In this paper I’m going to investigate different approaches to the problem of civil religion. First of all, I’m going to look at Rousseau’s development of civil religion and Robert Bellah’s adaptation of the concept to the American context.
For Rousseau, religion, namely a civil religion introduced by the Sovereign, is a mechanism of politics that serves a motivating purpose. Since people are often incapable of understanding the purpose of the law, there’s a clear and consistent need for civil religion.
Rousseau (1800, p.332) writes that “it is of importance to the State that each citizen should have a religion requiring his devotion to duty; however, the dogmas of that religion are of no interest to the State except as they relate to morality and to the duties which each believer is required to perform for others. For the rest of it, each person may have whatever opinions he pleases…”
Thus, civil religion encourages citizens to follow the law since they fear some divine being. For an advanced society, civil religion encourages citizens to maintain the habit of obedience because they grow to understand and feel committed to the law:
“It follows that it is up to the sovereign to establish the articles of a purely civil faith, not exactly as dogmas of religion but as sentiments of social commitment without which it would be impossible to be either a good citizen or a faithful subject…While the State has no power to oblige anyone to believe these articles, it may banish anyone who does not believe them.” (Rousseau, 1800, p.332)
Therefore, Dante Germino wrote that The Social Contract ended on a repressive note. Rousseau saw the civil religion as another way of legitimating violence committed by a Sovereign. Indeed, what Rousseau suggests about the functions of civil religion is in fact limited to the manipulations a Sovereign can perform within its range.
Rousseau (1800, p.332) also elaborated the principles of civil religion that has been characteristic of it in any further interpretations:
“The dogmas of civil religion should be simple, few in number, and stated in precise words without interpretations or commentaries. These are the required dogmas: the existence of a powerful, intelligent Divinity, who does good, has foreknowledge of all, and provides for all; the life to come; the happy rewards of the just; the punishment of the wicked; and the sanctity ol` the social contract and the laws. As for prohibited articles of faith, I limit myself to one: intolerance. Intolerance characterizes the religious persuasions we have excluded.”
So, he outlined “the simple dogmas of the civil religion: the existence of God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance. All other religious opinions are outside the cognizance of the state and may be freely held by citizens.” (Bellah, 1967, p.8)
The idea of civil religion has seen a particularly keen interest to it among the American scholars. In mod-20th century Robert Bellah interpreted civil religion as a cultural phenomenon, trying to identify the actual tenets of civil religion in the US, or to study civil religion in the framework of cultural anthropology. In the American context, Bellah stated that civil religion could be interpreted as an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation. “American civil religion is so general and vague that it almost isn’t anything at all. So no one even noticed it as a distinct entity until Robert Bellah, the sociologist, pointed it out. This was partly because, unlike the other religions in America, it is nonexclusive. In Beyond Belief Bellah argues that the themes of American civil religion are derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition. But there is no absolute conflict between being a Buddhist, for example, and identifying oneself as an American, one who believes in the purposes and values of what we unabashedly celebrate as the American Dream.” (“Part II,” para.2)
The scholar mentioned the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement as three important historical phenomena that influenced the content and imagery of American civil religion. These were the three times of trial of America. Generally, Bellah takes a controversial stance on the issue of civil religion since he recognizes its role in the formation of a new American society. Yet, he’s rather pessimistic about American civil religion:
“Gradually but unmistakably, America is succumbing to that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past…Without an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment, the tradition of the civil religion would be dangerous indeed.” (Bellah, 1967, p.16)
As for the functions of American civil religion, it performs the function of legitimizing a political action, just like in Rousseau’s case, but in far more civilized interpretation. As for the prophetic function, Bellah (1967, p.18) writes:
In the US history “the prophetic voices have never been lacking…Henry David Thoreau…he wrote, ‘If the law is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Thoreau’s words, “I would remind my countrymen that they are men first, and Americans at a late and convenient hour.””
Kenneth Wald makes an argument about civil religion as a double-edged sword. He claimed that with the ambiguity of religious texts and teachings, the mixed historical record, and the empirical evidence, it would be foolhardy to assert that religious faith necessarily upholds democratic values.
As for Tocqueville, he started his investigation of religion in the public sphere with a shocking revelation. He claimed that the first political institution of American democracy is religion. His assumption went like this: The premises of secular materialism do not sustain democracy, but go against it, and the premises of Judaism and Christianity include and by inductive experience result in democracy, uplift it, carry it over its inherent weaknesses, and stabilize it. He reflected on the inherent weaknesses of democracy, stripped of religion.
Christianity religion established three necessary dogmas for today’s democracy: the inherent dignity of every person, the principle of the universal equality of all human beings in front of God, and the centrality of human liberty to the purposes and principles for which God created the Earth. Tocqueville clearly show that religiosity facilitates the maintenance of a democratic regime. The value of religion in a democratic state runs deep in Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”. It is the most valuable inheritance from aristocratic centuries. Tocqueville wrote, from a purely human point of view, religious belief was the method best suited to preserve a democratic regime.
Under Tocqueville’s notion of civil religion, Christianity teaches moral restraint. Literarily, it wasn’t a notion of civil religion but rather of democratic Christian morality. Tocqueville believed when authority in matters of religion no longer existed, not in the matter of politics, men would be afraid of this limitless independence.
When Marvin Zetterbaum claims that Tocqueville’s treatment of religion is popular enough, he believes that the scholar simplified the system of religion in order to fit it into the definition of one of the elements of the public sphere. Tocqueville’s study of religious belief and his civil religion was not a systematic presentation. The construction of his work often brings scholars to miscast Tocqueville’s approach as instrumental. Scholars often overplay the pure instrumentality religion supply in a democratic regime. Tocqueville’s argument for religion was a utilitarian one; rather he viewed religiosity indispensable in a democratic state.
Civil religion can operate without making room for revealed religion in the public square. However, if a civil religion fulfils all the functions of the traditional religion, then revealed religion plays a considerably less important role.
Rousseau, J.-J. Contrat social ou Principes du droit politique. Trans. by Myers. H.A. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1800, pp. 240-332, passim. November 10, 2005. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/Rousseau-soccon.html>
Bellah, R.N. “Civil Religion in America.” Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Winter 1967, Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 1-21.
Rouner, L.S. “Civil Religion, Cultural Diversity, And American Civilization.” The Key Reporter. Spring 1999. November 10, 2005. <http://www.pbk.org/pubs/Keyreporter/Spring99/Rouner.htm>
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