Civil religion is a name given by sociologists of religion to the folk religion of a nation or a political culture.
It stands somewhat above folk religion in its social and political status, since by definition it suffuses an entire society, or at least a segment of a society; and is often practised by leaders within that society. On the other hand, it is somewhat less than an establishment of religion, since established churches have official clergy and a relatively fixed and formal relationship with the government that establishes them. Civil religion is usually practiced by political leaders who are laymen and whose leadership is not specifically spiritual.
Civil religion encompasses such things as:
- the invocation of a god in political speeches and public monuments;
- the quotation of religious texts on public occasions by political leaders;
- the veneration of past political leaders;
- the use of the lives of these leaders to teach moral ideals;
- the veneration of veterans and casualties of a nation's wars;
- religious gatherings called by political leaders;
- the use of religious symbols on public buildings;
- the use of public buildings for worship;
Civil religion tends to be problematic from a theological viewpoint. Being identified with a political culture and a leadership hierarchy of an existing society, civil religion can interere with the prophetic mission of a religious faith. It is hard to make civil religion a platform for rebuking the sins of a people or its institutions, because civil religion exists to make them seem sacred in themselves.
The first government to have an identifiable civil religion was the Roman Empire, whose first Emperor Augustus officially attempted to revive the dutiful practice of Classical paganism. In this campaign, he erected monuments such as the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace, showing the Emperor and his family worshipping the gods. He also encouraged the publication of works such as Vergil's Æneid, which depicted "pious Æneas", the legendary ancestor of Rome, as a role model for Roman religiosity. Roman historians such as Livy told tales of early Romans as morally improving stories of military prowess and civic virtue. The Roman civil religion later became centred on the person of the Emperor through the imperial cult, the worship of the genius of the Emperor.
The aggressive civil religion of the United States of America is an occasional cause of political friction between the United States and its allies in Europe, where civil religion is relatively muted. In the United States, civil religion is often invoked under the name of Judeo-Christian tradition, a phrase once intended at the time to be maximally inclusive of the several monotheisms practiced in the United States, assuming that these faiths all worship the same God and share the same values. This assumption tends to dilute the essence of both Judaism and Christianity; recognition of this fact, and the increasing religious diversity of the United States, make this phrase less heard now than it once was, though it is far from extinct.