Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Founding Era Civic Christianity Is Nominal Christianity:

I often engage my evangelical friends at WorldMagBlog on their comment threads. One thread discusses the actions of some secularists to scrub Founding era references to God out of Washington DC's Capitol Visitor Center.

One commenter noted famous utterances by Joseph Story and John Marshall on Christianity's organic connection to law and government. You can read the originals here and see James Madison's opinion for the opposite position. All three replied to the same sermon by one Jaspar Adams which addressed this issue. John Marshall's comments are short, so I'll reproduce all of his:

MAY 9, 1833


Richmond May 9th 1833.

Reverend Sir,

I am much indebted to you for the copy of your valuable sermon on the relation of Christianity to civil government preached before the convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Charleston, on the 13th of Feb. last. I have read it with great attention & advantage.

The documents annexed to the sermon certainly go far in sustaining the proposition which it Is your purpose to establish. One great object of the colonial charters was avowedly the propagation of the Christian faith. Means have been employed to accomplish this object, & those means have been used by government.

No person, I believe, questions the importance of religion to the happiness of man even during his existence in this world. It has at all times employed his most serious meditation, & had a decided influence on his conduct. The American population is entirely Christian, & with us, Christianity & Religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, & did not often refer to it, & exhibit relations with it. Legislation on the subject is admitted to require great delicacy, because freedom [sic] of conscience & respect for our religion both claim our most serious regard. You have allowed their full influence to both.

With very great respect,

I am Sir, your Obedt.,

J. Marshall.

Here is an excerpt from Joseph Story:

MAY 14, 1833


Cambridge May 14, 1833.

Dear Sir,

I am greatly obliged to you for the copy of your convention sermon, which you have been pleased to send me. I have read it with uncommon satisfaction, & think its tone & spirit excellent. My own private judgement has long been, (& every day's experience more & more confirms me in it,) that government can not long exist without an alliance with religion to some extent; & that Christianity is indispensable to the true interests & solid foundations of all free governments. I distinguish, as you do, between the establishment of a particular sect, as the Religion of the State, & the Establishment of Christianity itself, without any preference of any particular form of it. I know not, indeed, how any deep sense of moral obligation or accountableness can be expected to prevail in the community without a firm persuasion of the great Christian Truths promulgated in your South Carolina constitution of 1778. I look with no small dismay upon the rashness & indifference with which the American People seem in our day to be disposed to cut adrift from old principles, & to trust themselves to the theories of every wild projector in to [?] religion & politics.

And here is an excerpt of Madison's:

I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions & doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded agst by an entire abstinence of: the Govt from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, & protecting each sect agst trespasses on its legal rights by others.

What's ironic about this collection of three is all were theological unitarians. Let us reflect on Marshall's assertion that: "The American population is entirely Christian, & with us, Christianity & Religion are identified." This is an idea that evangelicals ("born-again Christians") by necessity of their professed religious beliefs must reject. As I noted to my evangelical friends:

[B]oth Story and Marshall were “unitarians” and considered their theological system which rejected the trinity, incarnation, and atonement to be “Christianity.” Therefore “Christianity” to Story and Marshall really wasn’t “Christianity” as evangelicals understand it here but some kind of broader theological system. If termed “Christian” at all, what Story & Marshall refer to is what folks here might term “nominal Christianity.”

Think about the implication of the notion that the entire population was Christian. No population has ever been nor could be — given the teachings of evangelical Christianity of the “narrow path” — “entirely Christian” as folks here understand the term, as being “regenerate” or “born again.”

Roger Williams understood that the unregenerate will always be among you. So in essence these unitarians are saying that America is almost entirely “Christian” in at least a nominal sense. Woo-hoo to that.

Indeed at least one evangelical on these threads properly understands this as he eloquently wrote:

But, as Jon points out, this civic Christianity was so broadly defined as to lack any of the theological content that we identify with orthodox Christianity. Thus, the “Christian America” crowd errs in supposing that these vague references to God evince a historical commitment to orthodoxy.

Although I’m not generally sympathetic to secularists, I often have no problem accepting the outcomes they propose on these kinds of issues. Christianity is fundamentally a dogmatic, exclusivist, particularistic enterprise. It says that our chief enemies are sin and death, and that we can only escape their curse by embracing the scandal of particularity found in the crucified Christ. But civic Christianity has never had much affinity for this message. It prefers trite platitudes, such as “God Bless America” and “In God We Trust.” In that sense, civic Christianity is just one more cultural elixir that leads to death.

Secularists fear that a Constantinian civil religion will harm the state. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about that. If I hate Constantinianism, it is because it obscures the scandal of particularity that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel.

In this season, we often speak of Christ’s peace. On my walk home, I passed by a department store whose window showed a snowman proclaiming “Peace on Earth.” Civic Christianity, it seems, would have us believe that Christ’s peace is a warm, feel-good kind of peace that conjures up images of Norman Rockwell paintings, toasted marshmallows, and the crackle of the fireplace. Yet true Christianity reminds that Christ’s peace is a peace that comes by God’s just wrath against our sinful world - a wrath against which the Cross of Christ is our sole refuge. Christmas reminds us of God’s inauguration of His righteous judgment. When department stores begin hanging up signs where snowmen proclaim “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is Near,” then I will consider the War on Christmas a worthy fight.

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