Do Americans and Christians Worship the Same God?

Robert Bellah said no. American civil religion involves a god different from the Christian one:

What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion-there seems no other word for it-while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian. At a time when the society was overwhelmingly Christian, it seems unlikely that this lack of Christian reference was meant to spare the feelings of the tiny non-Christian minority. Rather, the civil religion expressed what those who set the precedents felt was appropriate under the circumstances. It reflected their private as well as public views. Nor was the civil religion simply “religion in general.” While generality was undoubtedly seen as a virtue by some, as in the quotation from Franklin above, the civil religion was specific enough when it came to the topic of America. Precisely because of this specificity, the civil religion was saved from empty formalism and served as a genuine vehicle of national religious self-understanding.

But American civil religion may surpass Christianity in wisdom and significance:

I would argue that the civil religion at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people. Like all religions, it has suffered various deformations and demonic distortions. At its best, it has neither been so general that it has lacked incisive relevance to the American scene nor so particular that it has placed American society above universal human values. I am not at all convinced that the leaders of the churches have consistently represented a higher level of religious insight than the spokesmen of the civil religion. Reinhold Niebuhr has this to say of Lincoln, who never joined a church and who certainly represents civil religion at its best:

An analysis of the religion of Abraham Lincoln in the context of the traditional religion of his time and place and of its polemical use on the slavery issue, which corrupted religious life in the days before and during the Civil War, must lead to the conclusion that Lincoln’s religious convictions were superior in depth and purity to those, not only of the political leaders of his day, but of the religious leaders of the era.[xii]

Perhaps the real animus of the religious critics has been not so much against the civil religion in itself but against its pervasive and dominating influence within the sphere of church religion.

We know we’re not supposed to put our trust in princes. But what about the princes’ gods?

9 thoughts on “Do Americans and Christians Worship the Same God?

  1. Definitely not, because princes are likely as not worshipers of the STATE. And by following them in worship, one will be worshiping the Dragon himself.

    “And they worshiped the Dragon, for he had given his authority to the BEAST, and they worshiped the BEAST, saying, “Who is like the BEAST, and who can fight against it?”


  2. “So far the flickering flame of the United Nations burns too low to be the focus of a cult, but the emergence of a genuine transnational sovereignty would certainly change this. It would necessitate the incorporation of vital international symbolism into our civil religion, or, perhaps a better way of putting it, it would result in American civil religion becoming simply one part of a new civil religion of the world. It is useless to speculate on the form such a civil religion might take, though it obviously would draw on religious traditions beyond the sphere of biblical religion alone.”

    I am old enough to remember that some terribly smart people actually believed this tripe.



    “Let’s rid the world of evil, and God bless America. This is the heresy of Americanism, and its currency explains why “Christian” observance remains so high in “God’s country.” Post-modern American Christianity has little to do with the religion founded by Our Lord. It is a health-and-happiness cult based on the utopian idea that Americans are God’s chosen people, that he has blessed them with a new New Covenant.” – Kevin Michael Grace


  4. What about do Dabo Swinney and Christians worship the same God?

    The announcer said, after Dabo’s “All glory to God” speech, “God is good, but so is DeShaun Watson.”


  5. DG, Dan-

    Hideous beyond belief. I can imagine reading someone’s accusation that practically speaking this is what is developing, but to see it actually positively countenanced and even advocated is really something.

    Reminds me of Benson’s novel “Lord of the World.”


  6. KIN, did you look at the dates? Original piece that DGH posted (I started to say “dredged up”) was from 1967. By the time I read it in 1971 for a sociology of religion class, it was already being criticized from a new left perspective for finding anything good to say about America. One other student in the class had also been in the undergrad political science seminar where we devoted the whole damn term to what is called a ” close” reading of Voegelin’s “New Science of Politics” and we were, instead, appalled by the utopianism.


  7. Dan-

    I did notice the date; this one-world-religion thing has been a long time coming (in a sense, since 18th c Germany at the least). I found a 2007 blog post by the author where he is still speaking favorably of it.

    My first personal encounter with this nonsense was at a young age watching one of the Star Trek movies where major world religious leaders/establishers were “revealed” to be pointing to the same “truth” (I’m rather younger than you, my mother not having “given light” to me, to import a Spanish phrase, until just after the 1970s).

    Even at that time, although I found the idea intriguing, I had a sense that there was something funny about it. I would prefer my son not be troubled by such foolishness, but how to avoid something so prevalent? Seems like we all have to be philosophers today just to stay sane.

    I’ve not read Voegelin; doubt I will. I do highly recommend the Benson novel. It is a dystopian work every bit as interesting as Huxley’s or Orwell’s, but addressing ecclesiastical issues and the spiritual nature of man more than the social, political, or secular psychological.


  8. Muslims and Star Wars’ fans cover their heads when worshiping their gods:

    Durkheim’s definition does not require Star Wars to be oriented around gods, or to involve belief in the supernatural, or to have an ecclesiastical government to be a religion. Instead, Star Wars is religion if it serves certain functions. If we can say Star Wars creates a community united by beliefs and practices relative to some thing sacred or special, then we can say Star Wars is religion. What makes some things special? Well, for Durkheim, nothing more or less than the proscriptions and prescriptions people place around particular things. (I bet you can guess where I’m going with this.)

    For some people Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is just a film – a fun one, perhaps, but a film all the same. But (many) others set it apart as something special. How do they do this? I’ll speak for myself here, though I know I’m not alone. (I’d venture a guess that I’m not even alone here on this blog). When I prayed that this new film would atone for the blasphemy that was the prequels, when I obsessed over arcana for months in anticipation of its release, when I preordered tickets to assure I’d see it as soon as I possibly could, when I reinforced taboos against “spoiling”plot points for other would-be viewers, when I wore my Star Wars t-shirt and took my seat alongside little girls garbed in Jedi robes and clapped and gasped and laughed and cried with the crowd – when I did all these things (and when hundreds of people in my cinema and thousands of people across the world did them along with me) I effectively engaged in an act of social sanctification. Together, we took something ordinary (a Disney sci-fi/fantasy film released in 2015) and made it extra-ordinary. This is just one way we could consider Star Wars American religion – I didn’t even begin to touch on Star Wars as myth-making. (There are so many of these, but my absolute favorite is S. Brent Plate’s frequencies essay.)

    So it seems to me that the provocation “Should Star Wars be considered American religion?” could serve as a pedagogical litmus test of sorts. If you answer No, it might be because you’re concerned with cataloguing the beliefs Americans hold with regard to the supernatural, or charting the history of ecclesiastical institutions in the United States. If you answer Yes, it may be because you’re interested in identifying the rituals Americans engage in that set certain things apart as special, or in examining the effervescent experiences that unite Americans together in various communities.


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