Monday, October 08, 2007

America's Civil Religion is Not Christianity:

Jim Babka sent me a great article from an orthodox Christian source that well understands America's Civil Religion is not Biblical Christianity. Writing about the tension between America's civil religion and orthodox Christianity is one of my specialities. In my last post I noted President Bush's notion that all religions worship the same God "may not be an authentically Christian belief, but it is an authentically American belief." This article explains the tension in detail:

What is civil religion? According to historian (and Christian) Wilfred McClay, civil religion is “that strain of American piety that bestows many of the elements of religious sentiment and faith upon the political and social institutions of the United States.” More problematically, civil religion is the misidentification of the nation of the United States with the covenant people of God. It is the casual assumption that America enjoys a special role in redemptive history. It is the confusion of the office of the political leader with the office of the spiritual leader. It is the frequent presumption of divine blessings without submission to divine judgment. It is the sublimation of Christian distinctives to a generic amalgam that conflates many faiths into a common national identity. It is as old as America itself. And it is not biblical Christianity.

This is the first and by far most vital distinction to keep in mind. Though civil religion may at times draw on biblical resources, though it may on occasion employ Christian imagery, though it may appeal to many professing Christians, it differs from biblical Christianity in fundamental ways. Christianity holds that the people of God are all those who, irrespective of tribe or tongue, have repented of their sins, trusted wholly in Christ’s substitutionary death for their forgiveness, been reconciled to God through his redeeming grace, and joined in the life of the church. Civil religion instead often holds that God’s people are those who dwell in a particular nation-state and faithfully uphold their civic duties. Christianity holds that man’s chief end is, in the words of the Westminster Confession, to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Civil religion, at its worst, holds that God’s chief end is to preserve and bless the nation-state. Christianity is worship of the one true God. Civil religion, at its most pernicious, is idolatry.

My own reason for debunking the Christian Nation thesis is I think sectarian religious passions in politics are dangerous, I want to quell that zeal, and see religious conservatives adopt a more live and let live attitude on cultural issues.

Many conservative theologians however, likewise have good reason to debunk the Christian Nation thesis because embrace of it can lead to the whoring of the Christian religion for political purposes. Many of the ideas of founding era republicanism, for instance, most of what's contained in the Declaration of Independence, are wholly alien to the Bible (the ideas are not necessarily inconsistent with the Bible, but certainly not derived from the good book). When you try to give the Bible "credit" for an extra-biblical idea, then clearly you "import" non-biblical ideas into your sacred text, something the Bible categorically forbids! And this is exactly what pro-patriotic preachers from the founding era (many of them, but not all, theological unitarians and universalists) did whenever they promoted (which they often did) Locke's concept of "state of nature" from the pulpit.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Recent expressions of civil religion are instructive. Ronald Reagan was famous for those expressions and was loved for it by most Evangelical Christians. But the content was generally not explicitly Christian.

I can think of no reason to believe RR subscribed to the major tenets of Christian orthodoxy. He did not participate in regular Christian worship. He tended to dodge questions about his religious experience. As with the Founders, his expressions had Christian roots, but were something other than Christian.

Bill Clinton and G.W. Bush both seem to be orthodox Christians (or something near to orthodox). However, their public religiouslity tends toward the more universal. For good reason, they value public expression of religion (or find it useful) but they recognize that the nation is not just Christian. That is the compromise that prevents sectarian strife, we can have our public religiouslity, but only in terms so vague as to be inclusive. Only the athiests are left out.