Michael A Rizzotti

In memory of my grandmother Augusta

With this essay we propose a reassessment of American civil religion developed by Robert N. Bellah. The term was originally coined in 1967. The idea was expanded in his books Beyond Belief and Broken Covenant published in the nineteen seventies. The recent Religious Right’s political activism has somewhat changed the landscape of American civil religion, inaugurating a state of religious and political exceptionalism, shattering the idea of a cultural and political inclusiveness inherent in civil religion. As a result of the changes, a reevaluation was deemed appropriate. To do so we examine Roman religio as a case study of civil religion.

American civil religion consists of references to God or divine providence present in The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the content of inaugural speeches delivered by American Presidents.

Although American civil religion has Judeo-Christian tenets and background, Bellah dispels any suggestion that it has rigid traditional Christian doctrinal content or origin, or is a substitute for Christianity. He contends that civil religion has a similar unifying role and function as religion, but is specifically political. As such, it appeals to all the people with different religious backgrounds.

To Bellah, American civil religion is an expression of the American experience in terms of a transcendental ethical vision.This interpretation of the universal and transcendental is only meaningful if made in relation to the origin and destiny of the U.S. political model of freedom and democracy. Bellah further points out that the God of civil religion is a God of order and freedom rather than of love and forgiveness. It is a God mostly concerned with the history and destiny of the United States of America.

The term “civil religion” was taken from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract. It referred to a belief system that supports the political authority of the State. In order to favor the endorsement of civic authority Rousseau recommended the development of social harmony through the Roman concept of pietas –piety. A term that has a wider meaning than “religion” and extends to the correct relations with parents, friends, fellow-citizens and the gods: “Piety is justice with regards to the gods” wrote Cicero –On the Nature of the Gods.

Let’s direct our attention to the Roman model of civil religion defined as religio.


The history of Roman religion is a complex subject that spans a period of over one thousand years. One that deserves a more elaborate study than the one provide by the following synopsis. Regardless, our goal is to outline some basic reference to illustrate the development of Roman religio in order to relate some elementary analogies with American civil religion.

Roman history encompasses a period from the creation of Rome and its growth. It spans from its mythical foundation in 754 BC, to the establishment of the Republic in 509-27 BC and to the expansion of the Empire 27 BC-AD 476.

The Roman civil religion consisted in the knowledge that the gods were benevolent partners of the mortals in the management of the world for the benefit of all citizens. It relates to the traditional honors paid to the gods by the state and was based on the liberty of its citizens to establish beneficial relations with the gods founded on reason rather than fear.

For the Romans, the most favored forms of myth was history, more specifically Roman history, beginning with Rome’s mythical foundation by Romulus and Remus. The two brothers who were nurtured by a she wolf –a symbolic representation of discipline and of cooperation of pack hierarchy against a prey or an adversary. The symbol also attests to the power of collective bond, where the individual does not exist except as a member of the community.

According to the myth, Remus was the first sibling who saw a flight of six vultures, inaugurating the practice of auspices performed by the magistrates. But it was Romulus who saw twelve birds. As a result, Romulus was given the honor to found the city and give it his name. He then proceeded to draw with a plow the sacred boundaries of the Palatine. This prompted Remus to jump over the “wall” to spite and ridicule his brother. Seeing this, Romulus leaped on Remus and killed him, saying; So perish whoever henceforth crosses my walls! From then on, the scrupulous respect of prescribed boundaries has been the foundation of sovereignty and sacer as “set apart”.

The term religion is derived from the Latin religio, described by Cicero as the pious cult of the gods. The etymological meaning of the word is still a matter of debate and contention. The word has two different connotations. On one hand it implies religare, meaning “to bind” or “ritual link”. On the other hand it implies relegere, “to pick up again” or “to re-read”. The first emphasizes the ritual links between the gods and the mortals. The second underlines the need for a scrupulous observance of religious ritual practices.

Giorgio Agamben points out in Profanations [1] that religio emphasizes relegere. A scrupulous separation between what belongs to the gods and what belongs to the mortals: A strict juridical boundary between the sacred and the profane. Hence, the religious system of the Romans was not founded on dogma but on the scrupulous observances of prescribed rituals. For the Romans it was not so much the lack of faith that was scandalous to them but the lack of meticulous application of ritual procedure: The negligent observance of what separates the sacred from the profane. Hence, Religio did not designate any direct, personal or sentimental relation between an individual and the gods, but the correct performance of prescribed rituals bequeathed by tradition.

The opposite of religio was superstitio: The irrational fears and excessive devotion to rituals and the gods that might threaten the stability of the religio of Rome. People were referred to as superstitious in respect to their excessive behavior for being under the blind control of their gods.

By the end of the second century AD the word superstitio began to be used in respect to the religious practices of foreign people. Although the Romans had no trouble with Christian or Jewish beliefs, and in general tolerated them, they nevertheless classified them as superstitio. The principal accusation against the Christians and Jews was the slighting of Roman religio.

There were numerous Roman gods. Each had its own specific function and profile. None of the gods were individually all-powerful. Romans were typically open to other gods. All non-Roman deities were accepted as long as they also respected public order, the liberty of other practices and the preeminence of Roman public cults. Some foreign gods were also integrated in the Roman pantheon. Baal and Isis for instance, where venerated as supreme deities in their own cultures and were accepted as such in Rome yet shared their power with other gods. Romans were respectful of other religions and were careful not to insult foreign deities. When referring to foreign gods they used the formula Siue deus siue dea –god-or-goddess–  in order not to offend a deity whose name was unknown or was not yet revealed to the Romans. [2]

Roman gods each had their own function and collaborated with each other. The more important ones had more prominent temples and greater festivities. The most powerful gods were the Capitoline triad consisted of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Jupiter’s epithet was optimus maximus, meaning “the best and the greatest”. His favorite weapons were thunder and lightning. All other gods were terrified of him. He was fearsome and fearless. It is said that that the only person he feared was his wife Juno. Juno’s function was defense and childbirth. Her epithet was “the Queen”. The last member of the triad was Minerva, whose function was technology. She supported the artisans and doctors. The following is a short list of some known deities:

Deity and Function

Apollo   >  Good order

Diana   >  Procreation

Great Mother  >   Warding off catastrophe

Isis  >   Safety

Janus   >   Beginnings

Mars  >  Warrior violence

Mercury   >   Journeys

Mithras   >    Hope of support

Neptune   >  Underground streams, the sea

Venus   >  Irresistible charm

The gods legitimized the power of mortal kings and emperors. They represented the eternal essence of power in contrast to the mortal nature of Rome’s rulers. They symbolized order and continuity of the power system.

The Romans were not known to be irrational people. However, one aspect of their religious practice known as auspices, might have been perceived as such. The term originally meant the observation of the flight of birds –mostly vultures. Eventually the choice of the more manageable chickens and the observation of their eating patterns were used by the magistrates. Auspices, referred to a technique that revealed the will of the gods to mortals. Especially in reference to important political, military and economic decisions facing Rome.

Auspices were regarded as a formal procedure necessary for any decision to be legitimate. Magistrates typically performed them. The technique was not used to seek the gods’ advice, but consisted of a recitation of a prayer that confirmed the gods’ agreement with the official who consulted them. Auspices were more like a divine endorsement of the decision already made by the magistrates. It was a formal way of legitimizing a verdict. The decision however could be challenged by an official of the same or superior rank. If contested, the judgment typically rested with the official with the highest rank in the civil hierarchy.

The Latin word sacer means sacred: Trebatius a contemporary of Cicero defined it as, All that is the property of the gods was “sacer”. Sacred is not be understood in the sense of a power possessed by a being or an object. But as a quality that “men” attribute to beings or objects. Sacer was not a “magic force” but a juridical quality defined by property. Divine property, like public or private property, was considered inviolable. Any violation, especially in regards to divine property was met with the gods’ wrath and their terrible vengeance. Hence, the meaning of sacrilege was defined as the infringement of the gods’ property.

The Roman definition of legal boundaries is termini [3]. The square shaped fields were surrounded by a narrow buffer area of uncultivated land which was sacred, or the property of the gods, and could not be owned by mortals. The sacredness of these boundaries was regularly renewed through sacrifice and rituals that legitimized the re-marking of the termini. The boundaries separated and cushioned the sacred land belonging to the gods from the profane fields owned by individuals. As such the gods were benevolent guardians of their property as well as the mortals’. It might be inferred that the gods were guarantors of the inviolability and legality of property rights.

The opposite of sacer was profanus. Any sacred object that was ritually removed from the realm of the gods and move to the sphere of the mortals was profane. Profanare meant “to bring out” the offering from where the sacrifice was performed. And profanum meant what was “in front of the temple precinct”. The temple being a location set apart by a wall and surrounded by a space available for profane use –profanus.

Sacrifice was at the center of Roman religious activity. It consist of a sacrificial killing where the offering was separated from the profane use by “making it sacred”. In most cases the immolated animal was a bovine, a sheep or a pig. The entrails were consecrated –the process of making something sacred– to the gods and were burned on an altar. The rest of the meat was then “rendered profane” simply by “seizing” it. Laying the hand on the sacrificial offering made it suitable for consumption. Throughout the celebration the participants would remind the gods of their function and ask for favors. Prayers were also part of a ritual sacrifice and in a public celebration they would always contain the words “for the Roman people”.

These sacrifices were made during major religious festivals. They were offered by male leaders in their respective jurisdiction and community. Magistrates –or their delegates– could perform public rituals. Every father performed their domestic sacrifice. There were no basic differences between public and private celebration of the ritual sacrifice. The only general guiding principle of sacrificial banquets was the respect of privilege, rank and status. The sacrificial banquet was the solemn occasion for mortals to consult with their divine partners and deal with the more pressing business matters of the day.

Although there were many priestly orders, priests were not in charge of performing all major rituals. Rituals were celebrated by rulers, magistrates and the heads of families. Each celebrant had its own jurisdiction. They represented respectively public, community, institutional and family rituals. All male officials that held authority in public life were also responsible for the cult of the institution or the community that they led. Every father acted as a priest in the performance of the cult of his domestic family. And it could be said that the family constituted the basis of Roman religio.

The city of Rome was the center from which the elite ruled over all civic powers. The gods worked in conjunction with the rulers for the benefit of all citizens. At its core rested the old ruling class and their families –the patricians. The power flowed from the top to the magistrates–the elected officials. The next level of social stratus was the equestrians and plebeians, followed by ordinary citizens who did not partake in the politics of Rome. Subjugated to the rulers were the free non-citizens and the slaves, whereas, for those who came to Rome voluntarily, they lacked any formal status.

At the height of its power Rome’s population reached almost a million people. To put this figure in perspective, London’s population surpassed that number in 1801, and Paris’ in 1846. The empire included most of Europe, the middle-east and North Africa. The population of Rome was highly diverse ethnically, culturally and religiously. Indro Montanelli explains in History of Rome that its inhabitants, unlike the more sophisticated Greeks, were not avid fans of drama or theater [4]. The population was too diverse linguistically, with a majority speaking little or no Latin. The people preferred spectacles of vulgar pantomime and variety shows such as the popular Circus Maximus held at the Coliseum.

Among the legacies left behind by the Romans are bridges, roads, aqueducts, temples, stadiums, sewer systems, running water, heating systems, public baths, etc. Some of the original fountains built by the Romans are still running today. The empire had over 100,000 km (60,000 miles) of roads that were widely used giving birth to the saying: Every road leads to Rome. To this day these feats of engineering show the extent of the visible contribution left by the Roman Empire.

Montanelli explains that Rome used a highly developed form of capitalism even tough it had no great industry of its own. And except for a few small businesses, the city thrived on commerce and speculation. The bulk of the economy was derived from its politics. Wealthy citizens spent a great deal of money to build their political career and once in power found ways to get richer at the expense of the provinces and colonies.

The economy was based on a disciplined and controlled monetary system linked to coins, mostly precious metals. The state could not and would not print money to pay for their expenditures. The empire survived and expanded by collecting taxes from its colonies. Romans were well aware of what inflationary risks could do to the economy.

Tiberius found out that deflation could be as devastating as inflation. To remedy a depression that took hold during his reign he disbursed the equivalence of billions of Imperial Coins to the banks and ordered them to lend the money free of interest for five years. The scheme turned out to be successful and shows the level of efficiency attained by its capitalist system.

One of the main aspects that made the rise of the Roman Empire possible, was the involvement of its rulers in battle during the conquest and expansion of the Empire. The most strategic and resourceful locations were ruled by a governor defended by centurions, paid for by taxes collected from the occupied people. History reveals that the economic survival of an empire rests on the ability to tax its colonies.

Romans conquered and expanded their empire not because they were physically stronger than their enemies but because they believed that Rome was founded by the gods. The citizens were indebted to the gods since birth with a tacit obligation to sacrifice their lives for the greatness of Rome. This was reinforced by the solemn act of sacratio where a commander consecrated his life by given it exclusivity to the gods in order to insure victory.

The Romans applied a great deal of ruthlessness when it came to the destruction, carnage and pillage of their conquests. The ruling conquerors were always first to benefit from the fruits of their invasion. Yet they were dutiful in paying their fair share to the state that was proportionate to their wealth. They dedicated ten years of their lives to military service. And only men who completed their military duty could enter politics. When it came time to choose between their own personal interests and those of the state, its citizens always put the interest of Rome first.

Prior to the publication of the Laws of the Twelve Tables (462-450 BC), Rome was essentially a theocracy in which the king was also the pope. He was the sole medium between the divine and the mortals with the power to interpret the will of the gods in private religious ceremonies. The king also had the authority to decide and settle civil legal matters. The advent of the Twelve Tables resulted in the separation between civil law and religious law. It shifted the power away from the strict control of the priesthood and relegated it into an institution subservient to the state, a function without any political power. This separation between the civil and religious code of law became the backbone of the Republic.

The publication of the Laws of the Twelve Tables was considered so important that it was taught to all Roman children who knew it by heart. The reading, interpretation and the juridical application of rituals to the gods became the basis of Roman religio.

Religious festivals or feriae –holiday– were originally based on two calendars. The natural, or agrarian calendar, was based on the rising or setting of the zodiac signs revealing heavenly signs that ruled plant cycles and agriculture. The other was described as the civic calendar, the calendar of magistrates and citizens. The latter was improved and adopted under the rule of Julius Cesar. It was appropriately called the Julian or Caesarean calendar and is still in use today. The calendar set the division between the days dedicated for the gods and the days that allowed the profane activity of the citizens. Days designated for the gods were called nefasti. On those days the activities of mortals were not allowed in public places. Days that were fasti were open for human activity.

American Civil Religion

The transition between Rome and the United States of America is made easy by the numerous Roman legacies that have been adopted by the United States and its capital. The Capitol is a reference to Rome’s Capitoline Hill, the site of the Capitol temple dedicated to the Capitoline triad: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The Greek-Roman architecture adorned by many government buildings are a visible sign of that legacy. The use of the Julian calendar, with many names of days and months dedicated to the gods of Rome, is another mark of this heritage. The Roman alphabet and the use of the Law is a continuing tribute to the Law of the Twelve Tables and jurisprudence –Justinian.

Inaugural speeches reveal the ongoing essence of American civil religion. They are meant to establish an ideological consensus among a population with diverse ethnical backgrounds and religious traditions. To unify a nation politically while consecrating the authority of the state and its rulers. We have seen how Roman civil religion played a similar role in respect to the establishment of order, the rule of law and civic harmony. American civil religion is not a theological discourse meant to reinforce a theocratic rule, but a civic creed whose function is to integrate and harmonize diverse conflicting religious beliefs of society. As Robert N. Bellah explains in Civil Religion in America:

The words and acts of the founding fathers, especially the first few presidents, shaped the form and tone of the civil religion as it has been maintained ever since. Though much is selectively derived from Christianity, this religion is clearly not itself Christianity. For one thing, neither Washington nor Adams nor Jefferson mentions Christ in his inaugural address; nor do any of the subsequent presidents, although not one of them fails to mention God. The God of the civil religion is not only rather “unitarian,” he is also on the austere side, much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love. Even though he is somewhat deist in cast, he is by no means simply a watchmaker God. He is actively interested and involved in history, with a special concern for America. Here the analogy has much less to do with natural law than with ancient Israel; the equation of America with Israel in the idea of the “American Israel” is not infrequent. What was implicit in the words of Washington already quoted becomes explicit in Jefferson’s second inaugural when he said: “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.” Europe is Egypt; America, the promised land. God has led his people to establish a new sort of social order that shall be a light unto all the nations. This theme, too, has been a continuous one in the civil religion. We have already alluded to it in the case of the Kennedy inaugural. We find it again in President Johnson’s inaugural address…

As such the oath of office is eminently ceremonial:

This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling American civil religion. The inauguration of a president is an important ceremonial event in this religion. It reaffirms, among other things, the religious legitimation of the highest political authority.

George Washington’s first inaugural address April 30, 1789;

That Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every defect…

The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people.

Thanksgiving is a compelling example of American civil religion’s ritual: A legal holiday, where the activities of the mortals cease in order to make room to celebrate and share a meal at home with family and friends. On that day it is traditional to invite a stranger or persons who are less fortunate to join in the union. Although it is considered a “secular” holiday with no references to religious doctrine or dogma, it is nonetheless a civic communion. It is a time to give thanks and express gratitude for the security, social benefits and the material comfort one has. The thanksgiving is nonetheless implicitly directed to an invisible power as the benefactor of these benefits.

Just as Thanksgiving Day, which incidentally was securely institutionalized as an annual national holiday only under the presidency of Lincoln, serves to integrate the family into the civil religion, so Memorial Day has acted to integrate the local community into the national cult. Together with the less overtly religious Fourth of July and the more minor celebrations of Veterans Day and the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, these two holidays provide an annual ritual calendar for the civil religion. The public school system serves as a particularly important context for the cultic celebration of the civil rituals.

The Speeches

The inaugural speeches we are about to examine were delivered in January. The name of the month is derived from word Janus, the Roman god of doors, passage ways and beginnings. Unlike most of the gods of the pantheon, Janus was an original Roman deity. Janus embodied the rite of passage. He was the god endowed with the privilege of being invoked first in ceremonies. Janus was made famous for being depicted on coins with two faces and in sculptures with two heads, representing the opening and closing, the past and the future. A sanctuary with an altar was provided in his honor in the old Forum. And according to whether the doors were open or closed indicated the state of peace or war –Livy.

President George W. Bush’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 2001

Through much of the last century, America’s faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations…

Our democratic faith is more than the creed of our country, it is the inborn hope of our humanity, an ideal we carry but do not own, a trust we bear and pass along. And even after nearly 225 years, we have a long way yet to travel…

The quotes above represent tenets of American civil religion as defined by Robert N. Bellah with the notable exceptions of the following reference:

I know this is in our reach because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves who creates us equal in His image

The attribute “a power” is a substitute to the appellation God. The phrase reveals an allusion to the creation narrative of Genesis I and II. In Genesis God creates man in is His image, whereas the President describes it as “a power” who creates “us equal” to “His image”. The word “equal”  might be attributed to the reference in the Declaration of Independence where “all men are created equal”.

A Bible search revealed no match to “a power larger than ourselves”. Typically the word “power” is used as an attribute of God as in; the power of God, the power of Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, etc. In reference to God, the attribute “greater” is usually used instead of “larger”. Etymologically, the word “power” has a legal and political connotation. As for the word “ourselves”, it implies “self” as a “person”.

In the later days of the Roman Republic the word “corporation” was used in documents in the same sense as collegium. The term referred to a form of legal association consisting of at least three persons. The collegium was also described as having a “body” –corpus habere. The corporation possessed the legal right of holding property in common. It shared a treasury and could sue or be sued. The property of the corporation was liable to be seized and sold for its debts. According to Roman law, what was due to the collegium was not owed to the individuals composing it. And what was an indebtedness of the collegium was not the debt of the individuals.

The Roman concept of “corporation” was adapted by the early Christian ecclesiae –churches– as a legal form of protection in periods of persecution. It was mostly used as a legal means of holding and transferring the churches’ property. Corporations were later adopted by varied religious monastic orders. In the Middle Ages life was largely “corporate”, in the sense that religion was defined by “corporations” of monks and friars. It was considered a secure way of protecting ecclesiastical property especially in times of feudal warfare.

These corporations in the course of history survived and prospered. The concept was improved with the introduction of “corporation sole” defined by English law, where a “sole” or single religious office holder could transfer the same position with identical powers to his successor.

In the US the corporation is an association defined by civil law as an “individual” or “artificial being”. Chief Justice Marshall of the Supreme Court describes the corporation as follows:

A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law. Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it, either expressly or as incidental to its very existence. These are such as are supposed best calculated to effect the object for which it was created. Among the most important are immortality, and, if the expression may be allowed, individuality; properties by which a perpetual succession of many persons are considered as the same, and may act as a single individual. They enable a corporation to manage its own affairs, and to hold property without the perplexing intricacies, the hazardous and endless necessity of perpetual conveyances for the purpose of transmitting it from hand to hand. It is chiefly for the purpose of clothing bodies of men, in succession, with qualities and capacities, that corporations were invented, and are in use. By these means, a perpetual succession of individuals are capable of acting for the promotion of the particular object, like one immortal being.

Based on the above definition, this “individual” is invisible, intangible and immortal. As such it exceeds normal human powers and is construed to be supernatural. This “artificial being” is “larger” than its constituent parts, with “a power larger” than the individuals comprising it. The “corporation” as we know it today surpass in power and wealth any human person on this planet. Although it was originally created by a human being it has become so powerful that it can create a world in its own image.

And some needs and hurts are so deep they will only respond to a mentor’s touch or a pastor’s prayer. Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws…

As Jonathan Z. Smith noted, the President’s use of words and their sequence of “Church and charity, synagogue and mosque” relates to the “Abrahamic tradition”, one that “maps Christianity at the center, Judaism the near neighbor, and Islam the far.” [5]. Most notable is the absence of the inclusion of “world” faiths and varied religious beliefs and movements.

Sometimes in life we are called to do great things. But as a saint of our times has said, every day we are called to do small things with great love. The most important tasks of a democracy are done by everyone…

The words of the undisclosed “saint” can be traced to Mother Teresa. Although the Vatican began a process of beatification, Mother Teresa is not canonized yet. The use of the word “saint” with a lower case is in all likelihood meant as an attribute. The spelling with a capital letter is typically reserved for canonized Saints. In passing, Mother Teresa was known to be a staunch Roman Catholic with an uncompromising position on abortion who faithfully submitted to the teaching of the Catholic Church. As such the quote can be seen as implicitly placing the Catholic Church at center of the “Abrahamic tradition”.

After the Declaration of Independence was signed, Virginia statesman John Page wrote to Thomas Jefferson:  “We know the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?”

This work continues. This story goes on. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.

God bless you all, and God bless America.

The reference to “saint”, “angel” and “God” are considered to be in line with examples of American civil religion stated previously.

President Sworn-In to Second Term, January 20, 2005

America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth.”

The quote above is a reference to the Nicene Creed, 381 AD: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…”. Most of the Christian denominations adhere to the creed with the notable exceptions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church of the New Jerusalem, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. One can infer by the reference that Christianity is again placed as a central premise of the “Abrahamic tradition”.

In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character – on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people

What exactly is meant by “truths of Sinai” is left to conjecture and open to interpretation. The Egyptian Sinai Peninsula is a vast desert area between the Gulf of Suez and Israel. The most obvious relation to Sinai would be Moses where he roamed for 40 years with the chosen people of God in search of the promise land. Mount Sinai is where he received the Ten Commandments from Yahweh. Moses died before he reached his destination. It was Joshua who was called to lead the people to its promised destination.

The relation to the Sermon on the Mount, contrary to the fuzzy “truths” of the Sinai, points to a precise location, era, subject matter made by Jesus Christ. Again Jesus Christ is mapped at the center of the religious discourse with the vagueness of the Sinai of Judaism as its near neighbor.

The other religious reference is to the sacred book the Koran, and by extension to the prophet Mohammed, also placed at the limits of the Abrahamic tradition.

The list ends with a description of “the varied faiths of our people” more inline with typical tenets of American civil religion.

The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.

We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now” – they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty

May God bless you, and may He watch over the United States of America.

The excerpt above implies an analogy between “a chosen nation” and the “chosen people” of Israel. The juxtaposition “nation” with “people” is not an uncommon connection to American civil religion as described by Bellah.


Roman civil religion consisted in the knowledge that the gods were benevolent partners of the mortals in the management of the world for the benefit of all citizens. It was based on the liberty to establish beneficial relations with the gods founded on reason rather than fear. The gods were benevolent guarantor of law and order for he sake of Rome’s stability and growth. Religio’s function consisted in integrating and harmonizing the varied and conflicting cultures and faiths living in Rome and throughout the empire. Although Rome’s civil religion was polytheistic, its religious system was essentially monolithic, in the sense that everything gravitated around Rome and its citizens as the center of power.

The President’s references to Mother Teresa, The Nicene Creed and the Sermon on the Mount, is placing Christianity at the center of the “Abrahamic tradition”. By doing so he is attempting to establish a precedent in respect to American civil religion. These specific comments have no historic antecedent and are a break from American civil religious’ tenets. As Bellah points out, John F. Kennedy who was Catholic did not make any references to Jesus Christ or the Catholic Church. He limited himself to reference to God as the deity of an American civil creed, one that embraces inclusiveness rather than exceptionalism.


[1] Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, New York, Zone Books, 2007, p. 75.

[2] John Scheid, An Introduction of Roman Religion, Indiana, Indiana University Press, 2003

[3] Jonathan Z. Smith, Relating Religion, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. 105.

[4] Indro Montanelli, Histoire de Rome, Paris, Editions Mondiales, 1959.

[5] Jonathan Z. Smith, Ibid. p. 381.