Prompted by the shattering of the bonds between religion and the political order brought about by the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau devised a “new” religion (civil religion) to be used by the state as a way of enforcing civic unity. Emile Durkheim, by contrast, conceived civil religion to be a spontaneous phenomenon arising from society itself — a non-coercive force expressing the self-identify or self-definition of a people. In 1967, the American sociologist Robert Bellah rediscovered the concept and applied it to American society in its Durkheimian form.
Ever since Bellah’s publication, most authors have sought to explain civil religion in terms of an alleged “spontaneous” integrative role for society. They have emphasized the religious and cultural dimension of the concept, but failed to give due consideration to its political-ideological foundations. Thus, the coercive potential of civil religion has received little attention or has been wrongly relegated to Third World countries.
Cristi provides a critique of the civil religion thesis, and identifies the most basic deficiencies of literature on this topic. By contrasting Bellah’s Durkheimian conception with Rousseau’s original formulation, the author discloses the dubious conceptual and empirical basis of the former. She demonstrates the need to rethink Bellah’s thesis in the light of a reinterpretation of Rousseau’s and Durkheim’s classical approaches, and substantiates her critique with a brief comparative survey of state-directed civil religions, and with an informative case study of civil religion in Pinochet’s Chile.
"Cristi has contributed sharp analytical clarity and insight to what can be a thoroughly confusing sociological debate."