Important update (imho) on the issue, at a time the culture wars were just beginning …

Keith Richburg, “America Already Has a Civil Religion,” Washington Post, Sept. 8, 1985

Article by Keith Richburg, then of the Washington Post (educated at Michigan and LSE, longtime foreign correspondent and later director of  the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong. He wrote:

Verbatim excerpts:

Education Secretary William J. Bennett sparked the current debate with his unusual Aug. 7 speech to a Catholic lay organization, in which he waxed theocratic, quoted Abraham Lincoln waxing theocratic and made an emotive appeal to inject our public schools with a dose of religion in order to restore America’s shaken value structure and set us right with our “Judeo-Christian tradition.”


The concept of a civil religion is an old one, and it helps explain why this country is at once both deeply religious in its values and vehemently secular in its institutions.

The concept sheds some light on why Americans simultaneously tell pollsters that they are religious (leading to the conclusion that we are a devout people) but that they disbelieve almost every article of faith, like the existence of heaven (leading to the conclusion that we are the most secular, non- religious people on earth). It is a concept that, according to religious sociologist Robert Bellah’s essay in 1967 on civil religion, “fuses God, country and flag . . . to attack non-conformist and liberal ideas.” At its worst, it is an ideology that has led America into foreign entanglements that we sometimes pursue as if they were holy wars.

In that article, entitled “Civil Religion in America,” Bellah described it as “a theme that lies very deep in American tradition, namely, the obligation, both collective and individual, to carry out God’s will on earth.” Religious historian Martin E. Marty said in his book, “Pilgrims in Their Own Land,” that the civil religion “finds its true home in aspects of the American legal tradition, its established church in the public schools, its creed in the Declaration, its prophecies in the most compelling lines of presidential addresses, its psalms in some American poetry, its passion in the cries by citizens at the deepest crises of American life.”


If there is any doubt that Reagan, Bennett and the religious right are adherents to the American civil religion, recall the lines from Reagan’s 1980 speech to the Republican national convention in Detroit: “Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely?” Reagan asked, before suggesting that the conventioneers “begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer.”

Bennett, speaking last April, said, “Strictly speaking, the United States did not simply develop. Rather, the United States was created (italics mine) in order to realize a specific political vision.”

Referring to the civil religion in order to promote specific teachings conflicts with one of the civil religion’s founding tenets. That tenet acknowledges and celebrates the fact that this is a diverse nation. It holds that the civil religion must remain aloof from specific sectarian goals dear to many of those who refer to the civil religion to win popular appeal. Thus an attempt to mix the two on a practical level engenders contradiction, and may be doomed.

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