Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Religious America, Secular Europe?

Un/Churching during the Great Transformation

Prof. Philip S. Gorski


In the Winter of 1967, Robert Bellah published his seminal essay on “Civil Religion in America.” There, he defined civil religion as “the religious dimension of political life” (Bellah 2005). The doctrinal core of the American Civil Religion, he argued, is the premise that the United States is founded upon, and bound by, a sacred covenant or charter, and the promise that the nation will flourish if it keeps this agreement – and perish if it does not.

It was a hopeful essay written in a hopeful time. But those hopes soon gave way to despair, following the assassinations of King and another Kennedy, the shootings at Kent State, the beatings at the Democratic National Convention, the bombing of Cambodia, and the burglary of Watergate. In 1973, when Bellah published the book-length version of the original article, he entitled it The Broken Covenant. The tone was dark, even despairing. The American civil religion, he lamented, was now nothing but a “broken and empty shell.”

Was he right? Until recently, it appeared that he was. Religion did not disappear from American politics, of course. On the contrary, it loomed ever larger over the coming years, with the emergence of the New Christian Right in the late 1970s, the migration of Southern evangelicals to the GOP during the 1980s, the culture wars of the 1990s, and the election of a conservative evangelical to the White House in 2000. What did disappear from American politics was civility, as radical secularists and Christian nationalists engaged in a fearsome culture war over the past and future of the country. In retrospect, Bellah’s pessimism seems remarkably prescient in many ways.

But not in all ways. Recent events suggest that his requiem for American civil religion may have been premature. How so? A younger generation of evangelical leaders has embraced an ethos of civility and engagement, as evidenced by the “Civil Forum” for the Presidential candidates hosted by Rick Warren last year, and by Obama’s selection of Warren to deliver the homily at his Inauguration this January. Meanwhile, an older generation of liberal philosophers, including John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, has argued for the inclusion of religious voices in the public square, abjuring the total separationism so loudly advocated by many liberal secularists. Out on the campaign trail, Sarah Palin’s efforts to reboot the culture wars had little effect beyond the “base” of the GOP, while Barack Obama’s calls for national unity resonated positively across the political spectrum. Those familiar with the two principal sources of American civil religion identified by Bellah – the covenant theology of the Puritans and the civic republicanism of the Founders – will not fail to hear its echoes in Obama’s speeches, including the Inaugural address.

Perhaps it is time that we revisit the subject of American civil religion. While Bellah’s work provides an important starting point for such a reconsideration, it is in need of reconstruction and elaboration. The debate unleashed by his 1967 essay revealed a number of defects in the theory. Three were of particular importance: 1) the failure to adequately and explicitly distinguish civil religion – the sacred dimension of politics – from religious nationalism – the self-worship of the nation; 2) the attempt to narrate American history as a story of declension from an originary consensus around civil religion
towards radical secularism; and 3) the failure to disentangle the normative stance from the historical narrative and to provide an explicit theory of civil religion as a regulative ideal.

In addition to bringing the story of American civil religion up to the present day, the proposed book will also attempt to remedy these three defects in Bellah’s account. Specifically, it will: 1) clearly distinguish civil religion, not only from religious nationalism and radical secularism, but also from other ways of articulating the religious and the political, such as political religion and theocracy; 2) show that religious nationalism and radical secularism are not just modern devolutions of civil religion but themselves latent in the ancient traditions – Biblical and Classical – from which the American civil religion is itself derived; 3) spell out and reflect on the underlying ontological and ethical tensions and affinities between civil religion, radical secularism and religious nationalism. In doing so, it will also engage the ongoing debates about the 1) founding tradition(s) of the American republic – liberal, republican, Calvinist and so on – and 2) the proper place of religion in the life of a pluralistic democracy.