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Social Science General

From Civil to Political Religion

The Intersection of Culture, Religion and Politics

by (author) Marcela Cristi

Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Initial publish date
Jan 2006
General, Religion, Politics & State, Revolutionary
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    Publish Date
    Jan 2006
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    Publish Date
    Aug 2001
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Prompted by the shattering of the bonds between religion and the political order brought about by the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau devised a “new” religion (civil religion) to be used by the state as a way of enforcing civic unity. Emile Durkheim, by contrast, conceived civil religion to be a spontaneous phenomenon arising from society itself — a non-coercive force expressing the self-identify or self-definition of a people. In 1967, the American sociologist Robert Bellah rediscovered the concept and applied it to American society in its Durkheimian form.

Ever since Bellah’s publication, most authors have sought to explain civil religion in terms of an alleged “spontaneous” integrative role for society. They have emphasized the religious and cultural dimension of the concept, but failed to give due consideration to its political-ideological foundations. Thus, the coercive potential of civil religion has received little attention or has been wrongly relegated to Third World countries.

Cristi provides a critique of the civil religion thesis, and identifies the most basic deficiencies of literature on this topic. By contrasting Bellah’s Durkheimian conception with Rousseau’s original formulation, the author discloses the dubious conceptual and empirical basis of the former. She demonstrates the need to rethink Bellah’s thesis in the light of a reinterpretation of Rousseau’s and Durkheim’s classical approaches, and substantiates her critique with a brief comparative survey of state-directed civil religions, and with an informative case study of civil religion in Pinochet’s Chile.

About the author

Marcela Cristi is an assistant professor of sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Marcela Cristi's profile page

Editorial Reviews

"A well-researched, detailed review of the civil religion literature and is recommended for those wishing to familiarize themselves with the subject."

The Journal of Religion

"Cristi has contributed sharp analytical clarity and insight to what can be a thoroughly confusing sociological debate."

Toronto Journal of Theology

"[D]eftly summarizes and interweaves a large literature. Cristi's range and insights on numerous scholars in sociology of religion and social theory make the book...a pleasure to read."

American Journal of Sociology

"Cristi's work must be complemented for bringing together the contextual basis of this debate....This volume is highly recommended for its insightful presentation of civil religion."

Journal of Church and State