Monday, October 06, 2014

What is "Civil Religion"?

Things that we value get mixed. Since all the mixing takes place in our heads, we often don't realize it. We look out at the world through one set of eyes, so we may not realize that we have apples and oranges all twisted up in our perceptions of the world.

Our religion and our nationalism VERY frequently get intertwined to where we can't tell where God ends and country begins. After all, they are both two things we love, so it is easy for them both to get mixed up together. (By the way, Keith Drury wrote on this 15 years ago).

It's often pretty innocent. So we celebrate July 4 in church. We have an American flag on the pulpit. In church we honor those who have lost their lives in war.  Maybe we even call Americans to repentance and to turn to the Lord. These are all fairly innocent mixings of our faith with our nationalism.

Of course it drives Christians who come here from Canada crazy. German Christians who visit us find it very alarming indeed. We have no idea how silly we look to faith-filled believers who aren't swimming in it like we are--a fish doesn't know it's wet. But as long as no one gets hurt, it's probably not worth fighting over.

How does it work? Here are some of the dynamics (thanks to the Facebook discussion for some of these):

1. The Founders become apostles and saints.
It becomes increasingly hard to view any of the founders of the country as normal people. "I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree." As great as these people may have been, they become more than superheroes. They become saints, and to say anything different evokes the same reaction as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

In fact, their words take on a Scriptural quality. Like memory verses in the Bible, we rip their words out of their historical context and quote them as inspired truth. So we forget that, in addition to being a brilliant thinker and inventor, Benjamin Franklin was also an adulterer who seriously doubted that Jesus was divine. Instead, we quote with pious devotion the words, "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That he ought to be worshipped." [With solemn music playing in the background]

2. The Constitution and Declaration become the Scriptures.
Not only do quotes become Scripture memory verses. But the founding documents take on a certain Scriptural quality. The right to bear arms, the freedom of religion, these become quasi-Ten Commandments. The founding stories become like the story of the Exodus. Our emotional commitment to these things is pretty much the same as our commitment to Scripture.

Like the biblical canon, we have the Genesis stories of Christopher Columbus and the Mayflower. We have the exodus stories of the Revolutionary War as we escape from the hands of Pharaoh (or King George as the case may be). The Boston Tea Party is like blood in the Nile. The stories of Lincoln and the Civil War are another book in the canon, a kind of New Testament that completes the Old.

We treat these stories as if they are as holy as the stories in the Bible. The emotions they raise and our devotion to them is incredibly similar, if not the same. So also is our hostility toward those "liberal scholars" who might question the historicity of some of our traditions. We show the same hostility we show toward "liberal" biblical scholars in relation to the stories of the Bible.

3. Patriotic songs take on a hymn-like quality.
I get stirred up singing about Christ. I get stirred up singing about America. So why not sing about America in church, since I get the same feeling? Even more, let's sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" and "How Firm a Foundation" at a Fourth of July celebration of America. I get the same feeling singing both.

God judges the heart, so I imagine we're ok, but this is really almost blasphemous. How spooky would it be if a crowd of Wesleyans sang "How Firm a Foundation" about God's founding of The Wesleyan Church with Lutherans and Baptists sitting with us? Now imagine singing that about America, which isn't even a church, with Christians from Africa or England listening in.

4. America becomes Israel and the Church.
America isn't in the Bible. It certainly isn't Israel. 2 Chronicles 7:14 wasn't about America. Of course it's fine for Americans to repent, but America isn't the "my people" of this verse. Really pretty arrogant of us, when you think of it. We're not even saying that American Christians are better than "second rate" Christians in Iraq or Africa who haven't suffered like we have. We're saying that a nation filled with non-followers of Christ is something like the body of Christ.

Think about it. Not even earthly Israel has this status. Paul can say of his own people, "they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel" (Rom. 9:6). Yet we would somehow equate America with God's people? It would be ludicrously hilarious if it weren't so seriously misguided.

Still worse--again, really blasphemous--God overlooks our ignorance--1 Peter 2:9 should NEVER be applied to the United States. Peter is referring to the body of Christ here, the invisible Church.

Imagine if I applied this verse to The Wesleyan Church--"You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation..." Some might laugh at me--seriously a denomination? This relates to the universal Church, the invisible body of believers everywhere and spread throughout all time. I suspect more would be quite outraged that I would consider a denomination to be God's special people.

But then see how much FAR more inappropriate it is to connect a verse like this one to a nation like America. No nation is holy enough. It's really blasphemy of incredible proportions. Thankfully, God judges our hearts not our smarts.

4. Soldiers become martyrs.
Certainly I believe in honoring those who fight for America, but they are no more saints than the founders. You don't automatically go to heaven if you die in battle. You don't get years off purgatory for being wounded in battle. There are virtuous soldiers and there are wicked ones. You are not justified by works in battle. Nope, still faith in Jesus Christ.

5. We have holy days and holy rituals.
In many churches, July 4, Memorial Day, and Veteran's Day are as or more significant than Christmas or Easter. Those same churches perhaps have never heard of Advent or even think of Lent as evil, some Catholic perversity. To me it is perfectly acceptable to celebrate the blessings God has given us as a nation, as long as we don't actually think we are somehow more special in God's eyes because we were born here.

And that's actually an important point. God loves the illegal immigrant just as much as he loves the person who breaks the speed limit or cheats on income taxes.

6. The flag becomes a symbol like the cross.
I imagine that there may be as many American flags on the platforms of American churches as there are crosses. Indeed, there are probably a good many American churches that would be angry at the idea of having a cross because of some association of it with Catholic perversity.

But don't you dare question having an American flag there! For a sense of how bizarre this is, imagine seeing a British flag on the platform of a British church or a Russian flag in a Russian church or a German flag in a German church.

I know we don't mean anything by it. We're not seriously suggesting that loyalty to America is somehow as significant as submission to the Lordship of Jesus. We're not seriously suggesting that America is holy somehow like the Church is holy. We don't take our shoes off near the flag as if God somehow dwelt in it like the burning bush.

We just love our country and that's good. I believe God isn't offended at the inappropriateness of confusing what we do in church with what we do when we vote. He is very patient with us, I believe.

7. Those who question become heretics.
I hope I have been kind enough not to raise too much anger with this post. The indignation and wrath of those offended in relation to civil religion is often of the same intensity as that toward those who mess with traditions about Christian faith. That's because those who have a civil form of religion can't fully tell the difference between the two.

Again, I'm eternally grateful that God judges us by our hearts rather than by our smarts.


vanilla said...

Anger? I think not. So nearly as I can tell, you said only things that need to be said!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I guess how one understands Church and State issues,depends on how you understand the natural realm.

Politicians, whether in the Church or the State, use language to "get people on board" to establish their agenda (whether "spiritual" or physical). Bottom line, the political realm is where things can be judged, as it is SEEN. But, the realm of the "SEEN" is the debate of "works" vs. "faith" (the natural vs. the supernatural).

Maybe we should give up the "spiritual" language and get "down to business" about what kind of society or nation (the political realm) is desirable and how to go about getting that kind of society/nation.

Nations that are "liberal" allow for "liberty of conscience" concerning many issues, but not at the costs of "law-breaking". Laws determine what is of value in society. In our society/nation, we have the debate between "liberty" and "security".

Security is necessary for any entity to continue to exist. It is the basic "self defense" argument for war. That means that illegals are ILLEGAL! Procedures about immigration are necessary to protect security regarding our values (and liberty). America was not to "establish religion", thus, the individual was allowed to associate within the Church, but, the Church, as a separate entity was not to govern Government. (America is not a Theocracy!) Without borders being protected, entities are non-existant. Thus, "universalism" philosophicall, nor Scripture can be an "ultimate ideal" to govern our society, but our Constitutional checks and balances can.

(I find this post interesting in light of Luther Lee, who held up the ideal of egalitarianism concerning slavery and was "dismissed" by the Methodists bishops because of his distain for the status quo. Progressivsm is a political philosophy. And political philosophy is the question of Church and State issues)

Ken Schenck said...

Here is a classic article by Robert Bellah.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for that warning.