Robert Bellah described the concept of “civil religion” in America as the public events that symbolize the “beliefs, symbols and rituals” of the people of the country. The Four Freedom’s Speech of Roosevelt was addressed to the Congress in 1941. The address was regarding the impending war against nations who were looming threat to democracy. In this essay we argue that the concept of “civil religion” as presented by Bellah does not represent the speech of Roosevelt.
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Bellah first showed that the speeches of American Presidents who addressed the nation used “God” in a secular way without any adherence to a particular religious belief or ideology. So did Roosevelt when he mentions “This nation has placed its destiny in the hands, heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God.” The point of departure from Bellah’s theory which points out that American sovereignty may rest in its people but the ultimate power is vested in “God”. Roosevelt’s speech puts the people and God at par.
Bellah portrays the concept of American “civil religion” to “carry out God’s will on earth”. But Roosevelt posits the reasons of the countries actions against the threats to democracy as a defensive mechanism to safeguard the nation state rather than to carry out God’s shown path. So Roosevelt’s speech does not call for a crusade, as the American “civil religion” would like to believe, but an action undertaken to safeguard the nation against impeding dangers.
The concept of religious “civil religion” that developed post Civil War, primarily through the speech of Lincoln which symbolized “death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion.” But Roosevelt’s speech does not create any such symbolism. Rather it is a very upfront political speech which talks of facts and figures and the agenda that the nation has to counter the anti-democratic forces.
With the Second World War, Bellah points out, the concept of “civil religion” has taken a different shape and presidents like Roosevelt and Truman have tried to establish the nation’s power against the universal wrong and portrayed it to be American responsibility to do so. Roosevelt’s speech is atypical of this new concept that developed post world war and explicitly did not adhere to the concept of American “civil religion” as was framed by the early Presidents. Here the will of God and the ultimate sovereign God has been replaced by armed and military regimes, which has put the American “civil religion” at stake.
In conclusion, we may say that the American “civil religion” concept has not been directly referred to in Roosevelt’s speech. Though we find the mention of God in his speech, but their symbolism is not as that found in the speeches of Lincoln or Washington. The speech is more in the line of modern concept of military power of America being demonstrated to the world.