Our American civil religion, especially the more Christianized pre-1960s version, is what many Christians miss. It provided a comfortable culture, one which was for the most part either culturally “churched” or at least tolerant and respectful of the church. Many people may not have been born-again Christians, so evangelism was still necessary. The country as a whole, however, was fundamentally “Christian.” What were some benefits of that civil religion dominated culture?
n Civil religion, like Christendom, served as the “glue” that held the dominant culture together. Certainly, there were minority religions, cultures, and peoples, but if they were to ultimately succeed at the American Way of Life, they assimilated to, accepted, or at least understood and worked within the dynamics of the civil religion.
n Furthermore, civil religion provided some semblance of a common ground for answers to questions of authority, morals, and ethics. It also provided a common language that united the country and gave cause for cooperation during periods of struggle, often even serving as a linguistic litmus test for politicians and national leaders. That is, how effectively they used the language of civil religion greatly determined their acceptance by the American people.
n Similarly, that civil religion glue kept the extremes from dominating the culture. Theocrats and religious utopians generally stayed on the fringe or withdrew to create their own societies. Anarchists and radical secularists lived on the other extreme, relegated to the political margins. The greater majority of Americans lived in the compromised tension of religious liberty for all and the practice of personal daily piety, although often vehemently disagreeing over the extent of the first and the appropriateness of the second.
Unfortunately, civil religion also has its dangers:
n An active civil religion can easily confuse patriotism and Christianity, or worse yet, nationalism and Christianity. Jesus and the Bible are appropriated for “our side,” regardless of the morality of our side. To be a patriotic American was essentially the same as being a Christian. Certainly, there have been times in our history when we did the right thing and it could be supported by Biblical principles. We overlook, however, that the British were “Christian,” too. Both the Union and the Confederacy were Christian.” Even as evil as Nazi Germany was, many Germans were “Christian,” whether erroneously supporting the regime or actively opposing it.
My point is two-fold: One, although patriotism is a desirable thing for all citizens, we must be careful not to identify Christianity, and much less the gospel, with our patriotism. We must not confuse the kingdoms of earth with the kingdom of God. Two, we must also remember that there are millions of Christian believers all over the world, even in “enemy” nations, who are also citizens of the kingdom of God. They, too, may be patriots. They may be politically conservative, liberal, or uninterested. We may find ourselves at odds with their nation, but that does not make them any less of a Christian, any more than a fellow American believer who differs with us politically is less of Christian than we are.
n If a civil religion does become too closely identified with the nation – the earthly kingdom – it can lead to corruption and oppression. A nation that sees itself as God’s chosen, correctly or incorrectly, carries a tremendous burden. To see the nation as the liberator, protector, and emancipator of mankind and nations could be a noble vision. The reality is that there is an almost unbearable tension between vision and practice. That noble vision can become too entangled with politics, economic benefits, and national interests, so that it becomes an excuse for the expulsion or enslavement of peoples, military adventurism, and political paternalism.
n Therefore, another danger of civil religion is that it actually weakens the gospel of Jesus Christ and the call to discipleship. A nation which prays generic prayers, appeals to a generic God, states that it trusts in a generic God, and flippantly thanks God for touchdowns and pop culture awards regardless of personal lifestyle may be called a religious nation. Doing these things, it might be argued, are better than not doing them. Still, the gospel is more than these public utterances and rituals. The more we argue that our civil religion is Christianity, the more we confuse unbelievers, especially non-Christians from the rest of the world.
We are a nation with a civil religion that is both Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment at its core. It was formally verbalized by our founding fathers as they sought to unify the nation for revolution and subsequent independence. It developed as the nation grew west, compelled by manifest destiny and the need to civilize/Christianize Native American tribes. It was tested and yet refined during the Civil War as both sides appropriated the best and the worst of civil religion for their respective causes. It united the American people both during questionable wars of choice and during wars of necessity to defend against world dictators. It continues to draw the country together during times of crisis, whether a presidential assassination or a terrorist attack, and during national holidays and celebrations. Its content, however, is becoming more pluralist, more “tolerant,” and more secular in tone. It may still be a civil religion, but it is less Christianized and more secular, and it is not the gospel.