American Civil Religion

After my first grade teacher inspired me to become quite the passionate little patriot, I paid much more attention in social studies classes whenever the topic had anything to do with the United States of America. But despite my best intentions, I was easily distracted and given to flights of fancy. Plus, as a Baptist preacher’s kid, I wasn’t all that sure that I should be learning about other religions, so I may have even tried to tune out any teacher who brought up the concept of American civil religion. Whether their lesson plan or not, this was my childish takeaway:

There was a special religion in America that everyone was required to practice, except Jehovah’s Witnesses, because they didn’t have to particiapte in the flag salute. Maybe they weren’t even real Americans after all. Real Americans were all required to practice this mysterious civil religion in addition to their own religion. It wasn’t exactly idolatry, except that there were special statues of heroes in special places, and special buildings that looked like temples, and special songs, and special pledges and oaths, and special books, and special stories that children were required to learn. This special religion mentioned God in some of its songs and stories and on its money, and it even mentioned parts of the Bible — but not Jesus. The symbols it used on its money and on some of the weird temple-like buildings weren’t what I recognized as Christian symbols, but you would get in trouble if you said anything remotely negative about any of them or asked what they meant.

The god of this civil religion kind of seemed like the the One I learned about at home and church, minus Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Plus, the civil religion god was definitely American and only the god of Americans. As a child in a multi-cultural family, this bothered me almost as much as the troubling sense of idolatry.

Of course I was just a little kid then, but some might agree that my childish notions were perhaps not completely far off. Robert N. Bellah wrote:

While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of “the American Way of Life,” few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America. This article argues not only that there is such a thing, but also that this religion-or perhaps better, this religious dimension-has its own seriousness and integrity and requires the same care in understanding that any other religion does.

As an adult, I”m still left with all sorts of puzzling questions. For example: why, in a country where so many speak so eloquently and favorably about the separation of church and state, do so many churches choose to place our country’s flag up front, prominently displayed as if it was a symbol of our faith? Why am I so uncomfortable even asking this question? Why do I fear that it will offend people I hold dear — and will cause others to decry me as unpatriotic and somehow suspect? Why are so many people far more offended by religious symbols and art in “church sanctuaries” — depictions of Biblical themes and the fathers and mothers of our faith — than they are by a national symbol?

A little over two years ago, I wrote the following:

Someone highjacked evangelicalism, and turned it into a political movement. And lots of people are happy to follow along.

I quit. I no longer want to be part of what seems more and more like a political/social/cultural club with semi-Christian overtones. I don’t regret my lifetime spent in evangelicalism; it shaped me in many good ways. I experienced much blessing there, and I consider many evangelicals as my dear brothers and sisters. But, as a movement — at least as how it is being defined, taught, and lived out by its spokespeople — modern evangelicalism has been heading somewhere I don’t want to go.

Until now, I thought I could have my feet in both of my worlds, and be an ecclesiastical mutt of sorts, all Charismatic-Evangelical-Anglo-Cathodox. But I can’t. If I’ve gained anything these past couple years, it’s a far deeper and richer understanding of just how good the Good News — the evangel — is. That’s what draws me and feeds my soul these days.

Sadly, it seems as if the American civil religionists have highjacked evangelicalism. They are co-opting and desanctifying the language and history of Christianity. This is so grievous. A version of “Christianity” that makes no sense outside of America cannot be “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints”. (Jude 1:3) That faith is good news in all lands, among all peoples and cultures, and throughout all human history.

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