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Rejoinder: Why Civil Religion?

Rethinking Obama

ISBN: 978-0-85724-911-1, eISBN: 978-0-85724-912-8

Publication date: 30 November 2011


In 1967, Robert N. Bellah famously argued that there existed an “American Civil Religion,” which was distinct from churchly religion and captured the “transcendental” dimension of the American project. In this chapter, I revisit the civil religion concept and reconstruct it along more Weberian lines. Specifically, I argue that the civil religion tradition is one of three competing traditions for thinking about the proper relationship between religion and politics in America; the other two are religious nationalism and liberal secularism. Whereas liberal secularism envisions a complete separation of the religious and political value spheres, and religious nationalism longs for their (re)unification, civil religion aims for a mediating position of partial separation and productive tension. Following Bellah, I argue that the two central strands of the civil religion tradition have been covenant theology and civic republicanism. The body of the chapter sketches out the development of the tradition across a series of national foundings and refoundings, focusing on the writings of leading civil theologians from John Winthrop and John Adams through Abraham Lincoln and John Dewey to Martin King and Barack Obama. The conclusion advances a normative argument for American civil religion – and against liberal secularism and religious nationalism. I contend that liberalism is highly inclusive but insufficiently solidaristic; that religious nationalism is highly solidaristic but insufficiently inclusive; and that only civil religion strikes a proper balance between individual autonomy and the common good.


Gorski, P.S. (2011), "Rejoinder: Why Civil Religion?", Go, J. (Ed.) Rethinking Obama (Political Power and Social Theory, Vol. 22), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 245-258.



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