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.

I’m through with being evangelical

This was the last straw:

I have two main problems with this, neither of which have to do with the main point of giving President Trump a “mulligan”:

1. Tony Perkins seems to think he is a spokesperson for American evangelicals. Perhaps he is. All I know is that he is not speaking for me. (Silly me. I’m still stuck back in the 1990’s when character counted and our President was supposed to set a moral example for our nation.)

2. It seems “evangelical” no longer means what I thought it did. Just to check, I went to the source, the National Association Of Evangelicals:

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Historian David Bebbington also provides a helpful summary of evangelical distinctives, identifying four primary characteristics of evangelicalism:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

These distinctives and theological convictions define us — not political, social or cultural trends. In fact, many evangelicals rarely use the term “evangelical” to describe themselves, focusing simply on the core convictions of the triune God, the Bible, faith, Jesus, salvation, evangelism and discipleship.

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Wait — what? “These distinctives and theological convictions define us — not political, social or cultural trends.(The same website does have a page about “Evangelicals and Politics“.)

So why is Tony Perkins speaking about evangelicals as if they are a voting bloc, a subset of the Republican Party?

Because that is what has come to define evangelicals more than anything else. 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.

That Good News has nothing to do with a political party.

Nothing.

It doesn’t matter what political party it is, whether I’m registered or affiliated with it or not, or whether I like the current evangelical in crowd or not…none of that is the Gospel. But I keep hearing more and more spokespeople telling me that I’m wrong, that what defines evangelicalism is not really the evangel… or following Jesus…or our commitment to the Bible…or the emphasis on a lifelong and ongoing conversion of becoming more like Christ — what defines evangelicalism is our political views and our favored candidates.

It’s not just Tony Perkins. He’s merely yet another in a sad series of last straws. Most evangelical spokespeople stopped speaking for me quite some time back, on a growing number of issues. It’s made me feel quite unwelcome at times.

So this is it. I’m officially out. It’s kind of a sad thing. No, actually it’s heartbreaking. I once had such high hopes for the evangelical church…but not any more.

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After I finished writing this post, I read this analysis of the latest unbiblical (or is it anti-Biblical?) statements from yet another prominent evangelical spokesperson. It seems more and more evangelicals no longer read or take to heart the Bible they are, by definition, supposed to obey. It seems they no longer hold the Bible in such high esteem as the very Word of God.

Rape aftermath: why I didn’t report | Survivor Saturday

Disclaimer/warning to family and friends: I know that some of you read this blog now and then, and so I wanted to warn you that this particular post might be especially sad and painful. Please consider that carefully before you continue reading. And remember that I’m OK now…in fact, much more than OK.

There has been a lot of discussion swirling around the recent verdict in the Stanford rape case. This is written in response to some of that.

In the morning, the older of my two rapists didn’t want me to leave. He mockingly and cruelly pretended as if we had just spent a lovely night together; why wouldn’t I stay for breakfast? He wouldn’t tell me where he had put my clothes, and jokingly insisted that I hadn’t been wearing any when my friend and I had come over for dinner the evening before.

Somehow I managed to find my clothes, put them on, and walk over to my apartment. No one was there. It was my first day at a new job, so I knew I had to hold myself together.

One of the legacies of the bullying and sexual abuse in my past was learning how to dissociate, how to “go away” or “make myself small” in order to separate myself as much as possible from my body. That’s how I could refuse to feel anything as I took that shower that rape survivors know all too well. To this day, I have no idea of the extent of my injuries. I was vaguely aware of upper body bruising that I accidentally caught glimpse of in the mirror. The next day, I dissociated during the exam done by my sweet, gentle, caring doctor — I still get tears of gratitude in my eyes whenever remembering him. In the shower that morning, I recall scrubbing and scrubbing, refusing to look, refusing to know, refusing to feel.

Of course I couldn’t escape every feeling. The sense of shame and filthiness was overwhelming, as was the sense that they had stolen my body. There are no words to describe what that felt like.

Somehow, I made it to work, a shattered little shell of my former self. Looking back, I am in awe of my strength. How did I manage that?

After work, I came back home, and was immediately convinced that I could not live with the knowledge of what happened to me. I came as close to killing myself as possible, saved only by my precious Jesus who presented me with a theological quandary. (Ever carried on an internal debate of Calvinism versus Arminianism with a loaded and cocked .357 magnum in your mouth and your finger on the trigger? I have.) Unable to resolve the issue of eternal security to my satisfaction, I next contemplated murder. All of this was done, believe it or not, with the utmost calm, and without a single tear.

I recognized that I might not be in the best frame of mind to decide on a course of action that would change my life forever, so I went for a drive…for hours upon aimless hours.

There is much more to the story than that, of course, but fast forward about three decades. I had decided that EMDR might be a helpful course of treatment, and my therapist was on board with the idea, even though it was outside of his scope of practice. So I found another temporary therapist, supposedly the local EMDR expert. Unfortunately, within weeks, I began referring to her among some of my friends as Bad Therapist.

Apparently she thought Donny and I had spent the past three years playing tiddlywinks or staring mutely at each other, because she insisted that I was not ready, not strong enough, to tell my story. She also saw nothing wrong with a therapist touching a sexual trauma survivor without permission, and found it weird that I didn’t appreciate this boundary violation. Supposedly all her other clients loved having their knees and thighs touched suddenly and without warning.

Knowing nothing about my rape, she asked me if I had reported it to the police. What? Why not?! Then she took issue with my answer.

Far be it from me to discourage anyone from reporting, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for those who do. They are my heroes. Really and truly. But there has never been a moment in all the years since then that I have ever regretted not attempting to press charges against my rapists.

I was not strong enough.

Back then, I was only 23 years old, and it took more years than that until I was finally ready to tell my story, in as much torturous detail that I could manage, to my therapist. Donny believed me. This was not open court. He did not pick apart my account in an attempt to disprove my allegations, paint me as a liar, and try to convince a jury that I was the worst slut ever while my rapists were kind, upstanding citizens. Yet telling him what happened the night I was raped was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever made myself do, even all those years later. He had to cancel his next appointment because I was in no shape to leave his office when I was done with the telling. After that, I drove home somehow and collapsed in bed for the rest of the day, only to be tortured with night after night of flashbacks and nightmares.

Some people, and not just Bad Therapist, take issue with any survivor who doesn’t immediately go to the police. “Oh, yeah? If you were really raped, if it was a legitimate rape, you would have reported and your rapists would be in jail!” “You must not have thought it was that bad if you didn’t want your rapists locked up so they couldn’t rape anyone else.” “Obviously you knew your story wouldn’t hold up in court. Why should we believe you when you claim you were raped?”

But, if your rapist was caught in the act, and the case goes to court, and your rapist gets a slap on the wrist, some people will cry that this promising youth has suffered enough for his “20 minutes of action”, that being a registered sex offender is almost too overwhelming a punishment for any man to bear, and that the poor lad deserves our sympathy for all the trauma he has had to endure and will endure for the rest of his life. Besides, if young women didn’t drink and hang out with participants in the hook-up culture, rapists would have to figure out another tactic, and some might become so discouraged by the effort involved that they might even rape a few less women. At least that seems to be the logic.

We expect a lot from rape survivors. From birth onward, they need to be above reproach, living virtuous and cautious lives, avoiding any possibility of danger. Without being paranoid or anything but kind and gracious, they must not let down their guard for a moment. They must neither date nor should they reject men wishing to date them — lest their rejcted suitors feel compelled to rape them — but they must not date the wrong man either. They must be mind readers and self-defense experts who can predict the future. They must be tough, fierce, and fearless, incapable of being intimidated by any threat or the brandishing of any weapon. If, through no fault of their own, they manage to get themselves raped anyway, they must conduct themselves perfectly afterwards, showing whatever it is that we believe to be the appropriate emotional response and actions. They must immediately demonstrate expert knowledge of proper post-rape behavior, along with such clarity of thinking, impeccable instincts, wisdom, and a perfect memory for details, that it is as if their mental abilities and quick reactions were not just untouched by trauma, but enhanced by it. They must never make what we consider as a single mistake, not before the rape, not during, and not after.

I was 23. It seems awfully young to me now, but I was old enough to have learned these cultural lessons well. And, much to my sorrow, they are driven home to me again…and again…and again…whenever a rape case is discussed and dissected in the public sphere.

We need to change. We need to be different.