Some regard it as idolatry, but it is the cement holding our nation together.

It is the style to decry American civil religion as blatant idolatry—American Shinto. For my part, I thank God for it.

But since that phrase now has so many definitions, we should clarify our meaning: When I speak of “civil religion,” I mean “political and social convictions,” or “political value systems,” or “political philosophy,” or Walter Lippmann’s “public philosophy.”

More technically, I follow many sociologists who accept Emile Durkheim’s definition of civil religion as those convictions and practices that determine the consciences and conduct of a people in terms of politics and general social structures. Some do not call that “civil religion.” Ordinarily I do not, either. But why argue over a term so long as we understand each other?

Value Of Civil Religion

In this sense, civil religion is the cement that holds a nation together. It is indispensable for the nation’s existence, and its nature determines the nation’s character. The Declaration of Independence spells it out explicitly for the new nation of America. In his Farewell Address, George Washington wrote: “Of all the suppositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

And our second president, John Adams, noted: “It is religion and morality alone upon which freedom can securely stand. A patriot must be a religious man.” Later he added, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and a religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”


American civil religion is, of course, amorphous. Its tenets and practices are constantly changing. However, certain basic convictions have characterized it since its founding days: government exists for the good of the citizens. Its duty is to seek their welfare, protect them, reward the innocent, and punish the guilty. Its ethical code is roughly comparable to the second table of the Decalogue, prohibiting stealing, adultery, murder, and false witness.

Yet its powers are limited. Government has the right to manage the civil lives of its citizenry, but not their religious lives. All government is under God and his moral law. Every human being has political and social rights—in fact, equal rights before the law. All religions should be tolerated, and all religious practices—so long as they do not contradict public morality (variously defined). Democracy is the best form of government; and therefore, concern for others requires that we should extend it as far as possible by peaceful persuasion. Our part as citizens is to obey our government and respect it. We are to love our country and serve it.

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Of course, not every American adheres to all these tenets of civil religion. Those who depart too far from its prescribed practices (murderers, for example) frequently end up in jail. Those who do not adhere in conscience to this accepted civil religion are generally tolerated. Early in American history, New Englander William Livingston stated a principle that has found wide acceptance: “The civil power hath no jurisdiction over the sentiments or opinions of the subjects, till such opinions break out into actions prejudicial to the community, and then it is not the opinion but the action that is the object of our punishment.”

Heresies Of American Civil Religion

Of course, like any religion, civil religion, too, has its heresies. Patriotism descends to chauvinism: “My country right or wrong.” Here, an ultimate commitment is made to the state, which determines its own right and wrong; whatever it does is defended. Or civil religion may become an absolute requirement, so that rejection of it becomes punishable as a crime. For the most part, however, the American people have, at least in theory, repudiated such Fascist-like heresies that deify the state.

How Is It Formed?

So much for the content of appropriate civil religion. But how about its formative principle? What shapes it? For example, Roman Catholic teaching is determined by the church through its infallible pope and universal council. Traditional Protestantism appeals to an infallible Bible. What shapes American civil religion? Originally, no doubt, it took shape under strong Puritan influence, faced by the facts of colonial life. Not every New Englander was a Puritan separatist, and not every Virginian was a loyal Anglican. Yet they shared basic Judaeo-Christian convictions that they had inherited as part of Western culture. Puritans found them in the Bible; deists, in natural theology: All men and women are created in the image of God. Therefore, we must set high value on the personal integrity of every human. He or she must be respected, loved, protected, and served. Justice is due to all. We may persuade, but not coerce others so long as their actions are not destructive of the body politic and the rights of others.

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The political corollaries of these theological ideas became widely accepted by Puritans of the eighteenth century. They were shared as part of their common faith by many other American Protestants. But they were also shared for the most part by Jews and deists (even Thomas Paine and, of course, Thomas Jefferson). A century later, Roman Catholics were reluctantly admitted into the consensus. All shared a basic commitment to the Judeo-Christian value system, which served as the basis for political and social action, and thus for what has been called American civil religion.

Can Evangelicals Support Civil Religion?

The ultimate commitment of evangelicals is to Jesus Christ. They set their theology by the Bible; can they support a civil religion? Can they, like the ancient Romans, support two deities? Our Lord warned us against dual loyalties: our eye must be single. Can we serve God and mammon? Will not even the slightest hint of civil religion constitute an idol and preclude any genuine biblical faith?

That depends, of course, on the nature of our civil religion. America, like any nation, must be under God. Its laws and practices fall under the judgment of God and should seek to conform to God’s righteous will for the nation. The term may be inappropriate, but civil religion, carefully defined in this sense, is not antithetical to biblical faith, but it is supported and fostered by it. That is why biblical Christians are patriotic and usually obey their government (even bad government). So Tertullian in the ancient world reminded Roman governors that Christians were their best supporters and their most loyal and obedient citizens, upholding the good of the nation. The Bible commands Christians to pray for and honor their rulers. They must for conscience’ sake obey the law (except where it violates God’s laws). They are to participate fully as citizens, rendering to Caesar the full measure of all that is his.

And the Christian’s Jewish neighbor next door can say the same with an equally clear conscience and without lessening his commitment to his Jewish faith. Likewise, an enlightened Roman Catholic neighbor across the street can join in supporting these political-religious values because he, too, shares them and sees no conflict with his Catholic faith.

Of course, if American civil religion at any point requires disobedience to God, the biblical Christian, with Peter, must choose to obey God rather than man. Or if American civil religion becomes the central substance of religious life and thought, an evangelical must reject it as false. Civil religion, even as we have defined it, represents only aspects of biblical faith and is greatly dependent on it for its sustenance. And, of course, the state that dares to challenge the ultimacy of Christ becomes a blasphemous idol.

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Dangers And Challenges

Two warnings, from opposite directions, are appropriate for American Christians. They must beware the tendency of any biblically justified patriotism or civil religion to assume ultimate authority, and so free itself from judgment by God’s righteous standard. Patriotism then becomes idolatry—antithetical to Christian faith. But just because we do love our country and honor it, we can easily slip beyond the thin edge of what is appropriate. Then we can commit the blasphemy of what in practice becomes a denial of biblical Christianity.

But in our day, a second danger besets our nation. Americans take their political heritage for granted. This is both wrong and dangerous. In America we have a precious political heritage of great freedom coupled with responsible government. But an alarming trend in America is transforming the so-called American civil religion of the past into an enormously different sort of religious commitment: a politics of selfish individualism.

At the heart of biblical ethics is the teaching that love to God always demands and necessarily results in love to our fellow men. The essence of the Christian life, therefore, is service—loving service to God and others.

But today, in the name of freedom, a great many demand the right to serve themselves. Such a civil religion would destroy us as a nation.

Rather, we must renew our commitment to the basic public values that have guided us in the past. America stands under the judgment of God and must be held responsible to him. And our public and political life, like every other aspect of the truly Christian life, must be a life of service for the good of others.


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