In February 1986, Robert Bellah gave a talk on “Habits of the Heart: Implications for Religion” at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Isla Vista, California. After the talk someone in the audience asked Bellah to contrast “civil religion” with University of Chicago historian Martin Marty’s notion of the “public church” (see Marty’s The Public Church, 1981).  Bellah’s response clarifies what he meant by “civil religion,” a term he no longer uses to avoid semantic hassles and for the sake of substance.

[There has been] a long tradition in American public life—of which Lincoln is the central exemplar—of calling the nation to account as re-sponsible to an authority higher than the nation, as insisting that the nation is not absolute and making that part of public life.  It’s there in the Declaration of Independence. We exist under the rule of the laws of God which are above the laws of man.

Inevitably, civil religion was understood by many people to mean the idolatrous worship of the state…. It’s certainly not what I meant so I gave it up.

There is a tradition of religion in our public life, which I described and called civil religion, that does assert—and the central texts of that tra-dition do assert—both the higher authority of God over the nation and the fact that the nation is not absolute.

Now the public church is a critical element in the society that must operate to keep that religious understanding of the nation viable, always by criticizing any tendency of the “God is on our side” kind to simply fuse nation and deity. Unfortunately, often enough, the most jingoistic identification of nation and church does not come from our political leaders but from the churches themselves. So the churches have often contributed to a kind of debased form of civil religion.

But nonetheless what I think is the significance of the public church is a church which keeps its distance from power, which claims no constitutional authority but which is actively involved in the common dis-course about matters of public concern. That is, ready to bring its critical understanding to bear on current policy in a civil way and abide by majority rule in a way that does not condemn your enemies on a par-ticular issue as being against God, as some of the new Christian right people are apt to do.

That, I think, keeps the religious dimension alive—in its critical perspective—in our society, contributes to whatever this thing might be called since “civil religion” seems to be a problematic term—that reminds us that we are not absolute as a people.