We get our notion of civil religion from the world of classical antiquity. In the world of ancient Athens and Rome, “the state and religion were so completely identified that it was impossible even to distinguish the one from the other. . . . Every city had its city religion; a city was a little church, all complete, with its gods, its dogmas, and its worship.”1 (I am quoting from Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, from his classic work, La Cité antique, The Ancient City.) In recent years, many observers of American life have come to the conclusion that this country too has its civil religion, though not generalIy recognized as such, but fully operative in the familiar way, with its creed, cult, code, and community, like every other religion. On this, there is wide agreement; but there are considerable differences among historians, sociologists, and theologians as to the sources of America’s civil religion, its manifestations, and its evaluation in cultural and religious terms. These are precisely the matters I should like to discuss in the following paragraphs, with the hope of reaching some tentative conclusions on the subject.

Robin Williams, in his influential work, American Society: A Sociological Interpretation (1951), says:

Every functioning society has, to an important degree, a common religion. The possession of a common set of ideas, [ideals], rituals, and symbols can supply an overarching sense of unity even in a society otherwise riddled with conflict.2

This we might call the operative religion of a society, the system of norms, values, and allegiances actually functioning as such in the ongoing social life of the community. And, of course, the operative religion of a society emerges out of, and reflects, the history of that society as well as the structural forms that give it its shape and character. If we ask ourselves what is this system of “ideas, [ideals], rituals, and symbols” that serve as the “common religion” of Americans, providing them with an “overarching sense of unity,” it is obvious that it cannot be any of the professed faiths of Americans, however sincerely held; I mean Protestantism, Catholicism, or Judaism, or any of the many denominations into which American Protestantism is fragmented. I do not think there need be much argument about that. What is it, then, that does serve that all-important function? What is it in and through which Americans recognize their basic unity with other Americans as Americans? What is it that provides that “overarching sense of unity,” expressed in the system of allegiances, norms, and values functioning in actual life, without which no society can long endure? It seems to me that a realistic appraisal of the values, ideas, and behavior of the American people leads to the conclusion that Americans, by and large, find this “common religion” in the system familiarly known as the American Way of Life. It is the American Way of Life that supplies American society with its “overarching sense of unity” amidst conflict. It is the American Way of Life to which they are devoted. It is the American Way of Life that Americans are admittedly and unashamedly intolerant about. It is the American Way of Life that provides the framework in terms of which the crucial values of American existence are couched. By every realistic criterion, the American Way of Life is the operative religion of the American people.

This is the civil religion of Americans we are talking about. In it we have—slightly modifying Fustel de Coulanges’ classic formulation—religion and national life so completely identified that it is impossible to distinguish the one from the other. I want to make it clear that, when I speak of the American Way of Life as America’s civil religion, I am not thinking of it as a so-called “common denominator’’ religion; it is not a syncretistic system composed of beliefs to be found in all or in a group of religions. It is an organic structure of ideas, values, and beliefs that constitutes a faith common to Americans as Americans, and is genuinely operative in their lives; a faith that markedly influences, and is influenced by, the professed religions of Americans. Sociologically, anthropologically, it is the American religion, undergirding American national life and overarching American society, despite all indubitable differences of ethnicity, religion, section, culture, and class. And it is a civil religion in the strictest sense of the term, for, in it, national life is apotheosized, national values are religionized, national heroes are divinized, national history is experienced as a Heilsgeschichte, as a redemptive history. All these aspects of the American Way as America’s civil religion I will soon illustrate and document. But, first, I want to call attention to the notable difference in structure and content between America’s civil religion and the civil religion of classical antiquity, or even the civil religion as conceived of by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is a difference that reflects not only the vast difference in historical context, but especially the difference between the culture of pre-Christian antiquity and the culture of Western Christendom, especially America, so thoroughly permeated with Jewish-Christian visions of redemptive history, messianism, and messianic fulfillment.

Let us try to look at the American Way of Life as America’s civil religion in the same objective way, in the same detached, yet not unfriendly way, that an anthropologist looks upon the religion and culture of the primitive society he is studying. I say, let us try; it is a question whether we, as Americans, can really scrutinize ourselves, as Americans, with any very high degree of objectivity. For that, we may need another Tocqueville, though preferably not another Frenchman.

America’s civil religion has its spiritual side, of course. I should include under this head, first, belief in a Supreme Being, in which Americans are virtually unanimous, proportionately far ahead of any other nation in the Western world. Then I should mention idealism and moralism: for Americans, every serious national effort is a “crusade” and every serious national position a high moral issue. Among Americans, the supreme value of the individual takes its place high in the spiritual vision of America’s civil religion; and, with it, in principle, if not in practice and, of course, principle and practice frequently come into conflict in every religion—the “brotherhood” of Americans: “After all, we’re all Americans!” is the familiar invocation. Above all, there is the extraordinarily high valuation Americans place on religion. The basic ethos of America’s civil religion is quite familiar: the American Way is dynamic; optimistic; pragmatic; individualistic; egalitarian, in the sense of feeling uneasy at any overtly manifested mark of the inequalities endemic in our society as in every other society; and pluralistic, in sense of being impatient with the attempt of any movement, cause, or institution to take in “too much ground,” as the familiar phrase has it. Culturally, the American Way exhibits an intense faith in education, significantly coupled with a disparagement of culture in the aesthetic sense; and, characteristically, an extraordinarily high moral valuation of . . . sanitation! This is a good example of how what would appear to be rather ordinary matter-of-fact values become thoroughly religionized in the American Way as civil religion. Here is a printed placard displayed in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of restaurants all over the country:

Sanitation is a way of life. As a way of life, it must be nourished from within and grow as a spiritual ideal in human relations.

Here, cleanliness is not merely next to godliness; it is virtually on the same level, as a kind of equivalent.

But, of course, it is the politico-economic aspect of the American Way as America’s civil religion that is most familiar to us, as, indeed, in its own way, it was in the civil religions of the ancient world. If America’s civil religion had to be defined in one phrase, the “religion of democracy” would undoubtedly be the phrase, but democracy in a peculiarly American sense. It exalts national unity, as, indeed, every civil religion does. On its political side, it means the Constitution—I am reminded of Socrates’ deification of the Laws of Athens in the Platonic dialogue the Crito. On its economic side, it means “free enterprise.” On its social side, an egalitarianism which, as I have said, is not only compatible with, but indeed actually implies, vigorous economic competition and high social mobility. Spiritually, it is best expressed—and here I repeat myself again—in the very high valuation of religion, and in that special kind of idealism which has come to be recognized as characteristically American. But it is in its vision of America, in its symbols and rituals, in its holidays and its liturgy, in its saints and its sancta, that it shows itself to be so truly and thoroughly a religion, the common religion of Americans, America’s civil religion.

But a word of caution. I have listed a number of aspects of the American Way that do not seem, at first sight, to be religious, in a certain narrow sense of the word. But that is exactly the character of a civil religion; it is the religionization of the national life and national culture. You may be sure that the great annual Panathenaic Procession from the lower agora to the Acropolis, in which the youths of seventeen or eighteen received their arms and became adult citizens, entering the Athenian armed forces, would have seemed to us, accustomed as we are to the idea, though not to the reality, of the separation of national life and religion, to be really a political ceremony. But it was the archaic image of Athena that was carried at the head of the procession, and the procession moved on to the Parthenon, the temple of Athena.

Do you want the contemporary equivalent of this symbolization? Then think back a few months to the Inaugural ceremony last January 20th. Who came forward as the intensely prestigious figures symbolizing this great civil ceremony of ours?—The Warrior and the Priest, the soldier and the clergyman. Here you have the perfect synthetic symbol of our civil religion, thoroughly traditional and immensely potent—and, if I may say so, not altogether unlike the Panathenaic Procession of ancient Athens.

But let us get back to what I would take to be the culminating aspects of this account of America’s civil religion—its vision of America, its saints and sancta, its redemptive history. What is America in the vision of America’s civil religion? Look at the Great Seal of the United States, the reverse of the Great Seal. (It’s on your dollar bill.) What do you see? An unfinished pyramid, representing the American national enterprise, and over it the all-seeing eye of God. Most impressive are the mottoes, in Latin, naturally: “Anuuit Coeptis,” “He [God] has smiled upon our beginnings”; and “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” “A New Order of the Ages.” That is America in the vision of America’s civil religion: a new order, initiated under God, and flourishing under his benevolent providence. Could there be a more national vision and a more religious vision combined; is it at all possible to separate the religious and the national in this civil religion, any more than it was in ancient Greece or Rome?

It is this vision that gives substance to American history as redemptive history in the vision of America’s civil religion. For this we can borrow the felicitous phrase of Oscar Handlin’s, “Adventure in Freedom.” That is how Americans see the ultimate meaning of American history.

A redemptive history has, of course, its messianic vision. And so does America’s civil religion. Over a century ago, in 1850, in an impassioned outburst in White Jacket, Herman Melville formulated this messianic vision in these tremendous words:

God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world, the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things to break a new path in the New World that is ours. . . . Long enough have we debated whether, indeed, the political Messiah has come. But he has come in us. . . . And, let us remember that, with ourselves, almost for the first time in history, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy.

Do you recall Pericles’ celebrated funeral oration, given by Thucydides?

Would you want to relegate Herman Melville to the nineteenth century? Then here is Charles Fleischer, at the turn of the twentieth:

We of America are the “peculiar people,” consecrated to the mission of realizing Democracy, [which] is potentially a universal spiritual principle, aye, a religion.3

Or Hugh Miller, in 1948:

America was not created to be supreme among the “great powers.” It was created to inaugurate the transition of human society to just society. It is a missionary enterprise, propagating a gospel for all men.4

With its redemptive history and its messianism, America’s civil religion has its liturgy and its liturgical year. The traditional Christian year and the Jewish religious year have been virtually eroded in American popular religion, reduced to Christmas and Easter on the Christian side, and to Passover and the High Holy Days on the Jewish side. But, as Lloyd Warner tells us, “all societies, simple or complex, possess some form of ceremonial calendar.”5 In America, it is the ceremonial calendar of America’s civil religion, our yearly round of national holidays. Lloyd Warner explains:

The ceremonial calendar of American society, this yearly round of holidays and holy days . . . is a symbol system used by all Americans. Christmas, [New Year,] Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, [Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays,] and the Fourth of July are days in our ceremonial calendar which allow Americans to express common sentiments . . . and share their feelings with others on set days pre-established by the society for that very purpose. This [ceremonial] calendar functions to draw all people together, to emphasize their similarities and common heritage, to minimize their differences, and to contribute to their thinking, feeling, and acting alike.6

Recall Robin Williams’ characterization of civil religion as the common religion of a people that I quoted at the outset.

America’s civil religion, too, has its saints—preeminently Washington and Lincoln—and its sancta and its shrine—think of Washington, D.C., and Hyde Park. Some remarks about the saints of our civil religion would, I think, be in place here. I turn to Lloyd Warner again. He is describing, as the anthropologist he is should, a Memorial Day service in Yankee City. First, as to the religio-national function of Memorial Day:

The Memorial Day ceremonies and subsidiary rites . . . are rituals which are a sacred symbol system, which functions periodically to integrate the whole community, with its conflicting symbols and its opposing autonomous churches and associations . . . Memorial Day is a cult of the dead which organizes and integrates the various faiths, ethnic and class groups into a sacred unity.7

That’s what a civil religion is about. And, then, he goes on, quoting the chief Memorial Day orator at the ceremony he is reporting:

No character except the Carpenter of Nazareth has ever been honored the way Washington and Lincoln have been in New England. Virtue, freedom from sin, and righteousness were qualities possessed by Washington and Lincoln and, in possessing these qualities, both were true Americans. . . .8

It will not escape notice, I hope, that Washington and Lincoln are here raised to superhuman level, as true saints of America’s civil religion. They are equipped with the qualities and virtues that, in traditional Christianity, are attributed to Jesus alone—freedom from sin, for example. And they are endowed with these exalted qualities simply by virtue of the fact that they were—true Americans! I don’t know any more impressive illustration of the deeply religious nature of America’s civil religion.

What are the sources of America’s civil religion? Only in the most general way need we refer to civil religion in the ancient world, or even to the clearly articulated notion of civil religion projected by Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the civil religion of his ideal society so carefully described in his Social Contract. First, we must recognize, and I want to repeat, that, in Robin Williams’ words, “Every functioning society has, to an important degree, a common religion, . . . a common set of ideas, [ideals,] rituals, and symbols.”9 And then, we have to look to American history and American experience for the sources of the particular form and features of America’s civil religion as the American Way of Life. After careful study and scrutiny I have come to the conclusion that the American Way of Life, and therefore America’s civil religion, is compounded of the two great religious movements that molded America—the Puritan way, secularized; and the Revivalist way, secularized. The legacy of Puritanism has endowed us with its strenuous, idealistic, moralistic character; but deprived, through pervasive secularization, of the Puritan sense of sin and judgment. The Revivalist legacy has given us its active, pragmatic, what I might call its promotional, character—remember, the slogan “Deeds not creeds!” comes not from John Dewey, but from mid-nineteenth-century revivalism; but, again, through drastic secularization, it is a pragmatism, a promotionalism, an expansivism no longer “in the cause of Christ.” We do not know against what earlier background, if any, the civil religion of Athens or Rome emerged into historical times; but we can see the emergence of America’s civil religion out of the earlier Protestant Christianity some time toward the middle of the nineteenth century. Here we may be guided by Sidney Mead. Referring to the second half of the nineteenth century, Professor Mead writes:

What was not so obvious at the time was that the United States, in effect, had two religions, or at least two different forms of the same religion, and the prevailing Protestant ideology represented a syncretistic mingling of the two. The first was the religion of the [Protestant] denominations. . . . The second was the religion of the American society and nation. This . . . was articulated in terms of the destiny of America, under God, to be fulfilled by perfecting the democratic way of life for the example and betterment of mankind.10

In these percipient words, we can recognize the outlines and substance of America’s civil religion.

These words suggest that there have been various stages in the emergence of civil religion in America and in the varying relations of this religion to the more conventional religions of Christianity and Judaism. Unfortunately, this aspect of the problem of the development of America’s civil religion has not yet received adequate study. Yet we are in a position to distinguish very generally certain phases. There is, first of all, the emerging syncretism to which Mead refers in the passage I have just read. After that, apparently comes a very explicit and unembarrassed religionization of the American Way. And, finally, some time in this century, the explicit exaltation of the American Way, or democracy, as the super-religion, over and above all other religions. Consider these two statements. The first is from J. Paul Williams, a distinguished scholar and professor of religion:

Americans must come to look upon the democratic ideal (not necessarily the practice of it) as the Will of God, or, if they please, of Nature. . . . Americans must be brought to the conviction that democracy is the very Law of Life. . . . The state must be brought into the picture; governmental agencies must teach the democratic idea as religion. . . . Primary responsibility for teaching democracy as religion must be given to the public schools.11

The civil religion as established religion with the public schools as its seminaries! But it is Horace M. Kallen, the well-known philosopher, who has put the matter most clearly and most strikingly:

For the communicants of the democratic faith it [democracy] is the religion of and for religions. . . . [It is] the religion of religions; all may freely come together in it.12

America’s civil religion, democracy, is the overarching faith, in which the particular religions may find their particular place, provided they don’t claim any more. Think of the Roman overarching civil religion with its Pantheon, and with the niches in the Pantheon so generously awarded by Rome to the particular ethnic religions, so long as they did not come into collision with the overarching faith of Rome.

How shall we envisage the relation of America’s civil religion to the various versions of Christianity and Judaism professed by Americans? This was a problem for the world of classical antiquity as well. Romans and Greeks of those days had, at least, four different kinds of religion in coexistence: (1) the very ancient Indo-European religion of the high gods, the Olympian deities for the Greeks—I mean the religion of Zeus-Jupiter; (2) the domestic religion, compounded of the cult of ancestors and the household gods, the lures and penates of Rome; (3) the so-called mystery religions, the personal salvationary cults, largely, though not entirely, of foreign, oriental, origin; and, finally, (4) the great civil religion of the polis and the civitas, expanded into empire. We know, from unfortunately too fragmentary data, that the relations among these coexisting religions were always uneasy, sometimes hostile. In the Rome of the late republic and early empire, repeated attempts were made to outlaw the oriental salvation cults as incompatible with “true Roman piety,” but to no effect. Even when the various bans were lifted, or fell into disuse, however, the relations remained far from cordial.

In this country today, there seems to be, for the great mass of Americans, no sense of conflict, or even of tension, between America’s civil religion and the traditional religions of Christianity and Judaism professed by almost all Americans. The civil religion is, of course, affirmed as the American Way, but is neither seen nor denominated as a religion by the great mass of Americans; and that makes coexistence all the easier. Yet there are some points of tension, perhaps even of conflict, at the periphery, what I have elsewhere called the “hold-out groups.” There are, first, here and there, groups of incompletely enculturated—that is, incompletely Americanized—immigrants; quite naturally, they stand on the margins of the American Way, and therefore have not yet come under the coverage of America’s civil religion. It would not be difficult to specify names and places, but that is hardly necessary. These groups are very small, and are rapidly diminishing. Secondly, there are what are sometimes called the “old-fashioned” churches, churches with a strong credal or confessional tradition, which tend to look askance at some of the manifestations and expressions of America’s civil religion. But this attitude, too, is rapidly eroding, and will not, I think, last very long. Finally, among the “hold-out” groups are theologians and theologically inclined laymen, a rather small group in this country, but the group from which the various attempts to identify, examine, and criticize America’s civil religion have mostly come. All in all, however, these “hold-out groups” comprise a very small proportion of the American people. By and large, the great mass of Americans are not aware of any tension, or friction, or conflict between America’s civil religion and their professed faiths, whatever they may be.

I come now to the last, and perhaps most difficult, question that I have set myself in examining this problem of civil religion. And that question is double: how are we to evaluate America’s civil religion culturally, on the one hand, and theologically, on the other? Some of my friendly critics, such as Sidney Mead and Andrew Greeley, gently upbraid me for treating America’s civil religion too harshly. I plead not guilty, and I will try to make my case. First, I, of course, regard America’s civil religion as a genuine religion; and so was the Athenian civil religion and the Roman—in fact, all the various civil religions of the ancient world. The fact that they were, and America’s civil religion is, congruent with the culture is no argument against it; all religions, even the most sectarian, are embedded in, and display some congruence with, some concretion of culture, simply because all religions, in their human dimension, and they all possess a human dimension, must necessarily reflect some aspects of human society and social life. Furthermore, America’s civil religion, as it has emerged during the past two centuries, strikes me as a noble religion, celebrating some very noble civic virtues. But so was the Roman civil religion in its best period, and so was Confucianism turned into religion in classical China. On its cultural side, I would regard the American Way of Life, which is the social face of America’s civil religion, as probably the best way of life yet devised for a mass society—with the proviso that even the best way of life, if it is the way of life of a mass society, will have its grave defects. And, if Abraham Lincoln, for instance, is to be taken as an exemplar of our civil religion, then we can see what a powerful strain of genuine Christian spirituality, in this case, Calvinist, has entered into it. So I certainly would not want to disparage America’s civil religion in its character as religion.

But, if it is an authentic religion as civil religion, America’s civil religion is not, and cannot be seen as, authentic Christianity or Judaism, or even as a special cultural version of either or both. Because they serve a jealous God, these biblical faiths cannot allow to be accepted as a claim to ultimacy and absoluteness on the part of any thing or any idea or any system short of God, even when what claims to be the ultimate locus of ideas, ideals, values, and allegiance is the very finest of human institutions; it is still human, man’s own construction, and not God himself. To see America’s civil religion as somehow standing above or beyond the biblical religions of Judaism and Christianity, and Islam too, as somehow including them and finding a place for them in its overarching unity, is idolatry, however innocently held and whatever may be the subjective intentions of the believers. But this is theology, which I have discussed elsewhere, and which I have tried to avoid here. In this article it has been my intention to place before you my thinking, and some of the conclusions I have reached, on the nature, sources, purposes, structure, and functioning of America’s civil religion, and to call attention to some of the questions that need urgent attention for a clarification of the overall problem. To some degree, I hope, I have contributed to this end, so important for a real understanding of our culture, society, and religion.

Will Herberg was a sociologist who wrote on philosophy, culture, and religion. 

  1. Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, La Cité Antique (1864), chap. VII, ad finem; chap. VI, ad finem. ↩︎
  2. Robin Williams, American Society: A Sociological Interpretation (1951), p. 312. ↩︎
  3. Quoted in Arthur Mann, “Charles Fleischer’s Religion of Democracy,” Commentary, June 1954. ↩︎
  4. Hugh Miller, An Historical Introduction to Modern Philosophy (1948), p. 570. ↩︎
  5. W. Lloyd Warner, Structure of American Life (1952), p. 2. ↩︎
  6. Ibid. ↩︎
  7. W. Lloyd Warner, op. cit., p. 214. ↩︎
  8. Ibid., p. 220. ↩︎
  9. See note 2. ↩︎
  10. Sidney E. Mead, “American Protestantism Since the Civil War: From Denominationalism to Americanism,” The Journal of Religion, January 1956. ↩︎
  11. J. Paul Williams, What Americans Believe and How They Worship (1951), pp. 71, 78, 368, 374. ↩︎
  12. H. M. Kallen, “Democracy’s True Religion,” Saturday Review of Literature, July 28, 1951. ↩︎