The Declaration stated, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The men responsible for the founding of the new American nation clearly asserted that the rights they had enumerated were not derived from government but arose from the nature of the human person.
Alexander Hamilton wrote, "The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."
The anthropological foundation of religious freedom was especially important to founders of the American government. For example, James Madison observed, "It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to Him. This duty is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe."
This view of human rights among the founders of the United States had deep roots in the English natural law tradition. The noted seventeenth-century English jurist, Sir Edward Coke had described the law of nature as "that which God at the time of creation of the nature of man infused into his heart, for his preservation and direction... The law of nature is written with the finger of God in the heart of man."
Indeed, the two most widely read books in America at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence were the Bible and William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Law of England. Blackstone observed that God was the author of all true law whether found in revelation or through reason. He wrote, "Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws. That is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these".
In 1967, Professor Robert Bellah began a strong debate in the United States with the publication of his article, "Civil Religion in America"(1). In it, Professor Bellah argued that there exists in America a "civil" religion with "its own seriousness and integrity" that is distinct from Christianity and other religions. Bellah maintained that although there exists a separation between church and state in the sense that no religion enjoys a preferred and established position by law in the United States, "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 the American civil religion" (2).
As an example of the nature of civil religion in America, Bellah suggested President John F. Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address. Although a detailed repetition of Bellah's discussion of Kennedy's speech is not possible here, he found it especially significant that Kennedy a Catholic would articulate in such an effective manner the civil religion of a predominately Protestant Christian nation. According to Bellah, "the religious dimension in political life as recognized by Kennedy not only provides a grounding for the rights of man which makes any form of political absolutism illegitimate, it also provides a transcendent goal for the political process" (3).
In his Inaugural Address, President Kennedy repeatedly referred to God and echoed ideas from the Declaration of Independence saying, for example, that "the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God." Kennedy reminded the country that "here on earth God's work must truly be our own". These words resonated strongly with Americans who had chosen the phrase "In God we trust" as the national motto and had recently added the words "one nation 'under God' " to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Bellah observed that "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"(4). He argued that there were three decisive stages in the development of "civil religion" in America.
The first related to the nation's struggle for independence in the eighteenth century and its basic tenets were stated in the Declaration of Independence.
The second stage involved the nation's civil war in the nineteenth century and the effort to extend freedom and equality to all its citizens regardless of race. President Abraham Lincoln, who once stated that, "I have never had a feeling, politically, that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence," was the most eloquent spokesman for the development of civil religion during this period. His Second Inaugural Address of 1865 captured well the religious experience of the nation still in the grip of civil war. "The Almighty has His own purposes," he said. "Fondly do we hope fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue...as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether' ".
Lincoln concluded his speech with a clear reference to biblical reconciliation when he stated, "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in..."
The third stage, according to Bellah, is America's current relation to and responsibility toward emerging global cultures or, in Bellah's words, to "a revolutionary world, a world seeking to attain many of the things, material and spiritual, that we [Americans] have already attained"(5). In this regard, President Kennedy's Inaugural Address remains one of its best articulations especially in its conclusion: "Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you... Let us go forth... asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own".
Kennedy's final words seem to prompt Bellah to speculate that American civil religion could some day become "one part of a new civil religion of the world". (6) But a major difficulty with the notion of "civil religion" within the context of the American experience is that the phrase "civil religion" is a creation of Jean Jacques Rousseau. In chapter 8, book 4 of The Social Contract, Rousseau attempted to create a new religion to substitute for Christianity. Unlike Christianity, Rousseau's "civil religion" is a religion whose tenets are not only established by the State but defined by the State according to Rousseau's political philosophy. He writes: "There is, therefore, a purely civil profession of faith, the articles of which are for the sovereign to determine, not precisely as religious dogmas, but as sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or a faithful subject... The dogmas of the civil religion should be simple, few in number and precisely enunciated".
In short, Rousseau attempted to confine the religious experience of the human person according to the social agenda and political objectives of the State broadly understood. The intensely personal experience of the believer is reduced by Rousseau's "civil religion" to an abstraction. Nothing could be further from the American experience or from the intention of its founders.
What Bellah has described as a "civil religion" in America is, in reality, something very different from what Rousseau intended by the term. The sovereign has not attempted to substitute an abstract, artificial religious sentiment for the active faith of believers. Instead, the religious dimension of American culture and especially as that culture affects America's political ethos reflects an understanding of the human person very different than Rousseau.
If there is a "civil religion" in America it is one that rests upon viewing the person as ultimately having a transcendental destiny. If politics is the art of the possible, then the religious dimension of American culture defines in certain important respects the expectations of America's political horizon.
What is an important lesson in the American experience of religious diversity within a democratic political and social structure is that its religious foundation of culture is broad enough to accommodate those attempting to live according to one of the three great Abrahamic faith traditions while preserving individual freedom of belief and practice.
At the same time, what Bellah has termed "civil religion" has nonetheless provided a cultural unity for a people of diverse religious faith without the forceful imposition of religious belief.
To what extent such a cultural religious model is transferable to other societies or within a global context is surely a question worthy of extensive discussion.
(1) Bellah, Robert N. "Civil Religion in America", reprinted in American Civil Religion, Russell E. Riley and Donald G. Jones, eds. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
(2) Ibid, p. 24.
(3) Ibid, p. 25.
(4) Ibid, p. 33.
(5) Ibid, p. 38.
(6) Ibid, p. 40.