Why we need Robert Bellah’s civil religion today

As we pause for a day of Thanksgiving for national blessings, let us remember that a 'transcendent reference point' is crucial for the health of our bonds as a nation.

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.

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!