Civil Religion Aspects of Neo-paganism

Michael York

Bath Spa University College

Association for the Sociology of Religion 2003, Atlanta

In 1967, Robert Bellah published his essay, “Civil Religion in America” in which he identifies the cultural phenomenon of a national religious language that belongs to the American people as a whole rather than to any particular social component. In Bellah’s understanding, the concept of civil religion expresses a transcendent religion that belongs to everyone in America – whether Protestant, Catholic or Jewish. While other nations may also possess civil religious beliefs, symbols and rituals that furnish a religious dimension to the entirety of national life, Bellah’s American civil religion comprises the institutionalization of concepts of transcendence and the sacred in connection with the American nation. Its particular religious principles provide a transcendent standard against which the country is to be assessed, and while the national motto of “In God We Trust” suggests a non-denominational confidence in God’s protection of the United States, this belief has been thrown into doubt through the debacle of the Vietnam War, the crisis of Watergate and, more recently, the 2004 Presidential election and the 911 catastrophe. However, in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bill Swatos has noted the numerous subsequent appearances of the words “God Bless America” on commercial marquises and elsewhere as indicative of the revived sense of the holiness of the American mission.

The collection of empirical evidence in such assertions that “America is God’s chosen nation today” and “God can be known through the experiences of the American people” and the like suggests that civil religion is a social fact that is other than American politics and denominational identity. Swatos and Wimberley (1998:95) find that Catholics and traditionally denominational Protestants demonstrate consistent degrees of civil religiosity – with such groups that historically originate in the United States as the Mormons, Adventists and Pentecostalists showing the highest levels of beliefs that could be identified as civil religion. By contrast, college graduates, political and religious liberals, Jews, Unitarians and those without religious preference are in general the lowest in commitment to or belief in American civil religiosity.

While the issue of civil religion as an objective social fact in both the United States and other nations continues to be debated and contested, the general idea remains that civil religious principles provide a common denominator language at least for American life. As such, this collection of terms and symbols forms a ‘transcendent standard’ that unites religious diversity and encourages social integration between divergent factions of American society. But if American civil religion, despite its trans-denominational thrust, draws principally from the Judeo-Christian legacy that has been seminal to American identity, contemporary Western pagans would be expected to rank low in terms of American civil religiosity. As there is an increasing overlap between Americans who identify as pagans and those who pursue higher education, the low score of civil religious belief among Neo-pagans in the United States is already predicted by the Swatos-Wimberley findings. Likewise, both politically and religiously, most – though certainly not all – Western pagans are liberals. Additionally, the Unitarian-Universalist Church has provided an institutional home to many present-day American pagans through its sponsorship and validation of CUUPS or the local chapters belonging to the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Finally, while American pagans are percentage-wise no more likely to be drawn from Judaism than they are from Roman Catholicism or the Protestant churches, it may be of further significance that several leading figures within the American pagan movement (Starhawk, Judy Harrow) are of Jewish origins.

There are, consequently, two questions concerning the civil religion aspects of Neo-paganism: how much does contemporary Western paganism participate in American civil religion, and how much does the language of contemporary Goddess Spirituality, earth spirituality and/or nature religion constitute a form of ‘pagan civil religion’?

In essence, contemporary Western paganism is as denominational or sectarian as is Christianity – ranging in its case from Wicca and contemporary witchcraft to Discordian and Magickal traditions and the various reconstructions of Druidry, Heathenism (Asatru, Vanatru, Odinism, seidr), Kemetic or Egyptian spirituality, the Baltic recoveries of Romuva and Diev Turiba and the various expressions of Greco-Roman Classical religion among others. How much any of these participates broadly in American civil religion, however, would seem to be relatively unlikely. On the basis of the Swatos-Wimberley findings concerning college graduates, liberals, Unitarians and Jews, pagans would likewise rank low on the scale of involvement and identity – with the emotional forms of Christianity as understood through the Pentecostals, Adventists and Mormons being their opposites. Moreover, for many pagans, any understanding of, or interest in, or consideration of, the supernatural is not part of their faith. It is not uncommon to encounter pagans who are exclusively focused on empirical reality alone – to the degree that they deny the possibility of any transcendent or miraculous force that is other than the natural. In fact, as Margot Adler discovered, contemporary paganism is more about what is done than what is believed. The stress is inevitably on the experiential, and belief itself can be largely incidental, irrelevant or dismissed. Consequently, pagans also overlap with those that Swatos and Wimberley additionally found to score lowest on the civil religiosity index, namely, those with no religious preference. Contemporary paganism, like many of those who adhere to one form or another of New Age belief and/or expression, often holds to being ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’. By ‘religious’, what is usually meant is being ‘institutionally religious’. Even the specific denominational practices of paganism are rarely institutional. This along with a growing preponderance of pagans who practice as ‘solitaries’ suggests a further overlap with the Swatos-Wimberley understanding of those who have ‘no religious preference’.

The question concerning civil religion in America is whether the institutionalization of sacred beliefs about the nation – even the idolatrous worship of the nation – conflicts with the country’s constitutionally enshrined separation of church and state. By remaining a generalized system of meaning, not anything specific, but a socio-cultural/national purpose that transcends the social contract, despite its underlying Judeo-Christian ethic – what Albanese refers to as public Protestantism or Protestant sensibility, American civil religion is a principal cultural resource “that served to reintegrate and unite Americans in a coherent national response to the [911] crisis” (Swatos, 2002:1). As Swatos explains, the September 11th attacks constituted a moral outrage that violated the norms of civil societies. They were an assault on American civil religion itself with its laissez faire code of both freedom for religion and freedom from religion. As such, according to Swatos, they revived the Judeo-Christian ethic in terms of millennialism, millennial dispensations and the need to protect the state of Israel as the holy land. In short, the terrorist offensive in 2001 revitalized America as a nation with a holy purpose by reviving the American sense of the holiness of its mission.

Nevertheless, despite the activist blending of patriotism and religious fervor that has dominated the United States since the collapse of the Trade Towers along with the erosion of civil liberties and the compromise of church-state separation by the Bush administration, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in June 2002 that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because the phrase ‘under God’ breaches the separation of church and state. The three-judge panel for the original decision consisted of Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Ferdinand Fernandez with Alfred Goodwin as Chief Judge. On February 28th, 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the Justice Department will appeal to the Supreme Court against the decision after the San Francisco Court refused to reconsider its ruling. While President Bush condemned the Circuit Court decision as ‘ridiculous’, Ashcroft argued that: “We will defend the ability of Americans to declare their patriotism through the time-honored tradition of voluntarily reciting the pledge.” He claimed that the United States “has referenced God as we have expressed our patriotism and national identity in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, national anthem, on our coins and in the Gettysburg Address.” He mentioned also that “The Supreme Court of the United States opens each session by saying, ‘God save this honorable court’” (“U.S. to challenge pledge ruling,” MSNBC News Services, 28 February 2003 –

However, writing separately from the 46-page decision of the en banc court to reaffirm the Circuit Court of Appeals’ original decision, Judge Reinhardt claimed, “We may not – we must not – allow public sentiment or outcry to guide our decisions. … It is particularly important that we understand the nature of our obligations and the strength of our constitutional principles in times of national crisis. … It is then that our freedoms and our liberties are in the greatest peril” (ibid.) While the U.S. Senate voted 99-0 for a resolution expressing support for the pledge, on virtually no pagan list was there any voice that did not affirm and agree with the Court of Appeals decision. On the Nature Religions Scholars list, Stephanie Urquhart articulated a consensus that holds that the Pledge of Allegiance controversy was no longer a judicial issue based on legal precedence but an emotional consideration perpetuated by alleged anti-religious and hence anti-Christian factions. The Judeo-Christian ethic that purportedly underlies American civil religion is understood by pagans as a dualistic assertion affirming the Judeo-Christian God who, rather than a generic term for ‘deity’, stands in opposition to Satan, i.e., anything and everything that does not acknowledge the ‘correct’ Judeo-Christian God. In fact, essentially denying the dualistic choice between either the Judeo-Christian God, on the one hand, or the completely antithetical Satan, on the other, in a July 4th, 2002 press release entitled “Pagans Support Ninth Circuit Ruling,” the signatories (principally Macha NightMare) identified themselves as “an ad hoc group of Americans who practice diverse Earth-based faith traditions. We support the removal of the words and a return to the traditional Pledge of Allegiance [before the 1954 Congressional decision to add the words ‘under God’].” Referring to the recent decision that the words violate the constitutional separation of church and state, the press release stated, “We share this view.”

But if this stance among the American pagan consensus might suggest that U.S. pagans do not share in the nation’s civil religion, the press release explains further that the diversity of the country’s citizenry is one of the country’s great strengths. It argued that, by inserting the words ‘under God’ along with the phrase ‘one nation indivisible’, a division was created that nullified the original Pledge. Finally, the words with which the press release ends (the release being distributed to the Nature Religions Scholars list on July 11th, 2002) are important concerning the issue of American civil religion, and I cite them in full:

"We appreciate the solace that many people find in religious belief, as we do in ours. The language of the original Pledge did not include any religious content or allusion, but rather respected individual conscience in spiritual matters. A return to this non-religious language honors the beliefs of all Americans, and encourages all of us to affirm our solidarity as a nation.

"In these times of unprecedented challenge, no matter what faith an individual American might profess, all would surely hope that a force for good was guiding and protecting our great country. It is up to the conscience of every American citizen to name that force for good from their own religious or philosophical perspective. We believe that this is the true intent of the Founders of this great nation."
(; also Wren’s Nest News at

The language here carefully avoids the American civil religious term ‘God’, but simultaneously it shows how even pagans can employ the same civil religion spirit.

However, in the Nature Religions Scholars list, another idea emerged in this discussion concerning the Pledge and the separation of church and state. Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls claimed to be not only a constitutionalist but also an environmentalist. In fact, it is precisely here that the issue of American pagan civil religion opens up into something even broader than the confines of the nation-state. According to Kramer-Rolls, the greater issue is “keeping the air breathable, the water able to support life, etc.” and concern with “dwindling resources and vanishing biodiversity except for resistant pathogens, and swelling population.” Contemporary Western paganism is not simply a faith or practice that involves religious rituals and any gathering together to honor earth and the seasons. It is as much a political expression – one that is directed against desecration of the local forests and wildlife preserves and, even more importantly, the global destruction of the planet’s natural ecological balance seen to be a consequence of closed-door collusion between big government and multi-national corporations. It is for this reason that the anti-globalization protests that occurred in Seattle, Sacramento, Quebec, Genoa and elsewhere were largely spearheaded by pagan agitators. As the Christian fundamentalist is as likely to place God above country, the contemporary pagan is apt to consider the planetary well-being (Buckminster Fuller’s global village) over national interest. Since the present-day pagan resurgence seems to be as much about the perceived threat to the environment, any nation-state civil religion is likely to become increasingly a secondary consideration to pagan identity.

This last, however, already answers my second initial question, namely, how much does the language of contemporary Goddess Spirituality constitute a form of ‘pagan civil religion’? While I would argue that, indeed, belief in a transcendent yet immanent being called ‘the Goddess’ has and does provide a lingua franca through which many different types of pagans can associate, despite their denominational or sectarian separate identities, the future trend of contemporary Western paganism would appear to focus more on an abstract concept of nature – one that is both impersonal yet animated, pantheistic yet animistic. Increasingly, nature religion is, or nature religions are, supplanting even Wicca/witchcraft as the prevailing norm within present-day paganism. But in either case, whether Goddess Spirituality or nature religion, the common denominator has – or at least attempts to have – a more universal appeal. There may be at the end of the day a new global form of civil religion that supercedes the particularity of any national civil religion – be it American, Canadian, British or French. The pagan global civil religion will not conform to any Durkheimian reification of the state but will be transnational in the sense of focusing upon the planet as a global community. If Bellah can see the Vietnam War as an occasion for reflection on American civil religion, or Swatos can recognize the revitalization of the same through the calamity of 911, the increasingly imminent crisis of environmental disaster might no less be the occasion for the emergence of a global civil religion. If such be the case, contemporary paganism already has the door open in that direction.



Albanese, Catherine L. Nature Religion in America from the Algonkian Indians to the New Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Bellah, Robert N. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 96 (1967:1-21).

Swatos, William H., Jr. “God Bless America: Crisis and Renewal of Civil Religion.” Paper delivered to the Association for the Sociology of Religion/Religious Research Association Meeting, 2002.

“ “Post-911 American Civil Religion.” Talk delivered to the World View Society, Bath Spa University College (10 February 2003).

Wimberley, Ronald C. & William H. Swatos, Jr. “Civil Religion.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Society (ed., William H. Swatos, Jr.) Walnut Creek/London/Delhi: Altamira, 1998:94-96.

York, Michael. “The Nature and Culture Debate in Popular Forms of Emergent Spirituality in America.” From Virgin Land to Disney World: Nature and Its Discontents in the USA of Yesterday and Today (ed, Bernd Herzogenrath). Critical Studies vol. 15. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2001:277-296.