Civil Religion and the Cultural Politics of National Identity in Obama's America


  • Acknowledgments: This is a revised version of the SSSR presidential address, delivered November 10, 2012, in Phoenix. For comments, critique, and suggestions both before the address and in the revising, the author thanks Lori Beaman, Mark Chaves, Jay Demerath, Janet Jacobs, Kelly Moore, Steve Warner, Richard Wood, and the members of the Sociology of Religion Working Group in the Department of Sociology at Loyola University Chicago. As the cliché goes—nonetheless true—errors of interpretation remain mine.

Correspondence should be addressed to Rhys H. Williams, Department of Sociology, Loyola University Chicago, 1032 W. Sheridan Road, Chicago, IL 60660, USA. E-mail:


American civil religion (ACR) burst on to the scholarly scene in 1967, and has been periodically revived as a source of analytic insight and normative hope since that time. It posited a universalist, prophetic, nonsectarian faith, referenced on the nation, that served as both a source of unity for the American people and a discursive resource for political leaders and protest movements. Using recent political events as illustrative cases, I argue that ACR is not only a universalist, prophetic creed, it is also an expression of tribal identity that ascribes a particular character and purpose to the American people. In particular, this “tribal” civil religion has an often-unstated assumption about the inseparability of religion, race, and national identitythat is, white, Christian, and American. Recent events have disrupted those implicit connections, leading to a vociferous reemphasis of their centrality to the national story. I maintain that neither ACR, nor recent politics involving immigration and Barack Obama's presidency, can be understood fully without considering the religion-race-national identity nexus.