Radical Orthodoxy: Civil Religion and the Witness of the Catholic Worker (Part 1 of 2)

Image credit: natiramirez1.wordpress.com

by Christopher Klopp

Since the founding of the United States, religion and nationalism have been rather cozy bedfellows. Despite the official separation of church and state, it is clear that civil servants often use religion to their political advantage, and that religious citizens often consider their leaders to be operating within an ostensibly 'Judeo-Christian' worldview. Presidents claim to be (and are often seen by citizens as) divinely appointed leaders, while the United States often presents itself as a 'city on a hill,' bringing the 'gospel' of 'freedom and democracy' to the world. Underlying all of this is a common conception that the United States was founded on Christian principles by our 'godly' forefathers. This is, of course, a myth, for as Robert Bellah points out, our 'civil religion,' that combination of Christian symbols and national self-love, bears only a superficial similarity to the religion of Jesus and the New Testament:

The words and acts of the founding fathers, especially the first few presidents, shaped the form and tone of the civil religion as it has been maintained ever since. Though much is selectively derived from Christianity, this religion is clearly not itself Christianity. For one thing, neither Washington nor Adams nor Jefferson mentions Christ in his inaugural address; nor do any of the subsequent presidents, although not one of them fails to mention God… The God of the civil religion is not only rather 'unitarian,' he is also on the austere side, much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love (Robert N. Bellah, see http://hirr.hartsem.edu/bellah/articles_5.htm).

Nevertheless, most American Christians find it enormously difficult to grasp Bellah's insight. In fact, among evangelical Christians civil religion seems to be on the rise. Witness, for example, the evangelical community's overwhelming support for Bush's war for oil in Iraq, their unquestioning allegiance to him, and their theologically misguided belief that God has hand-picked Bush to lead the world to "freedom and democracy." Witness also the pseudo-religious language of "good versus evil" employed not only by those in political power, but by Christian ministers as well. WE are a nation "under God"; we love and defend "freedom."

THEY are the very personification of Evil, and want nothing but the end of "free" civilization. This mentality affects a broad spectrum of Christians, from reactionary fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell to pastors in the average church. Christians believe these myths and perpetuate them as if they were the essence of the gospel, while in church sanctuaries crosses hang next to American flags, and on Independence Day congregations gather to sing hymns to America.

Nationalistic Christianity is not a new or surprising phenomenon. Tragically, Christians for centuries have been unable to see that the "religion" of nationalism is not the religion practiced and taught by Jesus. A brief comparison makes this clear. Jesus' universalist vision of the kingdom of God expanding beyond political borders has largely been abandoned in favor of the idea that God loves our people more than any other. Jesus' call to a life of voluntary poverty and simplicity has been ignored as Christians rush to the defense of capitalism and gross consumerism. His preaching of peace and reconciliation between enemies has been lost amid the call to holy war. The agenda of American society and the agenda of the Kingdom of God are not compatible, yet many evangelicals continue to think that they are.

Ironically, it is often those who consider themselves the most "orthodox" who most blatantly repudiate the teachings of Jesus by accepting a theology that justifies our anti-Christian social order. Evangelicals would be the first to claim the "authority of the Scriptures," the "lordship of Jesus," the "reality of hell," and any number of other seemingly orthodox ideas, but when it comes to drawing a theological distinction between the Kingdom of God and America, they are absolutely heretical.

Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder attempts to point out to American Christians the incongruity between their orthodox claims and their practical imitation of Jesus of Nazareth. He writes, "We do not here advocate an unheard-of modern understanding of Jesus; we ask rather that the implications of what the church has always said about Jesus as Word of the Father, as true God and true Man, be taken more seriously, as relevant to our social problems." Yoder claims that he is making an appeal to "classical catholic Christian convictions properly understood." Stanley Hauwerwas writes that Yoder "is trying to force us to recognize that in spite of what appear to be orthodox christological affirmations, we are embedded in social practices that deny that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection make any difference." (All quotes from Stanley Hauerwas, A BETTER HOPE: RESOURCES FOR A CHURCH CONFRONTING CAPITALISM, DEMOCRACY, AND POSTMODERNITY [Brazos Press, 2000].)

When we look at the comfortable relationship between evangelical Christianity and American society, Yoder's analysis seems apt. If we are a people named by the "Good News," why do we insist on delivering bad news to the people of the world in the form of overconsumption, war, pollution, greed, and economic imperialism? Why do we claim to be followers of Jesus and yet expend great theological effort to justify a government whose actions represent the antithesis of the teachings of our Lord? If Jesus commanded us to serve each other in love, why do we identify our "gospel" with power, wealth, and domination? It seems that we have, as Paul puts it, "believed another gospel."

Is there any hope that American Christians may unlearn this false religion, or are we so mired in our culture's way of thinking that we can no longer recognize the radical nature of God's Kingdom? Any hope of salvation must surely lie in a return to the sources of our faith, to the Bible and to the example of Jesus. To be truly Christian the people called evangelicals need to remember what our name signifies, to re-learn the gospel. But to remember we need prophets, whose task, as Walter Brueggemann says (in THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION [Fortress, 2001]), "is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us." Immersed as we are in the dominant culture, we desperately need examples of how to follow Christ authentically. Since mainstream theology in America has become "a faithful servant of the status quo," we need a prophetic witness to show us the truly radical nature of Christian orthodoxy.

One of the most challenging of these witnesses is the Catholic Worker Movement (CW). Founded during the Depression, this predominately Roman Catholic social justice movement shares many traits in common with evangelical Protestantism. Noticing these connections may help us to see that a truly orthodox Christianity should lead to a rejection of the American ethos, not a legitimation of it.

Tune in next week for Part 2 of this essay, in which the author profiles the important work and philosophy of the Catholic Worker Movement. Christopher Klopp is earning his Master's degree in theological studies at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

You May Also Want to Read

Comment policy: ESA represents a wide variety of understandings and practices surrounding our shared Christian faith. The purpose of the ESA blog is to facilitate loving conversation; please know that individual authors do not speak for ESA as a whole. Even if you don\'t see yourself or your experience reflected in something you read here, we invite you to experience it anyway, and see if God can meet you there. What can take away from considering this point of view? What might you add? The comments section below is where you can share the answers to those questions, if you feel so moved. Please express your thoughts in ways that are constructive, purposeful, and respectful. Give those you disagree with the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are neither idiots nor evil. Name-calling, sweeping condemnations, and any other comments that suggest you have forgotten that we are all children of God will be deleted. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.