For a couple of weeks, I’ve been promising a post on civil religion, and its ramifications for Christianity in America. This is a big topic with several angles from which it can be examined. For this post, I want to give the term civil religion a definition, give a little history, and show some of the negative consequences of civil religion as it relates to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Civil religion is related to patriotism, but takes patriotism to a different level by connecting love of country to God in such a way that the distinctions between patriotism and Christianity can become blurred. When this happens, patriotism and belief in God (or a god) seem to become nearly the same thing, and the symbols of our nation are held in a certain reverence as if they came to us directly from God. We could call this the religion of America (as opposed to the religion of Christianity, or the religion of Islam, etc.)
What does civil religion look like? It looks a lot like any other religion. It has ceremonies, rituals, beliefs, and scriptures, and is a unifier of people within a nation. It does so by rallying everyone in the nation around our common symbols, and reminding us of our common heritage. For the Civil Religionist, the United States has many religious symbols including Old Glory, the bald eagle, the Liberty Bell, and the Statue of Liberty. The Constitution of the United States serves as religious scripture. The Pledge of Allegiance and prayer before football games are good examples of civil religious rituals, and things like 4th of July parades, commencement addresses, and inaugurations are examples of ceremonies.
I am not saying that any of these things are necessarily wrong for Christians to take part in, though we may need to ask ourselves seriously where our proper priorities and loyalties lie. I love Independence Day and a good fireworks display. To be thankful to God for the blessings of living in a particular place is never wrong. To thank men who’ve served in the armed forces is never wrong either.
A Little History
There is a historical foundation for the phenomenon of civil religion, but it doesn’t go back to the founding of the country. What we see now as “God and Country” symbolism actually began in World War II when the government encouraged churches to display flags in their sanctuaries as a sign of unity and patriotism. The practice of national flags inside church sanctuaries was rare before this time, but during WWII the cultural pressure was really ramped up. Interestingly, part of the rationale for clergy and seminarians being exempt from military drafts was so they could support the war effort from their pulpits and in their sanctuaries. Clergy are viewed as useful to the State as those who can rally the people on the home front in support of a war effort. On a personal level, I am offended by the notion that some view a pastor’s calling as one of propagandist for Americanism.
(On a side note: In researching for this post, I discovered that the Roman Catholic Church worldwide has always frowned on the practice of nationalistic pride being on display in sanctuaries in the form of flags. Though many (some?) U.S. Catholic Churches do display flags, my understanding is that almost no international Catholics do this. Even more interesting is that it was almost unheard of for American Lutherans to display flags before WWII, but when some Americans called into question the loyalty and patriotism of German-speaking Lutherans, the practice became almost ubiquitous in Lutheran churches.)
Post WWII Americans coming home from fighting “godless” Germany and Japan saw the rise of atheistic Communism, and this set the stage for President Dwight D. Eisenhower (former WWII General) to create a Cold War counterbalance to the Soviets. If they were the atheistic Communists, then we were the theistic Capitalists. In 1954 “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance (as in “one nation under God, indivisible…”), and “In God We Trust” was permanently added to our bills and coins in 1956. Before 1956 the presence of “In God We Trust” was found only sporadically on coins. The “god” referenced on our money and in our pledge was another civic rallying point intended to create unity and patriotism in our common fight against Communism. While that god could refer to the God of the Bible, it can just as easily refer to any god. The identification of this god is deliberately ambiguous and left open to the interpretation of the individual. There is no inherent Jesus, and there is no gospel implied or otherwise.
Prayer in school and open Bible reading had been the custom in U.S. schools going back to our founding. This was primarily because the churches administrated the schools. It was in 1955 the New York Board of Regents developed a prayer recommended for use in schools under its authority. In 1962 the first case came before the courts to get government sponsored prayer banished from schools. Any prayer that is now allowed in civil religion’s ceremonies is normally restricted to the very generic mention of “god”, but with no specific references to a particular god. Any Christian invited to pray at the president’s inauguration is not allowed to pray in the name of Jesus, because Jesus is not America’s god.
It seems to me that the legislated theism of the 1950’s (in the form of civil religion) played a role in cultivating the environment making the cultural rebellion of the 1960’s possible. The ensuing “culture wars”, have done more harm to the gospel and the testimony of Jesus Christ as King. The culture wars strike me as a totally man-centered method of preserving a form of the American religion. Neither of which (the method or the religion) resemble the teaching or ministry of Jesus and the Apostles. So yeah, I’m a conscientious objector in the culture wars.
If you want to see how civil religion is used to create a generic god for everyone to follow, I reference a post by Dan Birdsong on the CNN Religion blog. In it, Birdsong is laying out a strategy for Mitt Romney to get beyond his Mormon “problem” with Christian voters. Birdsong’s advice is for Romney to embrace civil religion with gusto. He needs to avoid talking about the specifics of his Mormonism because this might raise eyebrows, but instead embrace the symbols of the American religion, and talk a lot about how “god” has ordained this nation and made it great, and how that same god has brought him to this place of presidential candidacy. Birdsong advises Romney to make his Mormonism a non-issue by turning it into just another expression of America’s civil religion with its generic god. Most conservative voters don’t care, and I fear too many Christians won’t know the difference.
Why does this bother me? It isn’t that I’m particularly concerned with the prospect of a Mormon president, but because I’ve got a real problem with how easily Christians are fooled and distracted by this kind of talk. Have we lost the ability to see the difference between politics in the United States of America, and God’s plan for this world through Jesus and Kingdom?
For too many Christians, the lines between following Christ, love of country, and civil religion have become blurred so that we make all sorts of false assumptions about America and degrade Jesus the Christ in the process. We see this most notably in politics. In an epic (or infamous) political ad, Gov. Rick Perry, a professing Christian, says that “America really is the last great hope for the world.” This is the religion of America at its most potent, and we Christians should be very cautious about this sort of rhetoric. The last time I checked, Jesus alone gets this particular honor of the being the great hope for the world.
When America and her symbols are held up too high, Jesus gets lost, and the gospel gets confused. The worship of America is not Christianity.