Culture At Large

A Primer on American Civil Religion

Paul Vander Klay

Before a couple of Saturday's ago, to me this topic seemed rather obvious, but after watching some of the Glenn Beck show on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial I had to re-evaluate my assumptions so I've decided to write a primer on how to spot American civil religion and how Christians can avoid it in their speech.

Before I begin my primer let me be clear, both Democrats and Republicans do this. I was often disgusted by statements that I interpret as civil religion by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. What Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin did last Saturday, however, was one of the purest examples of it I've witnessed in a long time and so I'll take advantage of this claimed "crossroads of our history" (see Palin's speech below) to share with your my primer on the subject.

1. Any statement that identifies the USA as God's unique instrument for the salvation of the world is by definition blasphemous and idolatrous for a Christian to make. In most cases "salvation" is understood in terms of some of our national values such as prosperity and personal liberty. You might find my language about this strong, but these are precisely the terms the book of Revelation uses to describe similar activities done by the Romans or other nations that usurp Christ's unique role in human history.

2. American Civil Religious speech is almost always self-righteous and moralistic. I transcribed Sarah Palin's conclusion to her speech.

"We will always come through, we will never give up and we shall endure because we live by that moral strength that we call grace. Although we've often skirted a precipice a providential hand has always guided us to a better future. And I know that many of us today we are worried about what we face. Sometimes our challenges just seem insurmountable, but here together at the crossroads of our history may this day be the change point. Look around you you're not alone. You are Americans! (applause)"

This is the bread and butter of American civil religious speech. "God favors us because of our inherent moral superiority and on the basis of this God will protect us and lead us all to a glorious future." Palin goes as far here as to redefine "grace" as a "moral strength we (meaning Americans) live by". This is an appropriation a Protestant buzzword which to me refers not to our moral strength but rather to God's generosity shown towards the morally undeserving. Sarah Palin's choice of words here is an attempt to appropriate Christian terminology in the service of another agenda.

3. American civil religion is almost always syncretistic. Many have noted that this seems to be Glenn Beck's attempt to become the point leader for the religious right yet some prominent evangelicals have pointed out that in their opinion Glenn Beck's commitment to the Latter Day Saints church requires that his understanding of God differ significantly from that of Christians who hold to historic Christian beliefs as identified in the ecumenical creeds. His goal is to avoid religious particularism while simultaneously attempting to harness religious allegiance and zealotry in the cause of a particular political agenda. American civil religion hopes to benefit from religious enthusiasm by sidestepping clear religious thinking.

No primer is complete without also giving some positive guidance. How can Christians speak about God on a public stage without succumbing to the adulterous (again, read Revelation chapters 17 and 18) temptations of indulging in American civil religion?

It is appropriate for Christians to publicly thank God for blessings our country has received.

It is appropriate to ask God's forgiveness for ways our country has failed to do justice or protect the poor and the weak.

It is appropriate for us to ask God's blessing for our country based on his generosity rather than our moral performance or presumed national birthright.

Perhaps the simplest test of determining if our mention of God in the context of our political process is appropriate would be to imagine this mention in the context of another nation. Would we be uncomfortable if a Canadian were making similar assertions?

One of the most significant and notable aspects of early Christianity within the diverse Roman context was the transnational nature of this new faith. Christianity wasn't the religion of any particular ethnic group but gathered for itself peoples from every tribe, language and nation. American civil religion attempts to appropriate even this aspect of Christianity by pointing to America's immigrant heritage yet it does so by substituting American citizenship for citizenship within the body of Christ.

It is appropriate for Christians to love their nation, to serve their country, and to seek the shalom of their city. It is not appropriate for us to confuse our national citizenship with our citizenship in the kingdom of God nor to attempt to confuse these two things by appropriating Christian terminology in the service of political zealotry.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, Social Trends, North America