A “Transcendent Reference Point”

In a recent opinion piece for Religion News Service, Richard Mouw says we need “civil religion” in America today, perhaps more than ever.

Mouw harkens back to Robert Bellah’s seminal essay “Civil Religion in America,” which was first published 50 years ago. Bellah, who died in 2013, was a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the book, Religion in Human Evolution. His was a voice of reason in public discourse about religion; he received the National Humanities Medal in 2000 from President Bill Clinton, in part for “his efforts to illuminate the importance of community in American society.”

“Bellah,” wrote Mouw, “was no ‘My country right or wrong’ superpatriot. He was clear about the fact that the declarations of civil religion were often used to reinforce bad things in American life. But, he insisted, there were also good expressions of American civil religion. For Bellah, civil religion ‘exists along side of and (is) rather clearly differentiated from the churches,’ and its intentionally generic character was its strength.

“It embodied some of the basic features shared by Christianity and Judaism (and today, we must add, Islam): namely, that there is something beyond and above our human minds, wills and desires — a ‘transcendent reference point’ — that when we acknowledge its reality we are made aware that our collective life must be guided by more than majority opinion.”

Read Bellah’s essay here. And watch a video where he discusses Religion in Human Evolution here:


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