Civil Religion: Alive—And Sometimes Dangerous -- By: T. Furman Hewitt

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 04:2 (Spring 1987)
Article: Civil Religion: Alive—And Sometimes Dangerous
Author: T. Furman Hewitt


Civil Religion: Alive—And Sometimes Dangerous

T. Furman Hewitt

Professor of Christian Ethics,
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Twenty years ago Robert N. Bellah introduced a concept that captured the imagination of the scholarly community when he asserted that

there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.1

Bellah’s term, “civil religion,” helped focus attention on the phenomenon of the religious dimensions of political and cultural life, and in the decade between the appearance of the article and the celebration of the bicentennial in 1976—a decade marked by the turmoil regarding involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam and agony over Watergate—the concept of “civil religion” was hotly debated.

In 1972, Sidney Ahlstrom suggested that the traditional themes of American civil religion were no longer operative, that “the mystic quality of the American saga (had) evaporated” as a result of the testing of the sixties. Serious social problems made it “impossible to see America’s ‘present happiness and, glory’ as proof of a ‘favoring Providence’ “ as the civil religion usually reported.2 This implied decline of reliance upon the civil religion in American political life was eight years premature. In 1980, campaigning to restore America to its greatness and reestablish its reliance upon traditional virtues (all part of the civil religion tradition) and supported openly by a large portion of the conservative Christian community, Ronald Reagan almost single-handedly made the verbal symbols of the civil religion acceptable again in public life.

For example, on January 27, 1987, the President’s State of the Union address was ample evidence that what has come to be called “civil religion” is alive and well. The President, as other presidents before him, used religious symbols of a diety and a transcedent national purpose in his description of the United States’ past and its goals. Noting that “our nation could not have been conceived without divine help,” he said:

We were meant to be an endless experiment in freedom, with no limit to our reaches, no boundaries to what we can do, no end to our hopes.

Our “inspired” Constitution, he said,

… grew out of the most fundamental imperative of our existence: that we are here to serve Him by living free; that living free releases in us the noblest of our impulses and best of our abilities; and will secure them not just for ourselves and our...

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