Special Issue "Civil Religion in America"

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (15 April 2019).

Special Issue Editor

Prof. Dr. Raymond J. Haberski, Jr
Website
Guest Editor
Professor of American Studies, Indiana University, 420 University Blvd., Indianapolis, IN 46202, USA
Interests: U.S. Intellectual History, American Studies, American cultural history, American religious history, history of movie culture, transnational intellectual history, civil religion, American Catholic history, just war theory

Special Issue Information

Civil religion remains a contested, convenient, perhaps even confusing term among scholars of religion in the United States. This issue of Religions explores the breadth and depth of civil religion in America, a concept made famous by the late sociologist Robert Bellah, and an idea that has inspired scholars to go well beyond Bellah’s initial interest.

Dear Colleagues,

Civil religion in America has rich history as both an historical concept and as a scholarly term. This issue of Religions asks you to address how scholars identify the existence of civil religion in U.S. history; why civil religion as an idea has remained relevant to the study of religion in the United States; and whether the contested nature of civil religion—among, though not limited to, historians, sociologists, theologians, and anthropologists—has perhaps compromised the utility of the term itself.

Relatively recently, a number of substantial scholarly works have addressed civil religion in America from a variety of perspectives. For example, Philip Gorski’s American Covenant argues that civil religion in America is a way to calibrate American politics toward a republican sense of virtue and common-sense politics. Jonthan Ebel in G.I. Messiahs relates the sacrifice of soldiering to the production of civil religion. Other scholars have identified individuals, from presidents to preachers, as creators and leaders of an American civil religion. While Robert Bellah pointed to Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy as key figures in this tradition, a diverse array of scholars, including Robert Wuthnow, Gary Scott Smith, Arthur Remillard, and Rosemary Corbett, have demonstrated how different kinds of American civil religion emerge from the intersection between religion, politics, and a sense of belonging (whether to a nation or a region). Yet, there is hardly a consensus about whether civil religion has advanced the study of religion in the United States because of the conflicts within the term itself. For example, scholars such as David Sehat and Ira Chernus have argued that civil religion is a distraction from more accurate and incisive analyses of how politicized religion functions in the United States.

The aim of this issue of Religions is to capture the diverse ways scholars characterize and contest civil religion in America. For example, which debate about civil religion should we foreground? Should we focus on its legitimacy as a religion? Or its power as a tool for political and religious leaders? Is it problematic to historicize a term that seems so connected to the work on a single scholar—Robert Bellah? Have we clearly gone “beyond Bellah” and his influence over the term’s meaning and life cycle?  Is civil religion a unifying or divisive force in American history? Or both? Is civil religion related to American legal and constitutional history more than religious history? How would our understanding of religion in the United States look without studies of civil religion? These are a few of the questions that contributors to the issue can address in their essays. Contributions from a variety of disciplines that focus on particular individuals or that cover large swaths of U.S. history are welcome. One model to consider for this volume is the still relevant collection of essay edited by Russell Richey and Donald Jones entitled American Civil Religion that brought together historians, theologians, sociologist, and political theorists to discuss the relevance of Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America.” This issue of Religions does not require scholars to address Bellah’s essay but rather seeks to capture the state of affairs of research and thinking on civil religion in America.      

Prof. Dr. Raymond J. Haberski, Jr.
Guest Editor

Manuscript Submission Information

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Keywords

  • Civil religion
  • political theology
  • Robert Bellah
  • republicansim
  • sacrifice
  • war
  • national belonging
  • regionalism
  • bigotry
  • gender
  • exclusion and chauvinism
  • nationalism
  • patriotism
  • consitutionalism
  • presidents
  • preachers
  • popular culture

Published Papers (5 papers)

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Research

Open AccessArticle
Civil Religion as Myth, Not History
Religions 2019, 10(6), 374; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10060374 - 07 Jun 2019
Cited by 2
Abstract
This article draws upon recent historiography to critique the concept of “civil religion”, and argues that it should be replaced by nationalism. Its central point is that there is indeed a dominant language of American nationalism and one that has largely reflected the [...] Read more.
This article draws upon recent historiography to critique the concept of “civil religion”, and argues that it should be replaced by nationalism. Its central point is that there is indeed a dominant language of American nationalism and one that has largely reflected the culture of the Anglo-Protestant majority, but that it has always been contested and that it has changed over time. Civil religion, by contrast, is a far more slippery concept that elides questions of power, identity, and belonging that nationalism places at the center of inquiry. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Civil Religion in America)
Open AccessArticle
The Relevance of the Concept of Civil Religion from a (West) German Perspective
Religions 2019, 10(6), 366; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10060366 - 03 Jun 2019
Cited by 1
Abstract
The paper argues for the continued importance and usefulness of the term “civil religion” in light of the (West) German discussion and the situation in Europe. For non-Americans, and especially for Germans for whom terms like “political religion” are tied to the National [...] Read more.
The paper argues for the continued importance and usefulness of the term “civil religion” in light of the (West) German discussion and the situation in Europe. For non-Americans, and especially for Germans for whom terms like “political religion” are tied to the National Socialist past, the concept of civil religion helps explain the relationship of religion and politics, both in modern democracies in general and in Germany and the United States in particular. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Civil Religion in America)
Open AccessArticle
Why the Covenant Worked: On the Institutional Foundations of the American Civil Religion
Religions 2019, 10(6), 350; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10060350 - 29 May 2019
Abstract
Scholars of American civil religion (ACR) have paid insufficient attention to the micro-level processes through which civil religious ideas have historically influenced beliefs and behavior. We know little about what makes such appeals meaningful to average Americans (assuming they are meaningful); nor do [...] Read more.
Scholars of American civil religion (ACR) have paid insufficient attention to the micro-level processes through which civil religious ideas have historically influenced beliefs and behavior. We know little about what makes such appeals meaningful to average Americans (assuming they are meaningful); nor do we know much about the mechanisms through which abstract religious themes and imagery come to be associated with specific policy aims, or what Robert Bellah called “national goals.” This article argues that a renewed focus on the relationship between civil religion and organized religion can help fill this gap in the literature. More specifically, I draw attention to three mainline Protestant institutions that for much of the twentieth-century were instrumental both in cultivating respect for the national civic faith and in connecting its abstract ideals to concrete reform programs: namely, the clergy, the state and local church councils, and the policy-oriented departments of the National Council of Churches (NCC). Finally, I argue that a fresh look at the relationship between civil religion and “church religion” sheds new light on the (arguably) diminished role of civil religious appeals in the present. If, as Bellah claimed in his later writings, ACR appeals have lost much of their power to motivate support for shared national goals, it is at least in part because the formal religious networks through which they once were transmitted and interpreted have largely collapsed. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Civil Religion in America)
Open AccessArticle
The Damned Neighbors Problem: Rousseau’s Civil Religion Revisited
Religions 2019, 10(6), 349; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10060349 - 29 May 2019
Abstract
Near the conclusion of The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau starkly proclaims that no state has been founded without a religious basis, and thus if he is right, every political community must grapple with the tension between the conflicting claims of the divine [...] Read more.
Near the conclusion of The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau starkly proclaims that no state has been founded without a religious basis, and thus if he is right, every political community must grapple with the tension between the conflicting claims of the divine and the mundane. Because Christianity cannot solve this tension, Rousseau calls for a new religion, a civil religion. Whereas most of the academic treatment of civil religion follows various paths beginning with Robert Bellah’s original 1967 article, this essay explores more deeply the contours of Rousseau’s original articulation of the problem to which civil religion is his proposed solution. The essay concludes by suggesting that we can find important elements of Rousseau’s approach still alive and well in American politics and culture today. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Civil Religion in America)
Open AccessArticle
“In God We Trust:” The U.S. National Motto and the Contested Concept of Civil Religion
Religions 2019, 10(5), 340; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10050340 - 25 May 2019
Abstract
In this essay, “In God We Trust”, the official motto of the United States, is discussed as an illustration of the contested character of American civil religion. Applying and evaluating assumptions from Robert N. Bellah and his critics, a conceptual history of the [...] Read more.
In this essay, “In God We Trust”, the official motto of the United States, is discussed as an illustration of the contested character of American civil religion. Applying and evaluating assumptions from Robert N. Bellah and his critics, a conceptual history of the motto is presented, showing how from its first appearance to today it has inspired debates about the place of civil religion in American culture, law, and politics. Examining these debates, the changing character of the motto is explored: its creation as a religious response to the Civil War; its secularization as a symbol on the nation’s currency at the turn of the twentieth century; its state-sponsored institutionalization during the Cold War; its part in the litigation that challenged the constitutionality of civil religious symbolism in the era of the culture wars; and its continuing role in the increasingly partisan political battles of our own time. In this essay, I make the case that, while seemingly timeless, the meaning of the motto has been repeatedly reinterpreted, with culture, law, and politics interacting in sometimes surprising ways to form one of the nation’s most commonly accepted and frequently challenged symbols. In concluding, I speculate on the future of the motto, as well as on the changing place of civil religion in a nation that is increasingly pluralistic in its religion and polarized in its politics. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Civil Religion in America)
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