An Interview with Dr. Massimo Rubboli, University of Genoa

Dr. Massimo Rubboli
Dr. Massimo Rubboli

Civil Religion and Civil Spirituality

Dr. Rubboli is former Professor of North American History in the School of Political Sciences and past Director of the North American Research Centre at the University of Genoa. He has been Fulbright Fellow and Visiting Scholar at the John Carter Brown Library, Providence, R.I. He has published extensively on American and Canadian political, social, and religious history. His current research focuses on the shifting boundaries of civil religion in American social and political life and how American civil religion continues to perform a significant role as a factor of cultural and social integration for different religious traditions. Dr. Rubboli was a visiting Research Fellow at the International Forum for U.S. Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from March of 2015 through April of 2015.

Dr. David Schrag for IFUSS: Your work deals with the concept of civil religion and national identity. Could you say a bit about what is meant by civil religion and how it differs from other, more familiar, concepts such as patriotism and national ideology?

Dr. Massimo Rubboli:
The concept of civil religion refers to the religious dimension and spiritual values of a nation, as expressed through public rituals, symbols (such as the national flag) and ceremonies on sacred days and at sacred places (such as monuments, battlefields or national cemeteries). It focuses on the religious dimension of patriotism and national ideology. Scholars have defined civil religion in a variety of ways, also using alternative terms like “national ideology,” “political religion,” “nationalistic theology,” “civil religion, “the religion of the republic”; all terms, from different perspectives, refer to the way in which national institutions, rituals and ideologies function like a religion.

IFUSS: When did the terms “civil religion” come into use in scholarly discussions? Has the concept of civil religion remained a fairly constant subject of research since it was first coined or has it fallen out of favor and then, perhaps recently, made a comeback?

MR: The concept of civil religion originated in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s discourse on republican government and it was first applied to the United States in the 1960s by sociologist Robert Bellah, who identified an elaborate system of practices and beliefs arising from America’s unique historic experience and religiosity. However, Bellah was concerned mainly with the Christian structure of American legitimating myths, and his analysis focused on the content of Presidential speeches. Since Bellah’s seminal essay, the concept of civil religion has become a major topic for American sociologists of religion, historians and political scientists who have used it to refer to the religious dimension and spiritual values of the American nation, as expressed through public rituals, symbols (such as the national flag) and ceremonies on sacred days and at sacred places (such as battlefields, monuments or national cemeteries). Much of the work done on civil religion in the 1970s, following Bellah’s attempt to apply Durkheimian notions to American culture and locate the sacred in American society, focused on texts, myths and rhetoric, especially in Presidents’ speeches. More recently, scholars have paid more attention to the quasi-religious rites and sacred objects that embody or represent American civil religion, such as the national flag.

IFUSS: Is the idea of civil religion something distinctively U.S. American? Or how does one see it played out in other democracies, if much at all?

I do believe that the majority of nations have a sort of civil religion, but the United States has a very distinctive and unique one.

IFUSS: You have noted, drawing specifically on the speeches of president Obama, that we are seeing a shift in national rhetoric from civil religion to something more like a civil spirituality. What are some of the images and themes that mark this shift? Do you think that civil spirituality has come to replace civil religion, and if so, what are the larger implications of this shift?

The transformation of Obama’s civil religion was most apparent in his second inaugural address in January 2013, where he moved beyond specifically biblical images and language toward a broader set of spiritual themes in order to speak for a diverse American future. Obama’s 2013 inaugural address modeled an innovative form of pluralistic post-religious civil discourse, reaching away from traditional civil religion towards a sort of civil spirituality—a less dogmatic and more inclusive form of civil religion.

Dr. David Schrag is Program Coordinator for the International Forum for U.S. Studies (IFUSS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.