What passes for Christianity in the United States, is more often than not, actually “Civil Religion.” I was reminded of that fact this past week
as I drove across Ohio and Indiana, then across Pennsylvania and back up to Buffalo.
All along the way I noticed churches with massive American flags waving in the wind, or even colorful digital flags waving across the huge screens in red, white and blue. When the nation or the constitution becomes the “ultimate” to which citizens are asked to pledge their lives, or even give their lives, the nation takes on the mythic dimensions of religion.
Claims about God get totally intertwined with claims about the nation, and they become indistinguishable for many people, so that the nation or the constitution or the flag becomes the “ultimate” value to which people give their all.
Now this is in contrast to the primal narrative of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, each of which claim that making the nation, or anything other than God the ultimate concern, is idolatry. God and only God is ultimate, according to Christianity, and nothing can replace or mediate God as the essential meaning of life.
But this thing called Civil Religion, American Civil Religion in this case,
is pervasive and powerful and it is co-mingled with Christianity to such a degree that millions do not recognized the difference between the two. If you are not certain which religion, civil or Christian, you participate in, here are the bare bones of American Civil Religion as expressed in 21st century political rhetoric.
U.S. Civil Religion runs something like this:
The United States of America
is the biggest, best-est and onli-est
true Democracy in the world.
We are God’s gift of freedom and,
as Ronald Reagan used to say,
“The beacon of light upon the hill.”
In earlier times,
leaders and speech-makers spoke of
The United States as the New Jerusalem –
(but that was before Americans
understood how complicated Jerusalem is).
Our way of life, according to this rhetoric,
is enshrined in The American Dream;
a dream that is never clearly defined
but has something to do with
owning our own home and upward mobility.
The American Dream
has become inextricably linked to Capitalism,
and “Free Market” Capitalism in particular,
which rooted in Consumerism.
The narrative of this Civil Religion
is told in numerous stories,
and through the image of numerous personalities
from George Washington to Joe the Plummer.
Anyone that threatens our way of life,
that is, anyone who threatens our ability
to own our own homes
and drive our own cars
and get wealthier by the generation,
is our enemy.
We declare and warn the world
that we will fight our enemies.
We will defend ourselves, and the world,
for the sake of Freedom –
our special brand of freedom
the likes of which no one else
anywhere in the world has ever achieved.
American Freedom and the American Dream
are somehow rooted in and supported by
Biblically-based Christian faith.
Now when said like that, it sounds absurd. Yet that is pretty much our political rhetoric on the left, right and middle. Imagine any politician of any stripe today arguing against those tenets?
Under the terms of our Civil Religion, it is our highest duty – the ultimate sacrifice – as individuals and citizens of the nation, to serve our country by protecting the Constitution…with our own lives if need be.
That is American Civil Religion in a nutshell, and it’s Primal Narrative is found in our earliest history, and runs from the revolution against an oppressor and continues with our advancement against aboriginal tribes. It is being graphically reborn in the rhetoric of the so-called Tea Party movement in 2010. Christian churches participate in this rhetoric and willingly give it a theological tinge, some of them even unknowingly.
American Civil Religion’s Scripture is the Constitution; it’s altars are Arlington National Cemetery and the Washington Monument; and its authority to take and sacrifice life, is absolute within the confines of the law.
Personally, as a pluralist and desiring to honor the dignity of any person of faith, whatever their religion, I am not espousing the eradication of this civil religion that seems so inviolatable in U.S. society. Rather, I am agitating for its radical severance from authentic Christianity and for its disabuse of the Gospels. As Santa is a bastardization of Christmas and the Easter Bunny a commercial trivialization of the Resurrection event, the domestication of Christianity into the US civil religion is an abomination.
Posted on Jul 06, 2010