THE CHRISTIAN VOTERS GUIDE (2004)
Many of you know that Civil Religion is a favorite topic on this blog and that I consider it incredibly essential that all of us understand its function in the American society. Today I received a copy of Modern Reformation’s “special political issue”. I felt my pulse begin to pick up intensity as I quickly looked through to see what in the world they had to say.
The first article that grabbed by complete attention was a reprint from the 2004 regular September/October issue entitled, “The Christian Voter’s Guide”. Needless to say, they had my undivided attention as I quickly begin to read hoping for a miracle in time for the November election. I was not disappointed. In fact I have to say that this article by a layman, ranks right up there with some of the best that I have found over the years in this magazine. You ask, how did I miss this in 2004? I was on a self-imposed sabbatical of several years from being a paid subscriber. Don’t misunderstand me, to get a working grasp of how American Civil Religion functions in our day to day lives, and function it does, it is not sufficient to read only a few articles. It requires an on-going committment to research it for yourself and keep on until you are able to see it for what it is. It is like the concept of “culture” which defies any one kind of definition but which is a very powerful force in every area of our lives. William Inboden has done his research and brings impressive credentials to the task including, serving as director for Strategic Planning on The National Security Council at the White House.
A FEW EXCERPTS
Reared in a small town in the verdant rolling hills of the Bluegrass State, he is as red-blooded an American as you will find, possessed of a deep and abiding love for his country. He will with gratitude and pride salute the flag when given occasion to do so. So why remove it from the sanctuary? Most simply, he wanted to brook no confusion that the church offers its worship only to Christ-and not to America. More deeply, he saw the flag’s prominence in the pulpit, even its very presence in the sanctuary, as potentially obscuring the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. He sought to make sure that there was no confusion over his primary calling and our primary identity. As a minister of Christ’s church, he is charged with preaching the Word of God to our congregation, holding our consciences captive to God’s revelation as our ultimate authority and to God’s name as our ultimate loyalty, no matter our earthly citizenship or nationality. The mere presence of an American flag does not necessarily defy this distinction, of course. But it may confuse or undermine it.
This is not to say that the virtually ubiquitous American flags in sanctuaries across the United States necessarily indicate some sort of latter-day “Babylonian captivity of the church”-in this case a “captivity” to jingoistic nationalism. No doubt some, perhaps even many, congregations keep a flag in their church while also keeping a clear understanding of the distinction between the church and the world. Nevertheless, the pervasiveness of pulpit flags should give us pause. Especially because they serve as just one visible manifestation of a deeper problem: the frequent confusion of civil religion with biblical Christianity.
On February 1, 1953, at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., the Rev. Edward Elson baptized the newest member of his congregation. Elson also made history, of a sort. The person baptized was Dwight D. Eisenhower, just inaugurated as president of the United States-and the only president to be baptized while in office. Besides its spiritual significance for Eisenhower’s faith, his baptism also represented a new era of public religiosity in American life. From Eisenhower’s unprecedented offering of his own prayer before his inaugural address, to his decision to have Cabinet meetings open with prayer, to the creation of the National Prayer Breakfast, to adopting “In God We Trust” as the United States’ motto and printing it on the nation’s paper currency, to adding “one nation, under God” to the pledge of allegiance, the Eisenhower administration oversaw the reinvigoration, even the reestablishment, of American civil religion.
It was such a creed that in part prompted Eisenhower’s most infamous, yet revealing, comment on religion. On December 22, 1952, Eisenhower, then president-elect, met in New York with his old counterpart and friend from World War II days, Marshal Grigori Zhukov of the Soviet army. Describing their discussion at a press conference afterwards, Eisenhower delivered fodder for critics of civil religion-and of his own intellect-for generations since. After quoting the Declaration of Independence’s recognition that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” Eisenhower offered this interpretation: “In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal. So what was the use of me talking to Zhukov about that? Religion, he had been taught, was the opiate of the people.”
This quote by Eisenhower illustrates the worst and the best of civil religion. At its worst, doctrine and theological truth-claims are rendered largely irrelevant. Of particular concern to Christians, the redeeming work of Christ is wholly disregarded, replaced by moralism and a crude, nonredemptive natural theology. At its best, it unites a society around a few basic truths, including the distinction between creature and Creator, the supremacy of God over government, and the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings. If Irving Kristol could muster “two cheers for capitalism,” in the same spirit we might say that civil religion merits just one cheer.
Surveying our present situation, Wilfred McClay describes civil religion’s “inherently problematic relationship to the Christian faith or any other serious religious tradition. At best, it provides a secular grounding for that faith, one that makes political institutions more responsive to calls for self-examination and repentance, as well as exertion and sacrifice for the common good. At worst, it can provide divine warrant to unscrupulous acts, cheapen religious language, turn clergy into robed flunkies of the state and the culture, and bring the simulacrum of religious awe into places where it doesn’t belong.”
The civil religion of the Eisenhower era is essentially the version still with us today. Blandly patriotic, optimistic, therapeutic, more spiritual than confessional, it reinforces much of the pervasive “religiosity” in America that is as resilient as it is amorphous. As Herberg observed, “religion” and “faith” are often seen as ends in themselves, and doctrine is regarded as unnecessary and divisive rather than as essential to determining truth. Moreover, this civil religion too often reassures us of the favor we enjoy from God while eschewing any call to repentance from our sin. Hence Irving Kristol’s acerbic insight that “when Americans sin, we quickly forgive ourselves.”
Do these confusions mean that American Christians shouldn’t be patriotic? Not in the least. Indeed, an honest assessment of the considerable abundance of common grace goods that the United States enjoys might appropriately inspire a robust love of our country. Not for nothing did Lincoln, recognizing the uniqueness of the American experiment, famously describe Americans as an “almost chosen people.” Yet any biblical Christian will recognize that there is, quite literally, a world of difference between being “almost chosen” and being “chosen.” The former may make good citizens on earth; only the latter will be citizens of heaven.
For ENTIRE ARTICLE
Besides the posts in my archive on Civil Religion, you may be interested in my article for NEWSVINE, entitled, “The POWER of the AMERICAN FLAG“
Recommended article by Jon Zens, “God and Country or Christ’s Kingdom “.