(B12) Religion and “Civil Religion” in U.S. American Patriotic Holidays, 1945-1992

Since Robert Bellah’s influential essay of 1967, the close connection between religion and politics in the US has mostly been subsumed under the term of “civil religion”. According to Bellah, civil religion denotes “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity”, which is based on Jewish-Christian symbols, metaphors, rituals, and moral concepts. Civil religion augurs to the United States and its system of government a divine origin (“God’s own country”), a divine mission (“manifest destiny”), and divine protection. However, while the presence of these religious symbols, values and behavioral patterns is relatively undisputed (John F. Wilson), the exact definition is still subject to discussion.

Thus, one of the goals of the project is to analyze whether the concept of civil religion, which is mostly discussed among (religious) sociologists, theologians, and political scientists, is useful for historians. It will do so by means of an analysis of U.S. American holidays as a sacred liturgy of the American civil religion (Robert Orsi). On the one hand, the project will define the role and function of civil religion more precisely. Preliminary results show that civil religion has to be understood as a fluid construct that adapts to contemporary contexts and that, depending on interpretation, can support different political positions (of the political establishment as well as of its opponents), but is not always undisputed. Civil religion assumes three functions: legitimization, integration, and critical prophecy.

On the other hand, we will analyze the transformation of religious and political elements between 1945 and 1992. Although holidays and civil religion had to adapt to the Cold War, the increasingly strict separation of state and church, the growing immigration of non-Christian and non-Jewish migrants as well as to the secularization and return of religion between 1945 and 1992, there are no comprehensive studies of the development of holidays in the second half of the 20th century. First results indicate that both the political establishment and different social groups claimed the integrative power of holidays via civil-religious rhetoric. Attempts to legitimize political action via civil-religious rhetoric, however, did not always succeed both in domestic and foreign policies. Thus, in the course of the civil rights movements, for example, a discourse emerged on who was able to interpret the civil religion in the celebration of holidays, a discourse that critically discussed the myths and traditional values of American civil religion. But furthermore, on can also discern a return to Christian religious elements of U.S. American civil religion since the beginning of the Cold War, in particular since the 1980s.

The present project is divided into two parts. On the one hand, regularly recurring holidays are analyzed, that is, established holidays such as Independence Day (in memory of the religiously glorified origins of the nation), Memorial Day (in memory of the war dead) and Thanksgiving (as the day of thanking God for the past year and the “blessings of liberty” of U.S. American history and the U.S. nation) as well as holidays recently established by Congress and the federal government such as Martin Luther King Day, founded in 1983 after a 15-year struggle and celebrating a clergyman with a prophetic mind. On the other hand, major anniversaries of important, civil-religiously imbued political events of U.S. American history will be examined, events such as the 350th anniversary of European settlement in Jamestown in 1957, the 350th anniversary of the foundation of Plymouth Plantation in 1970/71, the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln in 1959/1960; the Freedom Train in 1949 and the Bicentennial Wagon Train in 1976 will equally be compared.


  • Bungert, Heike/Weiß, Jana, „Die Debatte um ‚Zivilreligion‘ in transnationaler Perspektive“, in: Zeithistorische Forschung/Studies in Contemporary History 7 (2010), pp. 454-459.


  • Bungert, Heike, „Amtseinführungen US-amerikanischer Präsidenten“ (10.11.2009, lecture series „Rituals of Investiture“, Münster)
  • Bungert, Heike, „Amtseide, Bälle und Paraden“ (4.2.2010, German-American Society Muenster e.V.)
  • Bungert, Heike, „Civil Religion as a Source of Appeasement in U.S. National Anniversaries, 1957-1970” (11.4.2012, Conference: European Social Science History Conference, University of Glasgow, UK)
  • Weiß, Jana, „Martin Luther King Day: ‚A Non-Violent Man Is Martyred‘“ (12.2.2010, Conference: Sakralisierte Politik und politische Religion- Konfigurationen von Religion und Politik im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Cluster of Excellence „Religion and Politics“, Münster)
  • Weiß, Jana, „Zivilreligion – Möglichkeiten und Grenzen“ (9.2.2011, lecture series: Religion und Politik - (un)vereinbar?, Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz)
  • Weiß, Jana, „Civil Religion as a Rhetorical Instrument of Empowerment? The Martin Luther King Day in the United States“ (25.6.2011, Conference: Empowerment and the Sacred, University of Leeds, UK)
  • Weiß, Jana, „Thanksgiving – Entstehungsgeschichte und Mythos” (10.11.2011, German-American Society Muenster e.V.)
  • Weiß, Jana, „’On This Memorial Day, We Honor All of Our Fallen Soldiers, Their Commitment to Our country, and Their Legacy of Patriotism and Sacrifice.’ – Civil Religion and the Memorial Day Celebrations in the United States” (11.4.2012, Conference: European Social Science History Conference, University of Glasgow, UK)
  • Weiß, Jana, „Die US-amerikanische Zivilreligion – Ausdruck transzendenter und/oder immanenter nationaler Identität?“ (19.4.2012, research colloquium, History Department, WWU Münster)