American civil religion has taken several forms. One type is preoccupied with national cohesion, claiming that the bonds by which the nation coheres are strengthened through the common observance of non-sectarian devotion centered in the sacralization of the nation’s cause. Another approach focuses less on coherence than on what directs citizens to a higher aim, that is, the ideal to which the nation is dedicated. This approach asserts that civil liberties and social justice will thrive when a broadly shared, minimally coercive, and civilly invested set of practices and symbols inculcates moral self-government. God and sacred texts have played a key role in the definition of all versions of American civil religion. But in light of the growth of unbelief documented in recent social surveys, I would like to ask if, in order for any such religion to be effective, it must be grounded in the transcendence of a deity. In other words, must an American civil religion espouse a deity in order to be compelling and effective, however its purpose is conceived?

Discussions of civil religion commonly focus on what politicians, clergy, or military speakers say, analyzing texts and public discourse as the principal medium of a public theology of symbols of belief understood to bind individuals into a polity, to make singular people into citizens, or parts of a larger whole. The assumption, it appears, is that by believing a few common things about God, nation, and justice, citizens are held together in a social and political unit. However generalized and universalizing it may be, the thesis of civil religion pivots on the idea of belief as it has been understood by the history of Christianity. But since the appearance of Robert Bellah’s classic article in 1967, the concept of belief has undergone substantial anthropological and historical critique. A number of scholars have objected to the assumption that belief is a universal and necessary category for defining religion, pointing out that belief is a conception rooted in the Christian tradition, which makes assent to statements of doctrine normative for “true religion,” or that belief may be universally defined as an inner mental state of volition, a bedrock experience that constitutes a more or less uniform standard for defining an essential feature, indeed, perhaps the very essence of religions. By contrast, a great deal of work on ritual, performance, and media have broadened our understanding of public imagination and practice, encouraging scholars to look beyond creedal statements to the social arena of civil rituals for the production of citizens and the bonds of affection. Lived religion, ritual performance, the social life of feeling, the role of material and visual cultures in the social construction of reality—these rubrics and others have stressed the primacy of feeling, sensation, and action in the study of religion in recent years.

Not only have scholars of religion de-centered the role of belief as creedal assent in their understanding  of religion, they have recognized that belief in God or gods is not the sine qua non of religion. Forms of transcendence may be better ways of characterizing religions, and transcendence is a bodily affair, a broad range of experiences that take shape in the media of feelings and sensations.

In view of these developments, we might wonder what constitutes civil religions and how they operate as practices (and not only as theological discourses). We would do well to scrutinize more than the texts of speeches on national occasions in attempting to understand the power of civil religion and the arguments for its efficacy. What people say is part of a larger event. Expanding the register of analysis in order to avoid reducing civil religions to creedal assertions, to something that people say they believe, will require us to consider the relation between concept, symbol, and practice. What role does the practice of attending a parade or collectively reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or singing the national anthem in a ballpark play in shaping civil identity? What happens when people visit national monuments or the nation’s capital? Can we actually describe civil religion in terms of particular feelings and sensations that discrete situations generate among participants, thereby creating a common medium of experience? Words and ideas are perhaps simpler to work with, or at least more accessible than studying bodies, feelings, and large events. What people do, how they feel, what they fear and desire, what they see, how they see, the way they dress—these will become the principal data for measuring the degree to which forms of association and shared practice serve as the public ways of imagining that are thought to shape the body politic and endow it with a common sensibility. The work of a civil religion happens in the medium of feeling, so it is felt-life that we must study.

When we step away from theology, the matter of belief in a deity seems less important. What matters for the deployment of a national imaginary, we might say, are shared interests, common apprehensions, equal rights, a pervading set of practices and symbols that are publicly, ritually observed. Although Bellah noted that the idea of God “has clearly been a central symbol in the civil religion from the beginning and remains so today,” he was aware that things were changing, that “the meaning of the word God is by no means so clear or so obvious” anymore. He therefore concluded his essay with language that avoided theism when it proscribed nationalistic idolatry: “the American civil religion,” he asserted, “is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” Whether or not it is God, the transcendent in civil religion is more than nationhood; it is what grounds the nation. This transcendent is given; it is not constructed by American civil religion. Civil religion without transcendence, Bellah warned, is in danger of becoming state religion, the religion of established authority, and therefore inclined to become no more than a nation’s self-worship.

So if we focus on the aesthetic dimension, we are considering how public theatre or ritual is able to check the assertion of particular or sectarian belief and redirect shared consciousness or imagination to the nation as enacted. When scholars turn predominantly to events like speeches, it is not because nationhood is, in essence, discourse, but because speeches are oratorical conjurations, quasi or even robustly magical speech-acts in which the nation is summoned together, collectively imagined. The power of the prophetic moment is the power of making a future imaginable in the midst of a present failure or in the face of a looming menace. The vision wasn’t there a moment ago, but now it looms, still unrealized, but birthed in possibility, wrapped in hope. It is the moment of communal gathering that constitutes its embodiment, a moment of pausing, of stepping outside the normal time of work or leisure, into a moment of shared imagination, a special and necessarily temporary consciousness. Which means that the being of national imagination is iterative, sustained by repetition, re-visitation, commemoration. These places of ritual evocation are not the places Americans live ordinarily, but the reality toward which they are sometimes urged by their civil religion. It is what Daniel Boorstin described in The Image: A Guide to the Pseudo-Event in America (1961) as an ideal rather than an image, something one never attains in contrast to the idol or delusion one holds and manipulates. The ideal, set in the future, but called on and experienced as calling citizens toward it, is a utopian place accessed as a moment aside, caught up in memory, ritual performance, and oratory. Such liminal moments occur at graveside, while visiting monuments, in concerts, perhaps in passing instants at parades, and quite evocatively in the grand theatre of oratory, that is, in the social and imaginative space of performed words. It’s not the intellectual analysis of content that makes the nation or calls forth commitment. It is the speech-acts and gestures and images and music and symbols that citizens collectively pause to attend to. They are the still moment around which the multitude pivots as a social body. I’d like to suggest that this utopian moment in which ideals urge citizens beyond the present—inspiring them with a compelling impatience, with longing for something better, with a sense of the imperfect present that drives them toward improvement—involves a kind of transcendence, and one that may operate without invocation of, or belief in, a deity.

Rather than think of transcendence in the sense that Christian belief commonly conceives of it, that is, as a place or person or power that stands outside of time and breaks into it in eruptions called the sacred, I am thinking of transcendence in horizontal terms. There remains a dynamic of liminality inasmuch as time slows or stops and being shifts from what is to what ought to be or might become. But this reality is not god or eternity. It is the future, it is the space of hope that calls forth those who long for this future together and accept its claim on them, on their collective or social body. Civil transcendence is the turn felt together, imagined together, in the aesthetic practices of a civil religion.

Civil religion is a religion because it evokes and directs forms of transcendence that bind citizens as a social group, as a social body, moving them toward certain aims or ideals. If we dismiss god as the necessary engine of civil religion, and put in the deity’s place a collectively desired future, one that enables citizens to imagine themselves beyond a troubling present, we may have before us a mode of transcendence that is strictly horizontal.

It is possible to imagine a civil religion without god, but not without transcendence. In what was, as far as I know, the first presidential inaugural to include non-believers in the national covenant alongside a plurality of believers, President Obama prompted Americans to wonder about the flexibility of American civil religion on the issue of belief in god when he proclaimed, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and non-believers.” By observing rites and participating in the social body of the nation, citizens seek the larger, never fully present, never fully embodied nation, which remains an ideal, something they can never fully live up to, yet feel a deep calling to instantiate as best they can. It may be helpful to register different kinds of civil religion. There are those that amount to religious nationalism, by which I mean civil religions that accord a sacred status to the nation itself as the ongoing concern and special blessing of a deity. The term “religious nationalism” comes from Catherine Albanese’s America: Religions and Religion (1981), and which she uses as a synonym of civil religion. I use the term “nationalism” to designate a particular form of civil religion. The nation is understood as the deity’s chosen instrument or favored project, a nation set aside and charged with power and purpose. Accordingly, such a nation nurtures a national identity that turns on its exceptional or unique favor, and a nation that is therefore divinely privileged over all others to host god’s presence and will in time and national history. Such civil religions are strongly inclined to chauvinism and conceptions of providence that justify violence as a sacred means and explain disasters as divine retribution. This nationalistic variety of civil religion is driven by an arch concern for unity and cohesion. Such forms of nationalism back into the future, training the public eye on a past norm, which they both invent and seek to enforce as the enduring standard—the way things were and to which they ought to return in order to stave off or reverse the ‘infection’ or ‘invasion’ of the body politic. Nationalism’s cure is to reverse the decline of the present by returning to a lost origin. Loyalty to that lost unity is absolute, as suggested by slogans like “America—Love it or leave it” and “My country, right or wrong.”

By contrast, another version of civil religion, characterized by a civic patriotism, argues that the best lies ahead, that original principles are yet to be fully realized. Rather than enthroning them in a golden age to be worshiped, this patriotism venerates civil liberty as the surest means for bringing democracy to fruition. The aim is not cohesiveness, but devotion to the ideal. The past is where the nation began, not where it is supposed to end. If patriotism is forever remembering the sacrifices of the fathers and mothers, it steadfastly looks to the future to recognize the consequences of those sacrifices. Bellah contrasted what he called “an American-Legion type of ideology that fuses God, country, and flag” with “the American civil religion,” a distinction which corresponds to my differentiation of civic patriotism and nationalism. To this distinction we might add more, as the literature demonstrates. But it may suffice for the moment to signal the limits of each. If nationalism is prone to chauvinism, civic patriotism easily succumbs to a divisive libertarianism. Some manner of balance is salutary since a measure of national solidarity is an important condition for righting injustices. On the other hand, too much solidarity may service a fear-driven concern for homogeneity and flatten the difference and self-determination that democracy ought to protect. Transcendence is something to achieve together in civil religion if a society is to benefit from the collective ideal that stands as the aim and moral measure of the social body. A larger project would investigate how the varieties of American civil religion might accommodate or resist non-theism, although I suspect we would still agree with Bellah after all these years that an atheist is still not likely to end up in the White House very soon.