Do We Want Civil Religion?

Do we believe that it is the role of the state to be the custodian of our faith in some public way? If you want to trace this argument go back to Emperor Constantine, where Christianity was granted official state protection and wedded to the state in a manner that gave it preference over Roman deities. The results of this marriage have been, at best, very mixed. Religious wars and major shifts in cultures have resulted from this arrangement. In America we separated church and state, primarily to protect the church from the state. Over the course of 225-plus years we have been working out what this actually looks like in a society that was predominantly Christian, at least in a cultural sense. When the state sponsors or supports any expression of faith, Christian or otherwise, what we get is civil relgion. Why do we fight so hard to protect this form of civil religion when the clear facts are that it is not working as it once did? Further, is civil religion really the friend of vibrant, prophetic, radical discipleship in public? I think not.

From John Armstrong posting over at Steve Brown Etc. (read the whole post)

What do you think?


2 thoughts on “Do We Want Civil Religion?

  1. Except from The Mises Review on a book, Lincoln Unmasked: What you are not supposed to know about disonest Abe, by one my favorite authors, Thomas DiLorenzo. The article on Abe Lincoln states, “Worship of Lincoln is the linchpin of the “civil religion”. I’ll include a couple of paragraphs for context.

    Another influential admirer of Lincoln shared Jaffa’s centralizing goals. Frank Meyer, an editor of National Review, criticized Lincoln for his centralizing policies, warmongering, and repression of civil liberties. William F. Buckley disagreed, as usual without any arguments supporting his own position. Rather than respond to the obvious truths to which Meyer had called attention, Buckley airily remarked that some people “have a thing” about Lincoln.

    DiLorenzo maintains that Buckley adopted this view because Lincoln’s policies were a precedent for the statist and belligerent Cold War policies he favored. As usual, Murray Rothbard saw to the heart of the issue. Rothbard “quoted Buckley … ‘we have got to accept Big Government for the duration [of the cold war] — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores’ … The founder of National Review was a ‘totalitarian socialist,’ Rothbard wrote, ‘and what is more admits it'”

    Equally as bad, if not worse, is another Lincoln totalitarian whom DiLorenzo discusses in a chapter aptly called “Making Cannon Fodder.” Walter Berns, in Making Patriots, seeks a means to inspire America’s youth to be willing to sacrifice their lives in war at the state’s behest. “To inspire ‘patriotism’ in the nation’s youth, a national poet must mesmerize them in a cause, says Berns … Fortunately, Berns informs us, such a national poet is at hand. That person is Abraham Lincoln, whom he describes as ‘statesman, poet, and … the martyred Christ of democracy’s passion play'” (pp. 144–45). Worship of Lincoln is the linchpin of the “civil religion” that Berns favors.[3]


    • Jim,

      This really interesting. I have become very suspicious of displays of civic religion as being a bad substitute for actual Christianity. Civil religion works to unify the people around a common goal, but it also confuses our real faith in Christ with an inappropriate (for a Christian) love of country. I’ve come to think that the Cold War to blame for the conditions in which we find ourselves. I read somewhere that some scholars believe Eisenhower and the other architects of the Cold War wanted to make theistic “Christian” America a clear opponent of atheistic Communism. The problem for me is that this plays into what I believe is the myth of a Christian America. I fully acknowledge that America has a form of Christian heritage, but I don’t accept that America as a whole (all citizens as followers of Christ) was ever a Christian nation in any meaningful sense. In my read of American Church history, the scene was always a bit more pluralistic and chaotic.

      I’d love to talk more about this some time and hear your take on it.

Comments are closed.