Civil Religion as Myth, Not History

Created by: Leilah Danielson

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. 

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In his famous 1967 essay, sociologist Robert Bellah set the terms of the debate over American civil religion.  He observed, insightfully, that U.S. political culture had long reflected the religious beliefs of the Anglo-Protestant majority, and that dissenters had often drawn upon the “Judeo-Christian” prophetic tradition to critique power and inequality in U.S. society. [1]  But his argument – and that of others who later took up his cause – that American civil religion was uniquely generative of a process of reform and renewal of the national project, which he understood as expanding democracy and extending liberty, is problematic on multiple levels.  For one, it is historically inaccurate.  There have been times, particularly at moments of crisis and mass mobilization, when prophetic demands for justice and equality were incorporated into the national culture – antislavery, labor reform of the 1930s, and civil rights legislation of the 1960s come to mind – but rarely on their own terms.[2]  Second, although Christianity has often been a seedbed of American reform, it has also, and perhaps more frequently, served to define the boundaries of nation and citizenship in ways that were coercive and exclusionary.  Recent scholarship has persuasively argued that the notion of American religious liberty is, in fact, a myth.  The constitutional separation of church and state freed the various Protestant denominations to regulate the health and morals of their fellow Americans at the state level.  This “moral establishment,” as historian David Sehat calls it, was never consensual, and he applauds the secularization of American public life in the post-1945 era as a victory for individual rights and minority populations.[3]

  Finally, and perhaps more fundamentally, as Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, “no serious historian of nations and nationalism can be a committed political nationalist.  Nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not so. As [Ernest] Renan said: ‘Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.’ Historians are professionally obliged not to get it wrong, or at least to make an effort not to.”[4]  Insofar as proponents of civil religion are themselves prophets of their own religion, they are not historians but rather mythmakers.  Myth, as Roland Barthes observed many years ago, is a mode of communication that disguises something that is contingent and socially constructed as natural and timeless.[5]  As Bellah’s contemporaries observed, and as critics have pointed out since, the notion that Americans had been unified by a common civil religion until the 1960s was a nationalist myth that erased the history of coercion, conquest, and exploitation that have often been at the center of U.S. nation formation and U.S. religious history.  To call for its revival over and against overwhelming contrary historical evidence is to engage in a nationalist project, not a historical one.  Indeed, a more interesting line of inquiry is how and why civil religion appealed to Bellah and other liberals of his generation as both an organizing framework for American history and as a resolution to the cultural and political crises of the 1960s and 1970s.  By highlighting Bellah’s positionality, I hope to encourage present-day proponents of civil religion to become more self-conscious of their own.


[1] There is a vast literature on the role of Christianity in shaping American reform and radicalism.  For synthetic overviews, see Robert H. Craig, Religion and Radical Politics: An Alternative Christian Tradition in the United States (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1992) and Dan McKanan, Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011).  On the prophetic tradition and radical politics, see Leilah Danielson, American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); David S. Gutterman, Prophetic Politics: Christian Social Movements and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005); and David L. Chappell, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). 

[2] As Michael Kazin has pointed out, “when political radicals made a big difference, they generally did so as decidedly junior partners in a coalition driven by establishment reformers…only on a handful of occasions has the left achieved such a victory, and it never occurred under its own name.” See his American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), xiv.

[3] David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).  See also Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).  On Christianity, race, and American nationalism, see, for example, Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995); Edward J. Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005); T.J. Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 (New York: Harper Collins, 2002); Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011); and Walter L. Hixson, The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

[4] Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, and Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992; second edition): 12.  See also Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2016; revised edition).

[5] Barthes was interested in the ideological dimensions of myth; he sought to demystify – or deconstruct – the signification process that “transforms petit bourgeois culture into a universal culture.”  See Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012; 1957): ix.