Civil Religion: The 500-Pound Gorilla

by Norman B. Bendroth

This past Christmas Vice President Dick and Lynne Cheney sent out what is certainly the most brazen Christmas card I have ever heard of. It read: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?"

This is not the first time a power broker has co-opted the name of God to baptize the agenda of the empire, Pax Americana or otherwise. One thinks of Emperor Constantine's soldiers, whose armor was inscribed with the words In Hoc Signo Vinces ("In This Sign You Will Conquer"); and the banner of the Crusaders, Deus Vult ("God wills it"), as they swashbuckled their way through the Holy Land; and, in the last century, the slogan Gott Mit Uns ("God with us") which adorned the belt buckles of the Nazis.

Late last year, Lt. General William Boykin gave new meaning to the song "Onward Christian Soldiers" when he spoke of America's "Christian army" waging a holy war against the "idol" of Islam's false god, and the "spiritual battle" we're fighting against "a guy named Satan" while pursuing Muslim terrorists.

Even President Bush used an old gospel song to describe American vigilance. In his State of the Union Address on January 29, 2003, he said, "There is power, power, wonder-working power in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people." Those who know their hymnody remember the original as, "there is wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb." To exchange the salvific work of Christ for the "goodness" of the American people is sacrilege. Even Democratic candidates have waded into these murky waters, with Howard Dean declaring that the book of Job was his favorite New Testament book (oops!).

What is going on here? It is called American civil religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah coined the term in a groundbreaking article in 1967 to describe the set of rituals, doctrines, and allegiances that develop around nation-states and which become the sacred myth that binds citizens in common allegiance. The myth bestows a sacred canopy over the origins, destiny, and purpose of the State.

Daniel Marsh of Boston University has pointed out, in his book Unto the Generations: the Roots of True Americanism, the similarities between biblical history and American history. America's book of Genesis is the Mayflower Compact. Its exodus is the Declaration of Independence. The book of the law is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Its psalms include the "Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America." Lincoln's Second Inaugural address is its prophetic denouncement. (Congressman Tom DeLay has even gone so far to tell an audience at the Christian Coalition's Road to Victory Conference that American democracy is a perfect governmental expression of an inerrant Bible).

Rituals include saying the pledge of allegiance in our schools, singing the "Star Spangled Banner" at sporting events, having parades and ceremonies honoring the war dead, and invoking the blessing of some higher power at political events. The virtues of democracy, individual liberty, the right to private property, family, free enterprise, and a commitment to faith are part of its doctrines. Faith in this system of thought is vague and undefined. It is best exemplified in President Eisenhower's statement, "This country was founded on faith and I don't care in what."

Civil religion provides religious means and modes for the expression of patriotism. Civil religion and Christian religion can look deceptively similar, so much so that it is easy to merge the two into one, like many American churches do on the Sunday near the Fourth of July. It is not a state religion, but rather a set of practices and beliefs that renders sacred national values, national heroes, national history, and national ideals.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with civil religion (it often functions as a civic "glue"), it should not be confused with Christian faith. What makes American civil religion distinctive from other nations? is that we have always believed that we are special and have a "manifest destiny" (as the Pilgrims put it) – a sacred and noble cause bestowed from above. The Pilgrims saw themselves as a "New Israel" making an exodus from Europe to freedom and plenty in a new Promised Land. From the outset, we have seen ourselves as God's chosen people with a special (if not divine) mission to export liberty and light to the world.

Some have defended Gen. Boykin or the religious language that embellishes President Bush's speech, accusing their critics of being "anti-Christian" or "politically correct." While may or may not be true, more fundamentally it is just plain bad theology.

To equate the kingdom of God with the United States of America is idolatry of the highest order. The commonwealth of God is a global community that transcends all nation states and embraces all peoples. Rather than endorsing any imperial power, it calls all such pretensions to power into question.

The Cheneys' greeting card was sent during the season when churches read Mary's Magnificat, which promises that in the Messiah God "has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly" (Luke 1:52). During World War II, American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was quick to remind us that the Axis powers were not entirely evil, nor were Allied actions entirely good. To cast the American struggle against terrorism as solely a "conflict between good and evil" is to miss the log in our own eye (Matthew 7:3). This is not asserting a moral relativism that equates American overreaching with terrorism. It is to say that sin is never privileged to any particular people or nation, but runs right through the center of every human heart – including every American heart.

Because of the danger of confusing civil religion with Christian faith, Christians must be careful what kinds of symbols are present in their churches as well. When Christians participate in worship on Sunday mornings, they are gathering to proclaim their first allegiance and to acknowledge that all of life is lived under the government of God. Consequently, the symbols we display there point to our ultimate loyalties, what is truly real: the cross, the baptismal font, the open Bible, the altar, the bread and cup, to name a few.

Why then do we display the American flag in our sanctuaries when Scripture teaches that all nations will come under the judgment of a righteous God (Psalm 2: 1-5) and we are part of a worldwide communion of faith? My Canadian Christian friends are amazed when they find American flags in our sanctuaries. The flag is a national symbol, not a religious one. As Christians, we are called to transcend national divisions. Baptism, not the flag, affirms our unity as God's people throughout the world.

By carelessly endorsing the religion and the policies of the State (read: empire), Christians forfeit their prophetic role to be critics-in-residence and to call the State to its highest principles. Martin Luther reminded the pastors of his day that one of their tasks was to "whisper the Law of God into the magistrate's ear." There's a 500-lb. gorilla called American civil religion sitting in the middle of most American sanctuaries and they are not even aware of it.

The challenge for Christians and all people of faith today is this: Will we prescribe to a national religion in service of empire, or will we follow the Lord of the nations in service of Shalom?

Norman B. Bendroth is currently interim pastor at St. John's United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids, MI.

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