Is being American a religion on its own?

“Civil religion” is a concept that refers to the religious nature of nationalistic/patriotic practices and beliefs:

Bellah’s definition of American civil religion is that it is “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation,” which he sees symbolically expressed in America’s founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called “God,” an idea that the American nation is subject to God’s laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. Bellah sees these beliefs in the values of liberty, justice, charity, and personal virtue and concretized in, for example, the words In God We Trust on both national emblems and on the currency used in daily economic transactions. Although American civil religion shares much with the religion of Judeo-Christian denominations, Bellah claims that it is distinct from denominational religion.

The website The Immanent Frame interviews Yale University sociologist Philip S. Gorski, who is writing a book on American civil religion during the Obama presidency. He puts forward an interesting concept about civil religion’s slippery slope (via The Daily Beast):

The United States, because it’s a nation of immigrants and because it’s so deeply pluralistic, can’t be defined in terms of some shared background culture or in terms of some kind of ethno-national descent. It’s not Sweden, where they can disagree, but at the end of the day, they’re still Swedes. The only way in which you can really have any kind of coherence to an American project is to have it based around some set of ideals. But one has to always be somewhat critical. I think the real danger sign that you’re slipping toward some form of potentially dangerous state idolatry is when you start to hear too much about blood and blood sacrifice. This is a very dangerous kind of rhetoric, which one hears inevitably in times of war and conflict. It tends to redefine national belonging in the United States around race, around lineage, clearly to exclude more recent immigrant groups. That, I think, is the danger, where an attempt at a civil theology can degenerate into some kind of state idolatry.

We certainly see aspects of this “degeneration” today.

A strategy for many immigrant groups, including Sikhs, is to adopt and proudly display attributes of America’s civil religious practices to proclaim their American identity. A question arises – how much civil religion is too much?


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