From the 2005 Abbeville Institute Summer School.

My topic for this morning is the “Lincoln Myth and Civil Religion,” and my intention is to try to understand this very loose term “civil religion” in order to see how it is that a man such as Abraham Lincoln could become not only the primary voice beckoning America to accept and remain faithful to a central role in divine providence (or in a divine providence, I should say), but who also became the primary agent of its mission on earth. For the civil religion of the American nation, Lincoln is both its prophet and its priest, two roles which are generally separate. He is seen as being both, which is one of the reasons we have such a hard time getting at his role as the one who beckoned America to accept a divine providence and to carry out its role. Now, Lincoln himself, as we’ve heard several times, had no personal religion at all. Regarding orthodox Christianity, he denied the Incarnation, he denied the Trinity, and he denied the authority of Scripture, and in nothing that I say this morning do I mean to indicate that Lincoln believed any of the things he said about America’s divine election, the ordained authority of his presidency, sworn before the altar of God, and all that language, nor about the epic journey God has set for us as “the last, best hope on earth,” and all that language. But I do want to examine the idea of civil religion and try to find its origins and try to tighten up the idea, to see where the course might lead for those who play around with it, and mix it with ease with the power politics of the secular state and the duties of “god’s” demands.

Whatever his own personal beliefs might be about civil religion, civil religion was a central term and a central category for Lincoln’s own agenda. The first part of this paper is a question: “What is civil religion and is it really a religion?” I can trace the origins of the term civil religion back to the 18th-century political theorist and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, in Book Four of his Social Contract has these words: “At first mankind had no kings save the gods, and no government save theocracy…there was no way of converting a people except by enslaving it, and there could be no missionaries save conquerors.”[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau is, of course, one of those political theorists who believe that human beings contract into a social order. They do it consciously, they do it by contract. They’re not born into families and thus born into neighborhoods and thus a polity forms around them, and they grow into a nation-state of some kind. No, according to Rousseau and those like him, we consciously, individually contract into the social order. This is a big Enlightenment idea, of which Rousseau was a hearty member, and so it would be natural for him to think that whatever primitive culture and civic polity might be, it’s going to have to be something fairly basic, such as gathering around the god of the campfire in order to worship that deity, and that is what makes them a people. That’s what all primitive cultures are, social contractarians, by and large, believed, that all polity was theocratic. All of this changed, according to Rousseau, at the coming of Christ and His mission on Earth to set up a spiritual kingdom not of this world. His mission to set up, that is, a distinction between the political and the theological, as this new idea of a kingdom of another world could never have occurred to a pagan. According to Rousseau, they always looked upon Christians as being some sort of rebel, and since the days of the primitive church, the “sacred cult,” as Rousseau said, has remained separate and independent of the political sovereign. Now, Rousseau does, of course, acknowledge that kings have often tried to claim the title Head of the Church, but this has made them more its ministers than its masters. Kings who try to take over and become Head of the Church must maintain the Church as the Head, but they must not change it. The clergy remains a corporation of its own, and thus there remains to this day two powers: Church and State.

Now, it’s Rousseau’s argument that this distinction confuses matters political, theological and social. In his view, distinguishing religion and state does not clarify matters it at all, but rather confuses the matter. For instance, religion under this distinction must be considered on the one hand in its purity as a cult of unalloyed gospel and pure moral outlook, while on the other, it must inevitably be seen as some aspect of public civil order, with national shrines tutelary patrons, inherited rights, and commissioned role in guaranteeing moral law and civic duty. As the modern theologian H. Richard Niebuhr has argued, given its distinct otherworldliness, Christianity has been both a faith of, to use Niebuhr’s term, “Christ against culture,” insofar as the Kingdom of God has not been fully inaugurated. The Second Coming of Christ has not yet occurred, and there thus must be a Christ against culture. But at the same time, in that we still await the Second Coming, we must have a Christ who is in culture – judging it, admonishing it, bettering it, and advancing it.[2] The great benefit, of course, of the influence of Christianity upon culture is that the state becomes endowed with a nobility and a stature which it otherwise would not have. The great disadvantage is that the state is now forever subject to religious enthusiasm and zeal, and thus to the horrors carried out by rulers who assume that they are endowed with the divine right to transform the face of the world with fire and with sword. Oliver Cromwell comes to mind. Accordingly, Rousseau argued that in the making of the great social contract, mankind must highlight, underscore, and finally institutionalize – in other words, make sense out of and give space for – this inevitable relationship between religion and the state, while at the same time leaving the state, the state, allowing it to function according to constitution and statute.

Now, it’s interesting that Rousseau says that in giving some space to the inevitable relationship between religion and the state, some kind space for the civil aspect of religion, that we must not simply honour it and see its benefits, but we must also require worship and right belief from the citizens. To quote him:

“The right which the social compact gives the Sovereign over the subjects does not, we have seen, exceed the limits of public expediency. The subjects then owe the Sovereign an account of their opinions only to such an extent as they matter to the community. Now, it matters very much to the community that each citizen should have a religion. That will make him love his duty; but the dogmas of that religion concern the State and its members only so far as they have reference to morality and to the duties which he who professes them is bound to do to others. Each man may have, over and above, what opinion he pleases, without it being the Sovereign’s business to take cognizance of them; for as the Sovereign has no authority in the other world, whatever the lot of its subjects may be in the life to come, that is not its business, provided they are good citizens in this life. There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix and maintain the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them – it can banish him, not for impiety, but for being an antisocial being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If anyone, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.”[3]

I judge this passage to be one of the most influential in modern political theory. Though Rousseau has merely defined his term “civil religion” and pointed out its inevitable place in society, he has gone way too fast for us here at this moment. Up to this point, his thoughts have been for us fairly commonplace. Though no historian would give any credence to his depiction of primitive cultures or primitive Christianity and its initial influence on the ancient world, his discussion on the pros and cons of religion and culture are fairly basic fare. But now, as he defines his term and is about to set it spinning, what do we see? We see a “Sovereign” who fixes the articles of a civil religion creed. We see that without these creeds we can envision no good citizen at all. We see that we can banish anyone who does not believe them. Indeed, we may even put him to death.

Now, before we can follow this trail from liberal discussion on the pros and cons of religion’s effect on society to the rigid intolerance we see here, we must get it squarely in our minds that by “civil religion,” Rousseau and those who follow him do not mean to specify any sort of general heading for a perennial exchange between religion, culture, and political order. Their reflection does not move from the recognition of an inevitable relationship among these, for instance, that Catholicism must always be French or it must be Irish, or it must be Maryland, but it can never be just itself. They move to a unifying spirit, infusing and organizing the masses, developing on its own and the religion waiting our recognition. I mentioned the followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and in this sense, the person I mentioned a moment ago, H. Richard Niebuhr (not to be confused with his well-known brother, Reinhold Niebuhr), had a very profound effect upon our question of whether civil religion is really a religion at all. H. Richard Niebuhr argued that it is, and he argued like this: Niebuhr’s thoughts go back to Saint Augustine, who argued in his Confessions that the restless quest of human life, that unsettlement and agitation of the heart is for an object which, when loved, will set the heart to rest, and that object is God.[4] There must be an object of what Augustine called “fruition love,” that object which will demand all of our love and which, when given, brings the restless heart to rest. Only when we do this are we able to love the objects of the world as they ought to be loved. Once we have the love that gives our hearts ease and rest, we can then love people, things, nations, whatever they might be, as they ought to be loved and not as if they were the object of our fruition love.

Centuries later Martin Luther took this line from Augustine and gave it a slight twist and held that the meaning of God (the Greek word theos) is simply that object which provides a loving focus for the entirety of one’s desire, devotion, and love, whatever it might be.[5] For many people I’ve known in my lifetime, it’s the Boston Red Sox. Luther would be quite honest and say that is then your God according to the twist that he gives to St. Augustine’s reasoning. It could be “anything,” as H. Richard Niebuhr put it, “that forms a center of supreme value to your moral outlook. Whatever your heart’s final devotion is to, that is your God.” Richard Niebuhr makes this argument in his wonderful book (I think he’s dead wrong, don’t get me wrong on this), but when it comes to answering our question – “Is civil religion a real religion?” – H.R. Niebuhr’s book, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture is a primary text. Niebuhr argues that historically there have been three forms of faith. The first is polytheism, a belief in many gods. The second, henotheism (one we don’t hear so much about), which is belief that there are many gods, but there is one among them who requires our final allegiance. Third and finally, there’s “radical monotheism” as Niebuhr put it, which is the belief that there is one God, and over against all the other “gods” this God is the only real one.

So, Niebuhr, taking Luther’s lead, is able to see that these three forms of faith are now very, very much alive among us. There are those whose allegiances change at every minute. You root for the Red Sox one year and then the next year they’re not doing very well, so you root for the Atlanta Braves. You’re a polytheist. You know, when you need to pray to Juno, you pray to Juno. When you need to pray to the god of war, you pray to Mars. Whenever you need to pray to the god of the sea, you pray to Neptune. And on and on it goes. Niebuhr actually believed that these kinds of people who have no final focus of their hearts’ love are, strictly speaking, polytheists. Henotheism has pretty much vanished from our vocabulary because it’s a faith that is not as practiced as the other two. A henotheist, Niebuhr argues, is one who would primarily be a nationalist. “I recognize that there are lots of nations. There’s France, there’s Spain, there’s the United Kingdom, there’s all these others. But then there’s my nation, the one among the many.” You know, god sits at the head of the table in the council of the gods, but he is the god among all the other gods. So, the modern form of henotheism in our day would be primarily that kind of patriotism toward one’s nation. Finally, radical monotheism is the kind of theism which sees that in the true God all the other gods pale and lose any divine status that they might have. But I would argue that if we’re going to give a positive answer, at least in trying to understand how it is that a man like Abraham Lincoln could be seen as the great hearer of God’s call and the commissioner of the nation to get up and follow that, we do need to pay some kind of attention to a henotheistic faith. Do you really think that the United States of America is a god? Well, you see, if you use Niebuhr’s argument, you can see how one might give a positive answer to that. It would be a kind of henotheism. I wouldn’t be a radical monotheism, and it wouldn’t be a polytheism, but it would be a faith in a god in a henotheistic outlook. So, Niebuhr’s book is very helpful in trying to come to terms with our question about civil religion.

H. Richard Niebuhr died in 1961 and in the late fifties all the way up through the mid-eighties, there were lots of scholars, especially those involved in Christian social ethics, who were working along these kinds of lines. There was Thomas Luckmann’s book, The Invisible Religion. You might not see steeples and crosses and Stars of David and all these other kinds of things, but it’s an invisible faith that is real nonetheless. There was Niebuhr, and fundamentally there was Professor Robert N. Bellah, who in the mid-eighties shocked the theological world with a book called Habits of the Heart. It was a series of interviews that he had with people on the state of their religious mentality, and he found all these kinds of things that Niebuhr said you’ll find –you’ll find polytheism, you’ll find radical monotheism, you’ll find all these different kinds of things we’ll call habits of the heart. Well, since the fifties, Robert Bellah has argued steadily that though many theologians assume that Christianity is our national faith and many others hold that the American way of life, however vague that term might be, is in fact our national religion, few have realized that: “There actually exists alongside of and rarely and rather clearly differentiated from the church is an elaborate and well instituted civil religion in the United States.” Bellah asks us to look closely at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural, and there you can see it clearly. On January 20th, 1961, Kennedy said:

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom–symbolizing an end as well as a beginning–signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago. The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

Whenever I read that, I remember an occasion when I was on a panel interviewing a student for a very prestigious national scholarship to study in England. She wanted to argue that the civil rights are not the blessing of a healthy political order, but they are endowed upon us, that we wear them from the day we are born till the day we die. And we said: “Well, is this a religious statement that you’re making?” She, of course, didn’t want to admit at her young and tender age in front of a bunch of faculty that she was, in fact, a believer in God. So, she said: “No, they’re just natural. We’re just born with them. They’re just endowed upon us.” We kept pressing the point and replied: “Endowed by whom?” That’s the kind of point that Niebuhr wants to make, is that she can’t think of the endowment of natural rights without thinking about some kind of deity who would endow them, whatever that deity might be. She wanted to think of it, but she simply couldn’t do it, just couldn’t answer the question. She didn’t win the scholarship (but not for that reason). Kennedy concluded his address with these words:

“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. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Now, Bellah recognizes that many will find in such words as Kennedy’s a proof that the uses of religion we see here serve only a ceremonial significance. For rather than deal in exacting doctrine, creed, and scripture. Kennedy here lifts out the sentiments from a real religion, but it’s not a real religion. Bellah is here entertaining a current a perennial objection to his thesis. He’s abstracting sentiments from real, traditional theisms and religions, thereby showing that real religion has no proper and meaningful place in such important civic discourse. According to this objection, the abstract sentiments are merely standard campaign rhetoric to swell applause and gain votes for the party. That’s really all it’s for. If it weren’t, then they would use a real faith. “But,” Bellah says:

“we know enough about the function of ceremonial and ritual in various societies to make us suspicious of dismissing something as important because it is, quote unquote, ‘only a ritual.’ What people say on solemn occasions need not be taken at face value, but it is often indicative of deep-seated values and commitments that are not made explicit in the course of everyday life. Following this line of argument, it is worth considering whether the very special placing of the references to God in Kennedy’s address may not reveal something rather important and serious about religion in American life.”

Once again, I have to pause and give myself a little bit of space. I mean, can you imagine a Southern Baptist or an Orthodox Jew saying: “Isn’t there something really deep-seated about our faith?” We need to pay attention to that deep-seatedness the way we see Bellah doing here. He’s trying to make the case that there really is such a thing as a civil faith, and I think he’s making a good case that there is such a thing. But if there is such a thing, it’s a howler. It’s something that would lend a hand to political campaigns and agendas such as Abraham Lincoln’s. Now, whether we want to call this deep-seated thing a religion is, for us, neither here nor there; but it is of vital importance and vital interest to us to note that Bellah has made a cogent case that there is in this country a self-standing piety that would move many Americans to practice the very witch hunting, execution, and perhaps holy civil war that Rousseau hints at and claims to be the next logical step in recognizing American civil religion. Abraham Lincoln, in fact, proved it. What else but some deep-seated piety could have enthroned in a temple-like stone memorial a man on whose authority alone was sparked an invasion of the legally seceded Southern States after having himself broken the truce at Sumter, which then led to the costliest and bloodiest war of the 19th century, one which in today’s terms numbered over 5 million battle deaths. It was a war on women and children, a war which shut down over 300 newspapers and imprisoned hundreds of Northern dissenters. It was a war that gave birth to the notion of total war, one, that is, which aims not simply at the defeat of armies, but at the total destruction of the nation. What could have kept such a man protected from history but the cloak of something which, in some sense, passes for religious faith? I’m reminded of Professor M.E. Bradford’s comment – and I’m haunted by it over and over again in my own lifetime – when he claimed that people simply have too much of their entire self-understanding invested in the Lincoln Myth to read the facts of history correctly. There’s just too much invested in it. It’s some kind of faith that they have. Overcoming the Lincoln Myth is difficult but essential. For Lincoln’s is a religion convinced of its own innocence and moral purity and which must brook no quarter with the heretic. A purely civil religion, it is both tyrannous and blasphemous.


[1]Rousseau, Social Contract, 89 and 90-91.

[2]See Niebuhr’s 1951 book, Christ and Culture:

[3]Rousseau, Social Contract, 95-96.

[4]See the first paragraph of Augustine’s Confessions: “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” (J.G. Pilkington, trans., 1943 Black and Gold Edition):

[5]See Luther’s Large Catechism: “Now, I say, whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is your God.” (John Nicholas Lenker, trans., 1908, page 44): For Niebuhr’s quotation of Luther, which cites no translation and could well be Niebuhr’s own translation of the original German text, see: Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, “Faith in Gods and in God,” 119:

William Wilson

William Wilson is a distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.


  • David Elmore says:

    “It is seldom that a great man is a Christian; but [Oliver] Cromwell was both. The result has been, that men of the world have scouted him as a hypocrite. By honor and dishonor, he could say with St. Paul, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true. It would be an act of great meanness, a criminal falsehood, if those who, by studying the life of this great man, find in him an upright heart and a sincere piety, should unite their voices with those of his detractors. We, on our part, desire to the utmost of our ability to renounce all participation in this gross imposture.
    What most distinguishes Cromwell above all great men, and especially above all statesmen, is the predominance in him, – not only in his person, but also in his government, – of the evangelical and Christian element.”
    The Protector: A Vindication. by J. H. Merle d’Aubigne, D.D.

    • Earl Starbuck says:

      Oliver Cromwell’s crimes against the Irish are in no way Christian and cannot be justified. If one accepts English imperialism in Ireland, then one cannot logically oppose Lincoln’s imperialism against the South. Either empire and conquest are moral, or they are not. Case closed.

Leave a Reply