For most people, the word “religion” connotes one of the major organized faiths humans have practiced for centuries. Religious traditions typically involve a sacred text, holidays and rituals, and deeply held beliefs practiced within a congregation. Sociologist Emile Durkheim noted that religion helps to create solidarity, and is marked by distinguishing the sacred from the profane.
But we also practice another form of religion, often without our awareness, which sociologists call civil religion. In his 1967 article, “Civil Religion in America,” sociologist Robert N. Bellah wrote of how American ideals have taken on a role similar to those of traditional religious symbols in the United States.
Bellah analyzed key speeches by presidents in American history, noting their parallels with biblical imagery. For example, you probably have observed that presidents (and presidential candidates) end speeches by saying “God Bless America,” similar to a prayer. We might think of how American holidays like Independence Day and Thanksgiving are akin to religious celebrations, with their many rituals and shared practices. They are days we take a break from our routine, often don’t go to work, spend time with family and friends and enjoy traditions like eating certain foods and in the case of Independence Day, watching fireworks in the evening.
Civil religion is about more than just the mingling of politics and religion. Civil religion means that ideas beyond the traditional religious realm become elevated as sacred. As with traditional religious beliefs, these ideals can serve to unite people and help us feel a sense of connection.
I recently observed civil religion in action at an amusement park, of all places. We arrived before the park opened to get a good parking space and try and avoid some of the crowds. We were allowed into the park, but the rides had not yet opened. People milled around, looking to see where they wanted to get in line first. It was a very disorganized scene.
At exactly 10 o’clock the park opened, denoted by the Star Spangled Banner playing over the park’s loud speaker. Many of the people stopped what they were doing, faced the flag at the park’s entrance, put their hands over their hearts reverently as the anthem played. The crowd let out a cheer when the anthem concluded.
Just as traditional religions maintain sacred texts, using them as guides for living and advising believers, the United States also has texts that are regarded as close to sacred: the Constitution most especially, but other documents like the Declaration of Independence are held with reverence too. These texts contain language that invokes notions of transcendence. The Declaration notes that we are endowed with unalienable rights from our creator, for example. Rather than civil religion competing with traditional religions, the two are often mutually supporting.
Besides nationalism, there are other practices we might argue are akin to civil religion. Sports fans often feel a deep sense of purpose and connection to others via their team. They might have rituals that they practice regularly alone or with others as part of this experience. (That the national anthem plays before every game also reinforces the notion of civil religion and sports.)
And like civil religion, spiritual practices can take place outside of traditional religious rituals. If religion is in part about transcendence, the worship of God and recognition of a higher power, community and connection, many other activities reflect this experience too.
For instance, I occasionally go hiking with a group that meets weekly. After a long hiatus, I joined the group a few weeks ago to find that one of the members recently lost his wife to cancer. She had also been part of the group, and people rushed to comfort the man when he arrived at the regular meeting spot.
After the hike, he spoke of how spending time in nature helped reaffirm the existence of a higher power for him. And though he was experiencing a great deal of pain, the beauty of the scenery provided comfort. Being in this place of reverence helped him feel closer to his deceased wife, not just because she frequently hiked there, but because it was a place where he could experience transcendence. Returning to the ritual of hiking with a supportive community of members helped him feel more connected at a time when he felt very alone.
While this experience doesn’t necessarily replace traditional religious worship and rituals, it is an example of how social groups create similar experiences in other contexts and settings. Although some people claim no formal religious affiliation—according to a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study, 16 percent of Americans—we have additional means of creating religious-like experiences. Can you think of any others?