Recently, time took two heroes. So far as I know, the legendary civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers and the esteemed public intellectual Robert Bellah never met. But they were connected in an important way, and their passing within a few days of each other provides the occasion to reflect on their common lesson for modern American life.

Bellah was a sociologist at University of California, Berkeley. He traced the complex relationship between religion and civic life in the United States, and first came to public attention for his 1967 article "Civil Religion in America."

Bellah noted the ubiquitous role of religion in national life. But he did not mean a particular organized religion. Writing a few years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he pointed out that the Roman Catholic Kennedy invoked much the same religious imagery to describe America's "mission" as the Protestant founders had two centuries earlier.

Instead, Bellah meant that America understood its national identity in terms of a cluster of ethical principles - like freedom, equality and the rule of law - and that these principles are often described in religious terms and symbols. This language ranges from the generic invocation of God by public officials to the use of themes such as redemption and the "Promised Land."

Our achievements have always been revered in religious terms. The Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the abolition of slavery, the triumph over communism are understood as demonstrations of God's hand guiding America's destiny.

And this brings us to Julius Chambers. A child of the segregated South, Chambers was one of the most important civil rights lawyers of the 20th century. Along with his colleagues at the first integrated law firm in Charlotte, N.C., the brilliant and soft-spoken Chambers filed scores of civil rights cases, taking eight to the Supreme Court, all of which he won. He later became director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Nowhere is America's civil religion on more vivid display than in the modern celebration of the civil rights era. The struggle to achieve equality is almost universally recalled in religious terms.

Today, the veterans of the civil rights era are routinely celebrated for having done God's work. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than Chambers' eulogy, delivered by his friend and longtime law partner James Ferguson: "I saw him walking up the hill with Abraham, Martin and John."

But Bellah knew only too well that America's civil religion "has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes." We may wish it otherwise, but the religious language of national identity can just as easily sanctify something wretched as exalted. It has been invoked to justify every dark chapter in U.S. history, from the slaughter of Native Americans to discrimination to our periodic military misadventures.

Likewise, today's celebration of the civil rights era should not blind us to the reality that civil rights workers were threatened, beaten and killed by those who understood America's civil religion in far darker terms.

America's civil religion will be with us always, but we must listen to the form it takes. Today, many Americans merge an angry God with a chest-thumping nationalism to justify endless misadventures in the war on terror, giving political cover for the limitless expansion of the national security state.

As the late Sen. William Fulbright warned nearly 50 years ago, "power tends to confuse itself with virtue, and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor." This is again the greatest challenge to America's civil religion, and if recent events are any indication, the future is ominous. Robert Bellah and Julius Chambers would have understood it perfectly well.

Joseph Margulies is a professor at Northwestern University Law School and the author of "What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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