural relationships."’ They are efforts, he says, "to distill the old political culture of the United States which was supported by a broadly Protestant establishment. The purpose is to conserve that culture even as it, and the associated establishment, is threatened from within and without."2

His is a worthy insight. Interest in American civil religion probably does reflect not just a scholarly interest but also a nostalgic yearning for something that happened to be importantly Protestant. Even more certainly, that interest has arisen at a time of considerable confusion in the nation’s values. More certainly still, civil religion analysts often sound like Old Testament prophets.3 There is undoubted merit, then, to Wilson’s explanation.

If the preceding chapters are correct, however, the public religion proposal we are making is not sufficiently described as a revitalization movement. It may be that all right, but it is far more as well, and requires an understanding that does not simply equate it with the Ghost Dance or a Cargo Cult.

Revitalization movements, we might agree, are efforts to recover something sacred out of the past, spurred by the sense of a deteriorated present. Any people experiencing the erosion of their cultural core are extremely vulnerable, and they might well look backward and find a spiritual legacy that hardly seemed to exist when the culture was healthy. Many examples of just this process are readily found in the social scientific literature on religion.

A central conception behind such analyses of revitalization movements, however, is their futility. Whatever optimism they Inspire is assumed to be misplaced, their believers misguided. Thus, Wilson points out, black and Spanish-speaking Americans, having a different interpretation of their American past, do not want to recover the religious legacy of the Protestant Establishment. Any appeal in the name of the American civil religion is therefore -- on this score at least -- futile; the inclusiveness it seeks is the very feature it cannot have.4 Moreover, for Wilson, the American civil religion proposal is an ineffective way to bind people and nations together. Other methods, most notably economic exchange, are better. Wilson writes, "A broadly economic framework which seeks to relate perceived self-interests to awareness of interdependence probably has promise of being more effective than explicitly universal religious or political world views."5

Here is the rub. The civil religion of which Bellah and I speak does not play down, let alone rule out, the integrating potential of any framework -- racial, economic, or otherwise -- relating "self-interests to awareness of interdependence." But -- and this is the sizable difference -- we regard "awareness of interdependence" as far more problematic than a purely secular framework alone can resolve. What allows self-interest to be perceived as inextricably bound up with the collective welfare? Whatever the answer, it will not be found by rummaging around among self-interests alone. Even multinational corporations have reason to unleash their constituent units against each other if it appears in their economic interest to do so. Awareness of interdependence is hard to come by.

To be sure, the link between self-interest and the collective good is not necessarily religious.6 But that link, if it achieves legitimacy and is not merely coercive, must be seen as in the nature of things, as transcending human choice, and thus as more than secular. In human history, this link has more often than not been embedded in the same metaphysical apparatus by which persons interpreted their fate, made sense of their sacred rituals, understood good and evil in their lives, and so forth. In other words, the link has commonly been religious (even though it was not necessarily so).

But if the link between self-interest and collective good does not have to be religious -- if, to put it differently, there need not be a public theology -- this link is nonetheless inescapably sacred. Underlying any contract, Durkheim observed, is a "non-contractual element," meaning in this context that the contract between citizen and state -- if it is binding -- necessarily involves more than mutual self-interest. Thus, in discussing "the public philosophy," Walter Lippmann was identifying the noncontractual element in American society -- the code of civility, he called it -- making democratic social organization possible.7 This code, he pointed out, exists in the natural law, however imperfectly discerned. It transcends human choice. It goes beyond individual self-interest. It bears the same relationship to civic behavior that the laws of carpentry bear to the stability of the house.8 One may view such a code in religious terms, though again one need not. One cannot, however, see it as a mere social contract in which everyone’s self-interest coincides and which therefore exists by agreement alone.

The American civil religion proposal rests in a major way, then, on the conviction that the American founding figures gained important insights into this public philosophy and conveyed those insights in certain documents, sermons, speeches, and so forth. These documents are not simply records of a few people’s self-interests. No doubt they are that in part, but they are also expressions of a theory of how "self-interest is related to awareness of interdependence," to use Wilson’s phrase. They are windows onto the sacred code making democratic society possible.

As happened in the American case, the expression of this public philosophy is grounded primarily in Protestant theological language. One reason for this Protestant flavor is the simple fact that the founders were almost entirely Protestant: when they expressed noncontractual ideas, they employed familiar (Protestant) terms. Another reason is to be found in the nature of the Protestant -- especially Puritan -- view of individual, church, and society interrelationships. Centered on a notion of convenant, while at the same time denying ecclesiastical claims to exclusiveness, this view seeped into and informed the American code.

It has therefore been easy to perceive as the American civil religion a public philosophy that, despite its undeniably theological tenor, can be expressed as readily in nontheological terms.9 Failure to see this problem as but a labeling squabble has led some to doubt the merit of the civil religion proposal. How, they ask, if we are not all Protestant, not all Christian, not even all believers in God, can one speak of a civil religion employing Protestant, Christian, theistic ideas?

Underlying such a question is the conception that the American civil religion, like the Ghost Dance or Cargo Cult, exists only to the degree people believe in it. How strange! No one would think that about the laws of carpentry, let alone the laws of physics. Yet so perversely secular have we become that sacredness appears to many to reside in the word, not in a reality of which the word is but an imperfect expression. The American civil religion is, whether or not we recognize it as such, and irrespective of the language in which it is expressed. The code of civility making democratic society possible exists, however remote may be our understanding of it in the present day.

That remoteness of understanding is, of course, precisely what leads some analyses of civil religion to become "proposals" as well. A cultural crisis, perhaps not unlike that of the Plains Indians or the Melanesians, is upon us, and one can sense the weakening of those values by which individuals with self-interests become responsible citizens. And not just citizens of a nation but of the world. But unlike the Ghost Dance proposal or the Cargo Cult proposal, the civil religion proposal is not, I would argue, futile optimism. It is no mere invention of fanciful minds awaiting deliverance.

To return to the opening question, then, we ask: Why the scholarly interest in the civil religion proposal? It is not a naive belief that America can return to a colonial past, let alone a belief that such a past is preferable because it was "Protestant." Rather, the civil religion proposal is a reluctance to succumb to cynicism. It is an assertion of hope grounded in an unusual kind of reality. "Of course the ideal ‘Republic’ dreamed by the founders never existed in actuality," Sydney Mead reminds us. "It was a vision, an artist-people’s creative idea that imbued them with the Energy to strive -- and with considerable success -- to incarnate it in actuality." 10 The civil religion proposal is to strive once again to incarnate that artist-people’s creative idea.

As discussed in Chapters 7 and 8, the current wave of religiousness in America seems to represent an alternative response to present-day civil malaise. Yet whether in evangelical or cultic form, this new surge of piety may not be an antidote to political atomization so much as another symptom of it. In their theological particularism and ethic of individualism, many popular religious movements today appear to intensify, not neutralize, the mood of self-interest over all. This kind of religious response, then -- this way of being hopeful in the face of national lethargy -- seems to be no solution at all.

Onto the agenda thus comes a revitalized -- and, one hopes, revitalizing -- concern for civil religion. Prompted by despair in the present, it holds out hope for the future by renewing an understanding of the past. Kenneth Underwood expresses it well:

Once historical events become the source of judgment, and their uniqueness an occasion for review of assumptions which do not quite fit reality, time loses its monotony, its quality of uniform succession. History takes on excitement and hope; and events, mystery and depth. This is the context of a creative society. People no longer just endure time; they have problems to solve, issues to win, causes to espouse.11

Interest in civil religion is both parent and heir to this point of view.



1. John F. Wilson, Public Religion in American Culture. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979), p. 171.

2. Ibid., pp. 174-175.

3. Exemplified best by Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant (New York: Seabury, 1975), which Edwin S. Gaustad called a "jeremiad with footnotes," Church History, 45 (September 1976), p. 399.

4. Wilson, Public Religion, p. 171.

5. Ibid., p. 173.

6. Unless one makes it so by definition, as some have tried to do. The consequence is a misreading of Durkheim, as Chapter 6 tries to show.

7. Walter Lippmann, The Public Philosophy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1955).

8. This felicitous analogy is borrowed from Lon Fuller, The Morality of Law (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964).

9. For one excellent illustration, see Richard John Neuhaus, "Law and the Rightness (and Wrongness) of Things," Worldview (September) 1979), pp. 40-45.

10. Sidney E. Mead, "American History as a Tragic Drama," Journal of Religion, 52 (October 1972), p. 60.

11. Kenneth W. Underwood, The Church, The University, and Social Policy, Vol. I (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969), p. 497.