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A civil religion is a term popularized among religious studies scholars in the 1980s to address aspects of nationalism that seem almost religious in their expression. Typically, scholars talk about the way a nation looks to her monuments as "sacred spaces, her foundational documents as sacred texts, and the general reverence about which people speak of the nation as form of religious structuring.
In the United States, American Civil Religion (ACR) has generated forests of academic writing, the least of which being the question "Does such a thing even exist?" Scholars such as RN Bellah, Martin Marty, and Charles H. Long not only argue about the nature of American civil religion, but to what extent Christianity must be considered part of that discussion, as the Christian mindset, both now and in our past, informs much of what we do on a daily basis, from having Sundays as our weekend "holy day" to the existence of blue laws.
Sociology of religion
It stands somewhat above folk religion in its social and political status, since by definition it suffuses an entire society, or at least a segment of a society; and is often practised by leaders within that society. On the other hand, it is somewhat less than an establishment of religion, since established churches have official clergy and a relatively fixed and formal relationship with the government that establishes them. Civil religion is usually practiced by political leaders who are laymen and whose leadership is not specifically spiritual.
Such civil religion encompasses such things as:
- the invocation of a god in political speeches and public monuments;
- the quotation of religious texts on public occasions by political leaders;
- the veneration of past political leaders;
- the use of the lives of these leaders to teach moral ideals;
- the veneration of veterans and casualties of a nation's wars;
- religious gatherings called by political leaders;
- the use of religious symbols on public buildings;
- the use of public buildings for worship;
and similar religious or quasi-religious practices.
Practical political philosophy
Professional commentators on political and social matters writing in newspapers and magazines sometimes use the term civil religion or civic religion to refer to ritual expressions of patriotism of a sort practiced in all countries, not always including religion in the conventional sense of the word. Among such practices are the following:
- crowds singing the national anthem at certain public gatherings;
- parades or displaying of the national flag on certain patriotic holidays;
- oaths of allegiance, such as the Pledge of Allegiance used in the USA;
- ceremonies concomitant to the inauguration of a president or the coronation of a king;
- retelling exaggerated, one-sided, and oversimplified mythologized tales of great leaders or great battles in the past;
- monuments commemorating great leaders of the past or historic events;
- monuments to dead soldiers or annual ceremonies to remember them;
- expressions of reverence for the country or the Constitution or the King;
- public display of the coffin of a recently deceased political leader.
In extreme cases such as North Korea, such expressions may take the form of veneration of a Great Leader that is required to exclude all other forms of religious expression, and dogmatic adherence to the philosophies of Great Leader, around whom a cult of personality is maintained.
These two conceptions of civil religion are not always mutually exclusive. In France, such secular ceremonies are separated from religious observances to a greater degree than in most countries. In Britain, where church and state are constitutionally joined, the monarch's coronation includes religious rites celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the United States of America, a president being inaugurated is told by the Constitution to choose between saying "I do solemnly swear..." (customarily followed by "so help me God", although those words are not Constitutionally required) and saying "I do solemnly affirm...", in which latter case no mention of God would be expected.
The first government to have an identifiable civil religion was the Roman Empire, whose first Emperor Augustus officially attempted to revive the dutiful practice of Classical paganism. Greek and Roman religion(s) were essentially local in character; the Roman Empire attempted to unite its disparate territories by inculcating an ideal of Roman piety, and by a syncretistic identifying the gods of conquered territories with the Greek and Roman pantheon. In this campaign, Augustus erected monuments such as the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace, showing the Emperor and his family worshipping the gods. He also encouraged the publication of works such as Vergil's Æneid, which depicted "pious Æneas", the legendary ancestor of Rome, as a role model for Roman religiosity. Roman historians such as Livy told tales of early Romans as morally improving stories of military prowess and civic virtue. The Roman civil religion later became centred on the person of the Emperor through the imperial cult, the worship of the genius of the Emperor.
Within the contexts of the monotheistic, prophetic, revealed faiths, civil religion can to be problematic from a theological perspective. Being identified with a political culture and a leadership hierarchy of an existing society, civil religion can interere with the prophetic mission of a religious faith. It is hard to make civil religion a platform for rebuking the sins of a people or its institutions, because civil religion exists to make them seem sacred in themselves.
The aggressive civil religion of the United States of America is an occasional cause of political friction between the United States and its allies in Europe, where civil religion is often relatively muted. In the United States, civil religion is often invoked under the name of Judeo-Christian tradition, a phrase once intended at the time to be maximally inclusive of the several monotheisms practiced in the United States, assuming that these faiths all worship the same God and share the same values.
- The term itself first appears in the 1700s in the writings of Rousseau.