Yesterday, I discussed with my class Robert Bellah’s famous 1967 essay entitled “Civil Religion in America.” In a time when news commentators and some scholars express concern that there is too much religion in American politics, Bellah’s essay reminds us that religion has always been part of American politics and national discourse.
Referring to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Presidential Inaugural speech, Bellah remarked that President Kennedy referred to God three times in that famous speech. Bellah then asks, “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word ‘God’ at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension. Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. These have played a crucial role in the development of American institutions and still provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere. This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling American civil religion.”