Religion as the Unifying Force of Society
Emile Durkheim, an early French sociologist, spent years studying the religious practices of Australian aborigines and South Seas islanders. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Ufe  he concluded that the main purpose of religion in primitive societies was to help people make contact not with God but with one another. The religious rituals helped people to develop a sense of community as they shared the experiences of marriage, birth, and death and celebrated the planting and harvest seasons and the winter solstice and the vernaI equinox. This united the group, leaving none to face life alone. They' were thus worshipping society not God or gods. In the country of many different faiths and denominations, religion cannot easily unite the entire society, but it can unite each religious group in a mutual support system. Meanwhile, the unifying effects of religion upon society may be fulfilled by what Bellah [1974,1975,1980] and others have called "civil religion." The concept of civil religion in America is that, even though the United States does not have a state church, there is still a definite religious influence in national life. Despite many different churches, separated by many differences, .he American civil religion has common elements stressed by all major churches. Civil religion is a body of religious beliefs which are widely held throughout the society. They have a supernatural basis and are promoted by most churches. Civil religion supports government actions when they are in harmony with beliefs of civil religion. Conversely, civil religion condemns government actions which conflict with civil religious principles. The expression of a civil religion predates the founding of the republic. It can be seenin the prayers of the early Puritan settlers as they asked God's blessing on their venture into a new land and is expressed in the statements of many American statesmen. In the Declaration of lndependence, we read that it is based on "the laws of nature and of nature's God" and also that "men are. endowed by their reator with certain inalienable rights." Not only is religion regarded as the foundation of proper governmental action, but religious values are seen as sustaining the moral conduct required of citizens in a derqocratic state. Some of the early American statesmen were undoubtedly influenced deeply by religious convictions, while others were convinced atheists or agnostics who wished to free the young nation from all religious control. While some authorities find frequent traces of civil religion [Wimberly, 1976], others see little evidence that it is a potent factor in political life. [Thomas and Flippen, 1972].