Civil Religion through Time: Text Mining Presidential Inaugural Addresses

Sean Everton, Naval Postgraduate School

In his influential 1967 essay, "Civil Religion in America," Robert Bellah argued that in the United States despite the multiplicity of religious groups and the decline in traditional religious forms, there is shared set of beliefs, symbols (e.g., American Flag), and rituals (e.g., Thanksgiving) that provide Americans with a sense of origin, direction and meaning and give a religious dimension to the entirety of American life. This "civil religion" includes a belief in God, that the United States is subject to God’s laws, and that God will guide and aid the United States. It does not, however, involve a belief that Jesus is the Son of God. It is a religion stripped of any sectarian belief and is necessarily inclusive. For evidence, Bellah turned primarily to the inaugural addresses of U.S. Presidents although he did consider a handful of other speeches and documents. Bellah's essay stimulated much subsequent research, and although it does not attract the attention it once did, it is still attracting the attention of contemporary scholars. In this essay, I draw on recent advances in text mining to systematically analyze all presidential inaugural speeches from Washington to Trump to explore how the expression of American civil religion has varied historically. In particular, I employ what is sometimes referred to as semantic network analysis, which identifies co-occurrences of words/terms over a particular unit of text (e.g., sentence, paragraph), and then examine how particular themes related to civil religion coevolve over time.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 91. Interdisciplinary Histories of Religion, Economics, and Culture