American Civil Religion Part 2

Just in case my first post didn’t have the potential of stepping on enough toes…

In case anyone might think otherwise, let me hasten to emphasize that I’m thankful beyond words to live in the United States of America. Many are the privileges that I enjoy because of my citizenship, and I try not to take any of that for granted.

Oh, yeah — and I grew up during the civil rights era, wishing I could march along with Martin Luther King. Over the years since, I’ve engaged in some peaceful protests and civil disobedience (even went toe-to-toe with a sheriff over my constitutional rights) while also believing that sometimes freedom and justice demands a lot more than that. I wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the American soldiers who liberated Germany (including my mother!) from the Nazis… and I definitely wouldn’t exist without one special American soldier who was part of the occupation force in the 50’s.

But…

There is always a “but…”

I may have gotten a heavy dose of American Civil Religion in elementary school, but I also got a heavy dose of the Bible from my soldier-turned-pastor father. So I learned about the Apostle Paul, who insisted upon his rights as a Roman citizen. And I also learned about Jesus, who told His followers that His Kingdom was not of this world.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” (John 18:36)

Decades of my life have been spent wrangling with the implications of that verse.

Jesus never preached political revolution or urged that His countrymen throw off the shackles of their Roman oppressors. He didn’t shout, “Rise up!” or “Freedom!” He didn’t urge his followers to remember the great military heroes of their past. He never said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” He never told his disciples, “After I rise, let your fight for independence begin!”

As an American, I don’t quite know what to make of all that. Enjoying the hard-won freedoms that I do, and owing my existence to brave Americans who fought and won against tyranny makes me wish I could ignore the questions and contradictions that haunt me.

Sometimes I tell myself that maybe my inability to see Christianity as a battle cry for independence and freedom, to see spiritual revival as political revolution, is because I’m not called to be a warrior.

But then again, none of Jesus’ disciples became warriors or freedom fighters either. They only seemed to defy the government when they were ordered to stop preaching. Even Paul, the Roman citizen, seemed stuck on the message of Christ, crucified and risen. He didn’t use his privilege to fight for religious freedom and national independence for the Jewish people, nor did he urge anyone else to do so.

The early church was full of martyrs who died preaching and praying, not fighting.

Then there are those extremely troubling beatitudes that Jesus preached. They seem not only completely at odds with the civil religion I was taught as a child, but with the entirety of American culture… and especially with the syncretism that has infected too many of our churches.

I don’t know what to do with all that.

Sometimes I don’t even know how to pray.

On days like that, I’m learning to rely yet again on the wisdom of those who have gone before me and on the treasures of the historic church. So I grab one of my prayer books to help me pray Biblically-informed prayers for my leaders, for my country, for the world… and for what truly ails me. I trust the Holy Spirit to intercede for me, as promised in the Bible.

And I become more willing to admit that I am not the one with the answers — and that, all too often, I’m not even asking the right questions.

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.

Today’s news

Adapted from what I posted on Facebook:

I just heard the news.

No doubt some of my friends are feeling like dancing in the streets because their guy got confirmed to the Supreme Court.

No doubt some of my other friends are devastated, because this feels like yet another crushing, wounding blow to many sexual trauma survivors — especially to those of us who have to live daily with the fact that, although the horrors of our assaults are seared into our brains, we don’t remember details like dates, times, locations, and exact time lines.

Please don’t comment by arguing the merits or credibility of Dr. Ford. Not here. I was not there at any party she or Judge Kavanaugh attended, and I doubt that any readers of my blog were there either. But when you tell me how you think a sexual trauma survivor should be able to remember things, or how and when she should come forward, or how she should conduct herself, you run the risk of treading dangerously close — and maybe crossing the line — to criticizing and slandering me and people I hold dear… even if you don’t name us by name.

I excuse a lot of what people say because some people are ignorant and don’t know better. Heck, I used to believe a lot of the same sexual trauma myths myself. The lies and misinformation I’d been fed didn’t just hinder my healing, but damn near killed me. Literally.

But these past couple weeks, I’ve heard more dangerous nonsense about trauma than I can stand, and I’m fed up.

To all my sister and brother survivors out there: be gentle with yourselves. Remember, we were not and are not on trial, no matter how things may feel. If you haven’t done so yet, find your “tribe”; find your allies who will stand with you… compassionate people who will sit and weep with you if that’s what you need.

Take a break. This morning I went for a wonderful walk on the beach with two terrific women. Pet a dog. Hug a baby. Take a deep breath. Kick and punch the heck out of a heavy bag. Do yoga. Whatever works for you…

Seek out what is good and true and beautiful. It is still all around us.

I know who I am. It would be nice if the whole world agreed with me and recognized and supported me. But that will never happen. So today I took a walk on the beach, and prayed with some allies, and forgot all about politics for almost 3 hours, and remembered how good my life really is, thanks to the grace of God.

I want all survivors to experience that peace.