Robert Bellah’s Civil Religion

Robert Bellah, 1927-2013

As you may know by now, sociologist Robert Bellah passed away last week at the age of 86.  Many know Bellah as the lead author of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985), a seminal study of the relationship between religion and the common good.  But most people don’t realize that Bellah also coined the term “civil religion” in a 1967 article in Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Over at The New Republic Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin reflects on Bellah’s use of the term “civil religion.”  Here is a small taste:

But liberals and leftists in the U.S. have frequently embraced the same tradition, usually to make the case that protesting the status quo can be as legitimate as, and more virtuous than, defending it. During the 1890s, leaders of the radical People’s Party, composed mostly of evangelical Protestant farmers, compared their determination “to restore the republic to the hands of the plain people with which class it originated” to the second coming of Christ. In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. told an audience of bus boycotters in Montgomery, “we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.” Obama struck a similar chord early in his Second Inaugural Address when he referred to the Declaration’s “exceptional” view of “unalienable rights” and quickly added, “while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

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