A conceptualization based upon the idea that all rights as we Americans understand them come from somewhere - they weren’t invented ad hoc. In order to establish precedence for the liberties expressed by the Declaration of Independence the founders gave the document an underlying religious foundation “endowed by their creator.” This religious foundation continued in many forms: it is seen in the Presidential oath of office, on every dollar bill, in the salute to the flag, and is present in every presidential address to the nation.

American Civil Religion does not refer to God as any specific deity but rather a concept of God, something that immediately can be acknowledged and recognized in some fashion or another by nearly all citizens. This pluralized notion of God is important within American society, and it underscores the place of God within America as one that is inclusive rather than exclusive. The God of America, being acknowledged simply as the "creator" and nothing more, is capable of being pictured and symbolized differently by every individual who reads the Declaration of Independence.

God’s place within the American political structure is evident: the Declaration of Independence tells us that all human rights come from a belief in the divine and the belief that the divine has granted us certain expectations by being human - life, liberty and what have you. Those expectations play themselves out within the political process. But individual conceptions and interpretations of God remain private issues that are not relevant within the political discussion of the state, thus in addition to declaring our rights endowed to us by an unnamed creator, the founders also protected both churches and the political system from encroachment via the First Amendment.

Public political events are a dimension of the religious “fabric” of American society, but the private, personalized (and often exclusive) denominational interpretations are not allowed to encroach on the political system. This is essentially where the separation between church & state lie in American Civil Religion. Mention of God within the political system is a symbolic activity that reminds us of the rights and liberties we often take for granted as members of this society - it is not the imposition of private church agendas on daily life.

For a state to have a religious foundation is in no way unique. Nearly every government ties itself to a religious body that it gains validation from. The important and often overlooked aspect of American civil religion is that it’s particular body lacks specificity. American civil religion is not Christianity, no matter how influenced American politics are or become influenced by the Christian right. Its vagueness allows it to be interpreted by different organizations and individuals as they wish. Thus, diverse religious organizations embrace American patriotism as a way of life: it allows for political justification without social exclusivity.

Further Reading:
Robert Bellah. The Good Society, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1991.
José Casanova. Public Religions in the Modern World, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1994.
Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America, Doubleday & Co: New York.
Leroy Rouner. Civil Religion and Political Theology, University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, 1986.

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