Civil Religion

Civil Religion Sociology Definition


Civil religion refers to a collection of values, customs, and symbols that express and honor a person’s connection to the community, the country, and the state while claiming cosmic backing for the nation’s past and future. The phrase is derived from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s differentiation between the religion of man, which is a personal affair between the person and God, and the religion of the citizen, which is a shared concern of the connection between the individual and society and the government. It brings all community members together, teaches them about their responsibilities, and, if required, mobilizes them to go to battle in support of the state.

It refers to quasi-religious ideals and practices, such as salutes to the national anthem, parades, coronation ceremonies, and even international athletic events, which are seen to promote social cohesion and establish governmental legitimacy in a community. Secular symbols serve the same purpose as religious ones in fostering social cohesion.

The cultural values, customs, and symbols that connect a country to the fundamental principles governing its existence are referred to as civil religion.

Rousseau and Civil Religion

On the Social Contract, a work by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau is where the concept of civil religion first appeared (1762). A man “cannot be a decent citizen or a loyal subject without social sympathies,” according to Rousseau, who wrote in the aftermath of the Protestant-Catholic religious battles.

Durkheim and Civil Religion

In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim used the phrase in a way that had the biggest sociological impact (1912). In every community, even those without a single, overarching religion, there are functional analogs to religion, according to Durkheim. For civilizations to continue existing, collective attitudes must be renewed. Durkheim looked for a more contemporary foundation for this. He discovered that foundation in the “hours of creative effervescence” “would once again bring out new ideas and formulae to govern mankind for a while.”

Robert N. Bellah and Civil Religion

Sociologists like Talcott Parsons, Edward Shils, and Robert Bellah distinguished between institutional church-based religion and civil religion in the 1960s, arguing that societies like modern America infused certain institutional structures and historical events with sacred qualities.

In 1967, Robert Bellah’s work “Civil Religion in America” in Daedalus introduced the idea and its Rousseauian Durkheimian concern to modern sociology.

Bellah developed the idea that, in addition to institutionalized church religion, American society also has a publicly articulated and institutionalized civil or civic religion that anchors the civic culture, expanding Emile Durkheim’s idea that everything in society can be categorized as either sacred or profane.

Bellah maintained that civic religion coexists with church religion while being separate from it. It is a “dimension” of religious society that has existed since the formation of the American republic. Civil religion, which can be found in presidential inaugural speeches from Washington to Kennedy, holy texts like the Declaration of Independence and locations like Gettysburg, as well as communal rituals like Memorial Day parades, is a comprehension of the American experience in the light of utmost and universal reality.

It is particularly clear during difficult periods for the country, such as the Revolution and the Civil War. Like Rousseau and Durkheim, Bellah considered civil religion as a potential solution to the issue of legitimation if the appropriate social circumstances existed.

According to Bellah, the solution in ancient and early modern cultures included either a merging of the political and religious spheres or divergence, but not separation.

Civil religion as we know it now does not exist until the modern era when church and state are separated and fundamentally distinct. That is, only in contemporary society is it conceivable to have a civil religion distinct from the church and the state.

Civil religion may serve as a source of prophetic judgment in addition to serving as a source of legitimacy because of its structural position concerning both the church and the state. In The Broken Covenant, published in 1975, Bellah said that American civic religion was “an empty and broken shell” by that time because it had failed to motivate people and lost its crucial edge.

A civil religion combines religious affirmations with sacrosanct cultural concepts and symbols. It brings the country together, fosters a sense of shared community among its citizens, and creates an “imagined community” out of heterogeneity.

Civil religion is complex because it must simultaneously appeal to the society’s lofty ideals, such as equality and sufficiently broad nonsectarian religious symbols, without being appropriated in a sectarian way to justify public policies. In actuality, sectarianism might diminish rather than strengthen social solidarity.

Wimberly (1976) discovered evidence for civil religion as a component of American society separate from politics and organized religion by systematizing and operationalizing it in a manner Bellah’s original thesis did not. 

Comparisons of Bellah’s notion on a global scale

Research that examined the idea of civic religion on a global scale discovered distinctive constellations of justifying symbols and narratives in Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Poland, and Sri Lanka.

Criticism of Robert N. Bellah

Although it may be true that certain forms of US patriotism serve the same societal purposes as institutional religion, detractors argue that this does not make it a religion.

Bellah was criticized for encouraging the worship of the state as an idol. Less controversially, the word is used for faiths that revere the state or its rulers. Examples include pre-Communist China’s Confucianism and Japan’s official Shinto.

Thesis on civil religion

The vast exodus from Europe was comparable to the Jewish Exodus in the case of the United States, and the Civil War was reborn through violence and the atonement for past crimes. Thus, the idea of Americans as the new Chosen People was the central theme of American civil religion.

Similar to this, Edward Shils and Michael Young noted what they said were religious features of the ceremonies surrounding the coronation in a well-known essay on the monarchy in Britain.

These and other versions of the “civil religion thesis” are based on the basic premise that civic religions now fulfill the same functions of defining society’s overarching values, fostering social cohesion, and enabling emotional expression in advanced industrial societies that are becoming more secular in terms of institutional religions. In other words, because they fulfill the same demands in the social system as institutional religions, civil religions provide a “functionally equal” or “functional alternative” to them. The criticisms of evolutionism, teleology, tautology, and empirical untestability leveled against normative functionalism as a whole applied to both arguments for civil religion in particular and functional alternatives in general.


Much inspired by Talcott Parsons’ functionalism, Robert Bellah asserted that a US civil religion existed separate from the Christianity that most Americans practiced. The Gettysburg Address by President Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence, which makes claims about the divine sanction, are important readings. Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day are considered to be this civil religion’s “feast days.” Saluting the flag and singing “God Bless America” are traditions.

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