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


My initial essay on civil religion in America opened a debate that has continued to this day.1 Much of that debate has been rather sterile, focusing more on form than content, definition than substance. From the beginning, however, Phillip E. Hammond has entered the discussion with significant and original substantive points of his own.2 It is therefore a pleasure for me to join with him in this volume in an effort to extend the consideration of civil religion to societies and issues that have not been prominent in the discussion hitherto. This volume seeks to be broadly comparative. It does not, however, attempt to avoid the United States. Both authors continue to be fascinated by the American case in its sometimes baffling intricacies. It is our hope that the present comparative treatment will deepen the understanding of American civil religion at the same time it opens up issues that can be explored in many other societies.

While the exact application of the term civil religion can be debated, the ubiquity of what can be called "the religio-political problem" can hardly be doubted. In no society can religion and politics ignore each other. Faith and power must always, however uneasily, take a stance toward one another. The polity, more than most realms of human action, deals obviously with ultimate things. With respect to both internal deviants and external enemies, political authority has claimed the right to make life-and-death decisions. Religion, on the other hand, claims to derive from an authority that transcends all earthly powers. The possibility of conflict between these potentially conflicting claims is always present, yet collisions are not necessarily constant. At various times and places politics may be little more than the pragmatic art of getting things done and religion may confine itself to "spiritual" matters. Or religion and politics may simply be two different pragmatics concerned with distinct spheres of existence.

One area of overlap and potential conflict is what sociologists call the problem of legitimacy, which includes among other things the question whether existing political authority is moral and right or whether it violates higher religious duties. Most societies have institutionalized ways of dealing with this potential tension. Whether we wish to call all such forms of institutionalization civil religions or confine that term to only some of such forms, it is here that we must locate the problem of civil religion.

Fairly distinct types of solution to the religio-political problem (Or fairly distinct types of civil religion) seem to correlate with the phases of religious evolution as I have described them.3 In primitive society neither politics nor religion is very well differentiated, so there is not much point in talking about the relationship between them. Still, persons with high status and influence on collective decision-making are often seen in such societies as possessing more sacred power than others. Hierarchy in such societies is not well developed, but what there is of it is simultaneously religious and political.

In archaic societies, by which I mean typically the great Bronze Age monarchies of the old world in the second millennium BC., political power has become highly developed and centralized. State structures at least partly independent of kinship have been established and a hierarchy of religious specialists has appeared. Characteristically, the focus of both political and religious attention is on the single figure of the ruler, often identified as a divine king. In such societies political submission to the divine king is often equated with entry into the realm of cosmic order, and political opposition is equated with alliance with the demonic forces of cosmic chaos. The realm of the divine king may be equated with the realm of cosmic harmony, and those beyond the borders may be felt to live in outer darkness.

Though in the first millennium BC. this fusion of political and religious power was broken through by the emergence of what I have called the historic religions, it remains a permanent possibility in human history. The Egyptian pharaoh and the Shang emperor were not alone in considering their political enemies to be cut off from the source of divine order. Even within the historic religions, archaic forms reassert themselves, as when Christians divide the world into "Christendom" and the pagan realms of devil worshipers, or when Muslims divide the world into "the house of Islam" and "the house of war" -- that is, all those domains beyond the reach of Muslim political power. The American tendency to divide the globe between "the free world" and the Communists, and the Communist tendency to reverse the picture, are only recent versions of the same thing. Similarly, elements of divine kingship tend to develop around strong political leaders whenever they appear. In totalitarian societies such tendencies may be very marked, as in the cases of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung. But even in democratic societies some such tendencies may appear: The cases of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy come to mind in our own history. The Japanese case discussed in Chapter 2 of this book is particularly interesting because it is an example of a full-fledged archaic solution to the religio-political problem (or a full-fledged archaic civil religion) that has survived into the twentieth century.

The emergence of the historic religions, though never fully overcoming archaic tendencies (or primitive ones either, for that matter), does mark a new degree of differentiation between the religious and the political. Whereas in archaic society ordinary people relate to the divine through the mediation of the divine king, once the historic religions arise there can be a direct relation to the divine, unmediated by political authority. The new situation is often expressed through a radical reorientation of divine-kingship symbolism. Confucius, a minor official in a small state, is declared in retrospect to be the uncrowned king of the whole Chinese realm. Plato offers us the ironic picture of the philosopher-king who ought to be but never will be the actual ruler. Irony turns to tragedy in the case of Jesus, whose throne is a cross and whose crown is thorns. What all these symbolisms suggest is that there is a much more problematic relation between political authority and ultimate meaning than had ever been thought before.

Correlative with these new symbolisms of religious meaning is the emergence of structures of religious authority that are in principle independent of the state. The Christian church and the Buddhist sangha are the clearest examples. In situations where clearly differentiated religious structures do not emerge, as in the Confucian case and in quite different ways the Jewish and Muslim as well, there is a strong sense that political authority is illegitimate as long as it does not conform to transcendent ethical norms, as in almost all empirical instances it does not.

Whether or not there is a clearly differentiated religious structure, there tends to be in societies with historic religions a particularly sharp tension between the representatives of religious truth and political authority. This tension can on occasion break out in prolonged power struggles. The conflict between pope and emperor in medieval Europe, the tensions between Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism at the T’ang court, and the struggle between the mullahs and the politicians in Iran today are all examples. The most stable solution to these conflicts in historic societies is a division of labor in which the religious authorities recognize the legitimacy of the state in return for political recognition of their own dominant position in the realm of religion. Under such conditions the state expects the church to help maintain social tranquility and the church expects the state to conform to at least minimal ethical norms. Even at their most harmonious, the Buddhist principle that "a monk does not bow down before a king" is maintained.

During periods of intense struggle, however, the division of labor breaks down. Political authority falls back on archaic archetypes. The Israelite king claims to be the Lord’s anointed even when denounced by the prophet speaking in the name of Yahweh. The Chinese emperor reminds the critical Confucian literati that it is he who is the Son of Heaven. The Shah of Iran turns to ancient Persian symbols of kingship to suggest in only slightly veiled ways that it is he who is God’s agent, not the mullahs. On the other side, religious authorities in the moment of conflict with the state may claim political authority themselves. The pope in the early Middle Ages comes close to claiming to be the head of an international superstate to which all secular political authorities had to bow. Brigham Young enters the wilderness to become the ruler of his own church-state. The Ayatollah Khomeini is in effect the arbiter of political power in Iran. As the example of present-day Iran suggests, these conflicts have not disappeared from the contemporary world. We will see them still operative in some of the examples discussed at length in this book.

Nonetheless, in terms of my scheme of religious evolution, there is another possibility that emerges in the early modern and modern phases. This is the possibility that a distinct set of religious symbols and practices may arise that address issues of political legitimacy and political ethics but that are not fused with either church or state. It is this rather special case for which Phillip Hammond wishes to reserve the designation "civil religion."4 Without necessarily agreeing that the term should be so restricted, I nevertheless do agree that this solution to the religio-political question, the solution that characterizes the American case, is quite unique and requires special conditions to bring it about. Hammond’s essays in this book suggest what some of those conditions are. They have to do with the dominant form of religion in the formative period (in the American case, Protestantism) and perhaps even more with the pluralism of American religious life. In addition to these factors one would probably also need to mention, following Sidney E. Mead, the importance of enlightenment thought in the formative period.5 Since most of the chapters in this volume concern themselves with the special conditions and ambiguities of the American solution, this is not the place to examine them further. It does seem, however, from Chapters 3 and 4, that we take the differentiated civil religion as at least a hypothetical norm for modern society and seek to explain the conditions that may block its emergence in the case of such societies as Mexico and Italy. (This is not to say that the American case is in any sense ideal. Some of its specific pathologies are discussed in this volume, and I shall refer to them again in this introduction.)

The case of Italy is an interesting one, for it is a society in which church and state have long existed in uneasy balance, with occasional bitter periods when one attempted to subordinate the other. As will become clear in detail in Chapter 4. liberalism, socialism, and fascism in modern Italy have each shown tendencies toward an archaic regression in which political authority claims its own sacrality. "Nationalism" in its various modern forms frequently shows this tendency in its effort to break the hold of all sacred traditional loyalties. On the other hand, Italian liberalism and socialism, especially since World War II, have tended to give up their totalistic claims and opt for a civility and a tolerance of difference that Hammond sees as essential in a modern civil religion. Italian Catholicism in the same period has gone at least halfway in the same direction. It thus seems possible that if the forces of particularism, what I will call the "ground bass" of Italian society, do not prevent it as they often have before in Italian history, a differentiated pattern of symbols and practices emphasizing individual liberty, social justice, and Christian charity might emerge to underpin a more legitimate and more effective Italian state than has hitherto been known.

The Mexican case as Hammond analyses it has certain parallels to the Italian. Here too both a strong Catholic Church and a secular liberal state have existed side by side for quite a while. In Mexico, however, there seems to be less diversity and less movement toward a differentiated symbol system. Only in its effervescent stage, and then only partially and fitfully, did the revolutionary state make ultimate claims for itself. On the other hand, the Mexican church seems to have remained aloof from the major forces of social transformation in modern Mexico. Although it has not given up its dramatic claims to social authority, it has not articulated them in ways that are socially effective. It is my reading of the Mexican case that this situation creates something of a stalemate. From the religious point of view the state is faintly illegitimate. But it lacks the courage of its own secular liberal convictions and so does not pursue a strong political policy of social and moral reform. This situation of impasse and weakened claims of legitimacy seems to be less severe than in other Latin American societies, but Mexico also suffers from this malaise to some extent.

Both church and state are unitary in Mexico, whatever the difficulty in linking them or mediating the linkage through a differentiated civil religion. North of the United States border there is another case that contrasts sharply with both the American and the Mexican. Canada is unitary neither politically nor religiously. But pluralism in the Canadian case, unlike the American, has not aided in the development of a differentiated civil religion. The lack of a revolutionary experience, the long history of special ties of English Canadians with England and English symbols of civil religion, and the existence of a large province that is linguistically, ethnically, and religiously distinct from the rest of Canada -- all these conditions have militated against not only the emergence of a Canadian civil religion but of any very clearly defined sense of national identity. Serious doubts have been expressed about the survival of the Canadian union that would make no sense in the case of Mexico or the United States.6

Hammond suggests in Chapters 3, 6, and 8 that American civil religion has resided significantly in the educational and particularly the legal systems in ways that have led to a distinct tradition of civility, openness, and tolerance. Other aspects of the American tradition have not been so benign. The church-state fusion of early New England, together with ideas of a special providential chosenness of the American colonists, has exercised a pull toward archaic regression in the American civil religion.7 Notions that America is God’s country, and that American power in the world is identical with morality and God’s will, have not died even today. Fortunately, these ideas never shaped the normative documents of the American civil religion, nor have they characterized its greatest heroes -- men like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King -- but they have formed an important tradition of interpretation, one carried by nationalistic clergymen more often than by jingoistic politicians. The best antidote to this tendency to. ward archaic regression is the critical tradition that has characterized American political life from its beginning. This critical tradition has been expressed in what Martin Marty called a public theology and what Walter Lippmann called a public philosophy. A strong public theology has opposed our more unjust wars, especially the Mexican-American, Spanish-American, and Vietnamese wars, demanded racial and social justice, and insisted on the fulfillment of our democratic promise in our economic as well as our political life. The role of public theology has remained vigorous even up to the present, but the intellectual validity of religion among the intelligentsia has been steadily undercut for a century or more.

In the formative period of the American republic a vigorous public philosophy complemented our public theology. It justified a strong normative concern for the common good that was implied in the symbolism of the differentiated civil religion. But public philosophy faded with the founding generation. It was largely replaced by the overwhelmingly private philosophy of liberalism, which justified public action almost exclusively on the grounds of private interest. The common good was expressed in religious terms or not at all. Fitful expressions of public philosophy have occurred in our history, perhaps most notably in the twentieth century in the work of John Dewey, but no continuous tradition has developed. At a moment when civil religious symbols are more and more co-opted by ultraconservatives and the philosophy of liberalism seems less and less adequate as a guide to our public or private lives, a revival of public philosophy seems urgently needed.8 One of the tasks of such a revival would be to make the religious aspect of our central tradition understandable in a nonreactionary way.

It is not only the American republic that seems bewildered and at sea in the late twentieth century. We live in a troubled world in which the danger of nuclear holocaust constantly grows. Nation-states are still the most important power-centers in our world, but none of them alone seems able to accomplish much. Clearly military, economic, and environmental problems demand a global concord for our very survival. We have at last for many purposes a world civitas, but it does not have much civility. American civil religion with its tradition of openness, tolerance, and ethical commitment might make a contribution to a world civil religion that would transcend and include it. Any archaic claims to our own special righteousness or messianic mission, however, can only further the process of global disintegration. In this book we have concentrated on problems of religion and politics at the national level. It is time that we raise our sights to consider the relation of religion and politics in a global order of civility and justice.



1. "Civil Religion in America," Daedalus, 1967. Reprinted in Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

2. "Commentary on Civil Religion in America" in The Religious Situation: 1968, ed. Donald R. Cutler (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 381-388.

3. "Religious Evolution," American Sociological Review, 29 (1964), pp. 353-374. Reprinted in Bellah, Beyond Belief.

4. See Chapter 3 of this volume. John A. Coleman has developed a useful typology on which Hammond in part relies. See Coleman’s "Civil Religion," Sociology Analysis, 35 (.970), pp. 67-77.

5. Sidney E. Mend, The Nation with the Soul of a Church (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).

6. A much fuller discussion of Canadian civil religion or the lack thereof is contained in a doctoral dissertation on the subject currently in progress at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, by William A. Stahl.

7. Among the many discussions of this aspect of the tradition, perhaps the most interesting is Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978).

8. William M. Sullivan has made an important contribution in this direction in his Reconstructing Public Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming).