Columns Opinion Richard Mouw: Civil Evangelicalism

Why we need Robert Bellah’s civil religion today

Robert Bellah in Berkeley, Calif., on May 16, 2008. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Andreas Guther

(RNS) — This year is the 50th anniversary of Robert Bellah’s essay “Civil Religion in America.”

I read it shortly after it appeared, and it clarified my thinking about “God and country” talk.

As a Christian whose views about politics were shaped significantly by the issues that dominated “the radical ’60s,” I had very definite views about how the specifics of my faith influenced my understanding of justice and peace concerns.

I also had problems with “civil religion,” the ways people made generic references to “God” in the public arena. But there were moments when I wondered whether I was being too negative.

One of those occasions was while listening to President Lyndon Johnson’s address to a joint session of Congress, on the evening of March 15, 1965. LBJ’s topic was the Voting Rights Act that had just been passed.

He pointed out that above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States is a Latin phrase that proclaims “God has favored our undertaking.”

The president observed that “God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather our duty to divine his will.” Then his memorable declaration: “I cannot help believing that he truly understands and that he really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.”

It struck me that what LBJ was saying was true. And it also seemed to me to be importantly true, something that needed to be said by a president on that special occasion.

A couple years later when I read Bellah’s 1967 essay, it clarified some important issues for me about our national life.

Bellah, a highly respected Berkeley sociologist, was no “My country right or wrong” superpatriot. He was clear about the fact that the declarations of civil religion were often used to reinforce bad things in American life. But, he insisted, there were also good expressions of American civil religion.

For Bellah, civil religion “exists along side of and (is) rather clearly differentiated from the churches,” and its intentionally generic character was its strength.

It embodied some of the basic features shared by Christianity and Judaism (and today, we must add, Islam): namely, that there is something beyond and above our human minds, wills and desires — a “transcendent reference point” — that when we acknowledge its reality we are made aware that our collective life must be guided by more than majority opinion.

Bellah was capturing a theme that also gets expressed on occasion by persons who profess no religious faith.

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, was notoriously anti-religious, but in a poignant autobiographical reflection he recalled that his grandmother gave him a Bible as a gift for his 12th birthday.

In the flyleaf she had written a couple of her favorite biblical texts: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil,” and “Be strong, and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be Thou dismayed. For the Lord Thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”

Russell observed: “These texts have profoundly influenced my life, and still seemed to retain some meaning after I had ceased to believe in God.” Russell would not have objected greatly to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural declaration that “Here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

The key concern for Bellah was that on major occasions — presidential inaugurations, moments of historical decisions and national crises — it is necessary to look beyond the ebb and flow of our daily debates and machinations to a point of view that is not merely a product of our own human designs.

Those references to “the transcendent” are what we have missed in recent times.

What is the most memorable takeaway from the 2017 presidential inauguration ceremony? The debate over the size of the crowd.

We need more than that.

This week we will — we can hope — hear a call from the Oval Office to pause for a day of Thanksgiving for national blessings for which we citizens cannot claim credit.

Robert Bellah would have heard, in such a call, something more than an obligatory seasonal piety. It is a profound reminder of something that is crucial for the health of our bonds as a nation.

About the author

Richard Mouw

Richard Mouw is Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also served as president for twenty years. He is the author of twenty books, including Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. He earned his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.


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  • If you are looking for Christ in politics, you’ll not find Him. Best way to find Him is knee-mail.

  • To the degree that politics concerns itself with and devotes itself to feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, and ministering to those in prison, Christ is indeed found even in politics. To the degree that politics concerns itself with and devotes itself to the acquisition and preservation of power and wealth, with self-aggrandisement, and with the judgment, persecution, and rejection of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the strangers, and those imprisoned, Christ will never be found in politics. Matthew 25: 34-46.

  • Agree with your second comment.
    “To the degree that politics concerns itself with and devotes itself to feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, and ministering to those in prison, Christ is indeed found even in politics.” Christ is the person who died for our sin, should we choose to accept His sacrifice and follow Him. What you are suggesting is that people who refer to themselves as “satanic” who think they help people, that Christ can be found in them, and He isn’t.

  • I’m just letting Jesus speak for himself. If you have an argument against what he said, you’ll have to take it up with him.

  • I have no difficulty with what He said and taught – obviously – but I do have difficulty with people who do not belong to Christ being credited as showing Christ and people being directed to finding Him there.
    2 Corinthians 11:14 – English Standard Version
    And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

    We just had a group on here naming themselves until the title of “satan”, trying to say they were doing good work, so I’m a bit protective of the Lord. Christ will not share His glory with anyone. (edited)

  • As I read the words, anyone who does good to the “least of these” as described in those verses is doing it for him. If that’s not how you read it, your argument is with him, not with me.

  • You are an honest atheist, Mr. Rational. At least you state atheism’s central tenet with no jive, no junk, no attempts to white-wash it, no attempts to bait-and-switch-it, nor even try to sugar-coat it for media consumption.

    Thanks for telling the straight truth, regarding what the religion of atheism preaches.

  • I made my point very clearly. And Christ was very clear – you did it to me, not for me.
    Matthew 25:40 – ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[a] you did it to me.’

  • But there is still no god.
    Atheism by itself is just a lack of belief in a god or gods (no religion necessarily need apply). The Satanic Temple is a pretty good atheistic religion.. It’s Seven Tenets are far superior to the main-stream versions of the Christian ten commandments — much more moral and, unlike the Christian Ten Commandments, compatible with the Constitution of the United States of America. Besides The Satanic Template, what other atheistic religions might you be referring to?

  • What nonsense are you spouting? Atheism is the lack of belief in the gods and the supernatural. Simple. Who, besides you, is making it more complex?

  • How does Annuit Coeptis tranlate as God favors our development. It simply means: From its beginnings it shall last through the years.” Or “IOnce begun it shall lst.” No mention of God.

  • The concept of Citizenship is a better civil society foundation than the concept of Believer. The Declaration of Human Rights, although somewhat derived from the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, is a better morality than offered by any branch of Christianity or Islam. Part of its superiority derives from the notion that our understanding of humanity, and the best way for humanity to operate as a society, is subject to evolution and correction. This wllingness to evolve stands in contrast to “nature” and “natural law” as used by religionists. This religious, scientifically unsound use of “nature” freezes society in favor of one group and makes other groups intrinsically wrong, even evil. Citizenship has often been exclusive, but this exclusion has been corrected in many instances and further correction is needed. But the religionists, with their frozen and erroneous notions of nature, stand in the way.

  • Atheism is a religion like not playing golf is a sport.

    Atheist,” means, “There’s insufficient evidence to warrant belief in a divine, supernatural creator of the universe.

  • I find it odd that people who are religious cannot seem to stand the fact that atheism is not a religion.

  • For Floyd, there is a gay religion, and atheist religion, and a progressive religion, if I recall. In these cases, he does not mean to apply the word “religion” as a compliment.

    And then, when you read what he has o say about HIS religion, no sane person would take it as a compliment either.

  • Oh, but that line falls under its own weight. A rational person need only respond, “And therefore what?”, and the only possible reply is “And therefore there is no God.”

    Which is the definition and central tenet of atheism.

    From there, a Christian can handle things pretty easily, either Scripturally, rationally, scientifically, or just by listening to former atheists.

  • Actually, I’ve not said anything about a “progressive” religion.

    The first two religions there are clear enough all by themselves, but “progressive” is just a 25-cent white-washy term for “liberal”.

  • See response to Mountain Humanist. Your chosen religion IS that “There is no God.” (And if you do NOT personally agree with that specific four-word sentence, please say so right now Jim.)

    Because your central tenet is a very vulnerable claim in rational terms (not to mention both Science and Scripture), you guys try to adopt a white-wash definition that you hope will shift the burden of proof to theists.

    But even some atheists have said it’s fake and contrived.

  • Here’s another really good example of the atheist problem.

    Notice what Door said **just before** offering the standard “lack of belief” white -wash.

    He says, “There is no God.” Nice & upfront, no hiding it. You know why he said that? Because rationally, he had no choice. THAT, is the definition and description of atheism. Impossible to escape it.

    However, Door is more honest than these other atheists around here, in that he’s willing to give a specific example of atheist religion — the Satanic Temple atheist cult. So now you know my claim is a plausible one.

    > “lack of belief white – wash” is an interesting choice of words.
    > One definition of white-wash is to “defeat an opponent, while keeping them from scoring”. Yet, It is theists lack of evidence and liberal and persistent use of logical fallacies that keeps them from scoring. Just because all the theist plays fail does not mean atheists are necessarily playing unfairly. Another definition of white-wash is “to gloss over or cover up”. This might apply when just stating “There is no god” without citing reasons because it is stating a conclusion (either well thought out, or not) without giving reasons. Yet, as it has been said, if all theists were completely reasonable when it came to their theism, then there wouldn’t be theists, once they honestly compared all their arguments to all the atheist arguments. Therefore, reasoning could be considered a waste of time against people keeping their shields up protecting their non-viable worldviews.

    > “The Atheist problem” is an interesting thought. For theists one part of the atheist problem is that atheists exist — I’d be curious how floydiee defines the “atheist problem” as completely as possible. For atheists, the atheist problem is the persistence of theistic beliefs or impressions that are firmly maintained despite being
    contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational
    argument. Typically such symptoms would be considered a mental disorder, but since such irrational beliefs are so pernicious and pervasive they are not normally classified as mental disorders. It is a tough problem for atheists, why theists maintain theistic beliefs, but as is often the case, the most difficult problems can often be understood or solved with science. The fact-based neuroscience of today may be the start of what finally helps the victims of religious and dogmatic thought in ways that Freudian type externally based observations and wild causal suppositions were not able to provide. One thing that is sure, though, is that Progress won’t come from mythical-god beliefs.

  • Here are Cyrus’s words: From [Babylon] to Aššur and (from) Susa, Agade, Ešnunna, Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there, to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings. In addition, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I settled in their habitations, in pleasing abodes, the gods of Sumer and Akkad, whom Nabonidus, to the anger of the lord of the gods, had brought into Babylon. (lines 30-33)[6]

    Here are Isaiah’s words concerning Cyrus:
    Isa_44:28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.'”

    Isa_45:1 Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed:

  • That is not looking for someone in todays
    Of Cyrus, ok but I don’t see any other politicians name in that book. Thank you for the scripture though.