La Nacion, Argentina
Assessing the Impact of America's 'Civil Religion'

*By Enrique Tomás Bianchi

Translated By Vic Chica

August 22, 2006

Argentina - La Nacion - Original Article (English)     

President Dwight D. Eisenhower: Spoke of a
nation founded upon 'a deep religious faith.'

[RealVideoDwight D. Eisenhower]

[RealVideoJustice Antonin Gregory Scalia ]

Justice Scalia: Favoring the God-fearing majority. (below)

John Winthrop, a Puritan who wrote a sermon about a
'city on a hill,' This image has taken up by Americans
throughout its history, most recently President Ronald
Reagan. (above).

[RealVideoPuritan John Winthrop]

[RealVideoThomas Paine]

Thomas Paine [1737-1809]: 'I do not believe in the creed
professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by
the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant
church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my
own church.' (below)


The American President Eisenhower declared during the 50s "Our form of government only makes sense if it is founded upon a deep religious faith. What this faith is has little import, as long as it exists." Perhaps without realizing it, he alluded to what sociologists have called "civil religion."

Robert Bellah RealVideo, treading a path cleared by Talcott Parsons RealVideo, tried to characterize civil religion in his work Civil Religion in America (1967) RealVideo. Beyond particular religions and various kinds of worship, there are certain common elements of religious orientation that the majority of Americans share. These elements derive historically from Christianity, but these are minimal. It is a "common sense" religion - a vague, institutionalized theism. That civil religion, which doesn't compete with the various churches, has as its focus the preservation of law and order, not personal salvation. The religion looks to the nation and the Constitution as a whole that, supposedly, God has reserved for it. It appears as a set of values and beliefs that serve to reinforce a collective identity.

Thanksgiving Day, the Pledge of Allegiance (One Nation Under God), the national motto (In God We Trust), the Supreme Court's opening invocation (God Save The United Stated And This Honorable Court), and the habitual invocation of religion in the speeches of officials and politicians are some of the many examples of this. Although the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from favoring one religion over another, the issue of whether it is legal for the government to promote religiousness in general over irreligiousness is one that is still raised in the Supreme Court.

Conservative judges respond in the affirmative. One of them, [Justice Antonin Gregory] Scalia RealVideo, wrote [in his dissenting opinion RealVideo] that between two legitimate interests, that of a minority not to feel excluded, and that of an oppressive majority (the believers) to give thanks to God and worship him as a people, "Our national tradition has resolved this conflict in favor of the majority" (McCreary County, Kentucky v. ACLU, 6/27/05).

It is clear that a civil religion conceived in this way is more likely to bless the nation's exploits than to indict or question them. Such divinity does not rebuke those who invoke it: it legitimizes them. This is blended with a messianic and Universalist inclination that is very much in the Puritan tradition. John Winthrop RealVideo, in a famous 1630 sermon RealVideo, saw America as a city on a hill, called to illuminate the world through its values. Now, the preacher Pat Robinson RealVideo, in The New World Order, says: "There will never be world peace until the house of God and the people of God assume their role of leadership at the head of the world."

If some nostalgics feel enchanted at so much divine presence in American public institutions and spaces - areas that in other countries appear more secularized - the most recent mutation of America's civil religion will leave them quite perplexed. In effect, just as the noted sociologist Bellah has remarked in one of his later works (Meaning and Modernity, 2002), the tension between social reality and ultimate truth appears to have collapsed because, "if America … is a realized utopia, a version of the Kingdom of God on earth, then its fundamental assumptions are not open to discussion." From there is derived the danger of America's perception of itself as the planet's "avenger of justice," and as the nation that should deliver the Good News to the world, by force if necessary. Paradoxically, "the state is the church," and one that exercises an enormous degree of control over dissidents – rather than "my own mind is my own church," as Thomas Paine RealVideo once said.

[Editor's Note: Paine wrote in his 1793 book The Age of Reason RealVideo, "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit].

Another sociologist, this one French, (Sébastien Fath, in As God Blesses America (Dieu benisse l'Amerique, 2004), analyzes the different phases of North American civil religion, which has been shaped by the various groups that have predominated throughout its history.  Initially, the historically Christian churches stood out the most. Then came the "evangelical" brand of Christianity (Neo-Pentecostalists and Charismatics) with the accompanying phenomenon of the "Born-Agains." During this period, everything tended toward a kingdom in which the coming of the messiah and end of the world were no longer important, but rather the American nation itself. "It is first of all on behalf of this God that the United States fights," says Fath, who speaks of a "post-millennialism without a transcendent God" and of, "America, a new and divine guardian."

General William G. 'Jerry' Boykin: We'll only beat
Saddam and bin Laden if we fight in the name of

[RealVideoWilliam G. Boykin ]


If these authors were correct, we might reflect on the risk of manipulation that is always latent in religions that postulate a personal God; a God whose will human beings feel called upon to fulfill on Earth. As the alleged transcendence of all these [beliefs] are mostly unspoken, interpretations of their presumed intentions are dissimilar - although these assumed aims are always in harmony with very concrete interests of the worldly power and include the possibility of enormous conflicts.

Today we see Islamic fundamentalists called to Holy War against the "Crusaders," and an important American General (William G. "Jerry" Boykin), responding that "we'll only beat Saddam and bin Laden if we fight in the name of Jesus."

It is clear that the two opponents have ended up using the same language … and that doesn't seem good.

*The author is a legal secretary at the Argentine Supreme Court

Spanish Version Below

La religión civil en EE.UU.

Por Enrique Tomás Bianchi

El presidente estadounidense Eisenhower declaró en los años 50: "Nuestra forma de gobierno sólo tiene sentido si está fundada en una fe religiosa profunda. Lo que ésta sea poco me importa, con tal de que exista". Aludía, quizá sin proponérselo, a la que los sociólogos llamaron civil religion religión civil ).

Robert Bellah, sobre el camino abierto por Talcott Parsons, trató de caracterizarla en su obra Civil Religion in America (1967). Más allá de las opciones religiosas individuales y de los diversos cultos, habría ciertos elementos comunes de orientación religiosa que la mayoría de los norteamericanos compartirían. Estos elementos derivan históricamente del cristianismo, pero son mínimos, una religión common sense , un vago teísmo institucionalizado. Esa civil religion , que no compite con las iglesias particulares, está enfocada en el orden y en la ley, no en la salvación personal. Apunta a la nación y al papel que, se supone, Dios le tiene reservado. Aparece como un conjunto de valores y creencias que intentan reforzar la identidad colectiva.

Día de Acción de Gracias, juramento de fidelidad ( We are a Nation under God ), divisa nacional ( In God we trust ), apertura de audiencias de la Suprema Corte (G od save the United States and this Honorable Court ), invocaciones religiosas habituales en los discursos de funcionarios y políticos, son ejemplos entre muchos. Si bien la Constitución de Estados Unidos prohíbe que el Congreso favorezca a una religión sobre otra, se discute en aquella Corte si es lícito que el gobierno promueva la religión, en general, sobre la irreligión.

Los jueces conservadores contestan afirmativamente. Scalia, uno de ellos, dice que entre dos intereses legítimos, el de una minoría en no sentirse excluida y el de una abrumadora mayoría (los creyentes) en poder dar gracias a Dios y suplicarle como un pueblo, "nuestra tradición nacional ha resuelto este conflicto a favor de la mayoría" (en "McCreary County, Kentucky v/ACLU", del 27/6/05).

Claro está que una religión civil así concebida resulta más apta para bendecir las gestas nacionales que para enjuiciarlas o cuestionarlas. Esa divinidad no increpa a quienes la invocan: sólo los legitima. Esto se combina con una inclinación mesiánica y universalista muy presente en la tradición puritana. John Winthrop, en un famoso discurso del año 1630, veía a América como una ciudad sobre la montaña, llamada a iluminar al mundo por medio de sus valores. Ahora, el predicador Pat Robertson, en The New World Order, dice: "No habrá jamás paz mundial hasta que la casa de Dios y el pueblo de Dios asuman su rol de liderazgo a la cabeza del mundo".

Si algunos nostálgicos pueden sentirse arrobados ante tanta presencia divina en las instituciones y en los espacios públicos estadounidenses -ámbitos que en otros países aparecen más secularizados-, las últimas mutaciones de la civil religion en los Estados Unidos los dejarán bastante perplejos. En efecto, tal como el citado sociólogo Bellah lo marca en una obra posterior ( Meaning and Modernity , 2002), la tensión entre realidad social y verdad última parece haber colapsado porque "Si América [...] es una utopía realizada, una versión del Reino de Dios sobre la Tierra, entonces sus asuntos fundamentales no pueden ser puestos en discusión". De allí, el peligro de autointerpretarse como el Estado justiciero del planeta, como la nación que debe llevar al mundo la buena nueva, por la fuerza, si fuera necesario. Paradójicamente, "la nación es la Iglesia" -ya no "mi mente es mi Iglesia", como decía Thomas Paine- con lo cual un enorme poder de control es ejercido contra los disidentes.

Otro sociólogo, esta vez francés (Sébastien Fath, en Dieu bénisse l Amérique , 2004), analiza las diferentes etapas de la civil religion norteamericana, que estarían determinadas por los grupos que primaron en las diferentes épocas. Al inicio se destacaron las iglesias cristianas históricas. Después vino el cristianismo llamado "evangélico" (neopentecostales y carismáticos) con el fenómeno de los born-again vueltos a nacer ). Actualmente, todo se deslizaría hacia un reino en el cual la figura escatológica ya no es trascendente, sino que es la misma nación norteamericana. "Es ante todo por este dios que los Estados Unidos luchan", dice Fath, que habla de un "posmilenarismo sin dios trascendente" y de "América, una nueva divinidad tutelar".

Si estos autores tuvieran razón, podríamos terminar reflexionando sobre el riesgo de manipulación que está siempre latente en las religiones que postulan un Dios personal, cuya voluntad las potencias humanas se sienten llamadas a cumplir sobre esta Tierra. Como la alegada trascendencia es más bien silente, las interpretaciones de sus presuntos designios son disímiles -aunque siempre armonizan con intereses muy concretos de los poderes mundanos- y conllevan la posibilidad de enormes conflictos.

Hoy lo vemos. Al llamado de los fundamentalistas islámicos a la guerra santa contra los "cruzados", un importante general norteamericano (William G. "Jerry" Boykin) responde que "sólo se vencerá a Saddam y a Ben Laden si se combate en nombre de Jesús".

Puede que los enemigos terminen por hablar en el mismo lenguaje. Y eso no parece bueno.

El autor es secretario letrado Corte Suprema.