The Dark Side of Civil Religion


Sarah Palin — can you believe it — has once again inserted the cosmic foot folly into her mouth by likening water boarding to baptism. I wonder if she had made similar remarks about the mode of baptism — say, by comparing Baptists’ immersion practices to torture as opposed to the humane treatment of Presbyterians sprinkling infants and adults — if she would have received as much flack. (You do know the old joke that at the exodus, God sprinkled the Israelites but dunked the Egyptians.) Or what if Palin had switched the object of water boarding from terrorists to Don Sterling? Might that have complicated the offended thoughts of many Americans?

Still, the point Mollie Hemingway makes about civil religion is worth mentioning (thanks to Rod Dreher):

I’ve long defended Palin against the offensive treatment she’s received at the hands of a blatantly biased media, a media that collectively lost its mind the moment she entered the national stage. But that hardly means she must be defended at all times. … This is a perfect example not just of civil religion but also how civil religion harms the church. Civil religion is that folk religion that serves to further advance the cause of the state.

That still doesn’t mean that commenting on Palin’s faux pas one shows great discernment. So to complicate Palin’s comparison of torture to baptism, consider the substance of John Danforth’s homily at the funeral for Ronald Reagan:

Reagan’s most challenging test came on the day he was shot. He wrote in his diary of struggling for breath and of praying.

“I realized that I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed-up young man who shot me,” he wrote.

“Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children, and therefore equally loved by Him. So I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.”

He was a child of light.

Now consider the faith we profess in this church. Light shining in darkness is an ancient biblical theme. Genesis tells us that in the beginning, darkness was upon the face of the deep. Some equate this darkness with chaos.

And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”

Creating light in darkness is God’s work.

You and I know the meaning of darkness. We see it on the evening news: terror, chaos, war. An enduring image of 9/11 is that on a brilliantly clear day a cloud of darkness covered Lower Manhattan.

Darkness is real, and it can be terrifying. Sometimes it seems to be everywhere. So the question for us is what do we do when darkness surrounds us?

St. Paul answered that question. He said we must walk as children of light. President Reagan taught us that this is our mission, both as individuals and as a nation.

The faith proclaimed in this church is that when we walk as children of light, darkness cannot prevail. As St. John’s gospel tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

That’s true even of death. For people of faith, death is no less awful than for anyone else, but the Resurrection means that death is not the end.

The Bible describes the most terrible moment in these words: “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until in the afternoon.”

That was the darkness of Good Friday. It did not prevail. Very early on the first day of the week when the sun had risen, that’s the beginning of the Easter story.

The light shines; the Lord is risen.

If only Danforth would have received the same amount of outrage that Palin justifiably is receiving.

The deity of civil religion is a demanding god. It gives life and inspiration to millions when it generates a comforting fusion of the life of Jesus Christ with the life of a not-so religious president. This god takes away when it encourages people like Palin to confuse the sweetness and light of generic faith with the sour and dark of torturing persons suspected of terrorism.

Perhaps the application of this little encounter with the god of civil religion is to just say no (sorry for the split infinitive). Deny this god’s existence in good first-commandment fashion. Then we can avoid elevating our presidents to canonized saints and leave our dear sister Sarah some other means to derail American conservatism.


24 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Civil Religion

  1. This is also why we have these seemingly endless debates whether the Founding Fathers, Washington, Lincoln, FDR, etc. were converted, orthodox Christians – because it just can’t be that there have been great leaders in U.S. history who weren’t Christians.


  2. DGH, what role does sports play in our civil religion? The Donald Sterling episode strikes me as a too perfect example of what Girard called scapegoating. We make public sacrifice of a racist to expiate ourselves of the sin of racism and the community unites in joy. Watching all of the triumphalism on the sports news last night, it seemed like all that was missing was Jesse Jackson– then, by golly, I saw a clip with him in it (doing what I don’t know) just as I was headed out the door. Of course, the civil religion will require repeated sacrifices, whether from the sports world or other parts of our culture, which shows how far removed it is from the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus. But then again, maybe the transformationalists can redeem culture so that these sacrificial spectacles can be avoided. Not holding my breath, just sayin’ …


  3. One wonders if there might be less of a battle against things such as teaching about Christianity in American public schools, or Christians wearing T-shirts with Scripture quotes, etc. if nonbelievers in public schools didn’t have to confront things such as prayer before sports games, and the like…

    Though perhaps not; progressives are mostly motivated by pure hate against Christianity, anyway.

    Still, one doesn’t see the level of antipathy by public school teachers and officials against the Faith in our Canadian public schools as one sees Stateside; there are far more incidences of conflicts we read about in the news down there, and that, in a country which is more ostensibly Christian than this one…


  4. Will,

    The question is, why would I want a public school teacher teaching my kid about Christianity?

    I have noted that our public school does sing a lot of songs with Christian roots at chorus concerts. No one complains that I’ve heard of.

    It’s a pretty small percentage that make a big deal on either side of this issue.


  5. I can’t decide whether it’s the paranoia that must accompany the loss of privilege or whether I just don’t see this inveterate hatred of Christianity. I’m more inclined to think it the former.

    The white population faces the same kind of dilemma. Do people of color hate us or is it now just their turn at propaganda and rule? I don’t think you can argue that those losing privilege achieved or maybe even strived for the perfection of true impartiality. I’m no fan of President Obama and I think he might be our Domitian but he’s absolutely right when he contends that the mediocre AA is greeted with greater resistance than the mediocre white American.

    It’s disconcerting to see this kind of Christian despair. It breeds weakness and invites victimization.

    You can’t advance the Resurrection as incontestably true today. And the desperation of prominent theologians who might be calling down imprecation in their private prayer to smash the current state of affairs is easy to imagine. And even if collapse comes, Christian leadership, based on Christian doctrine would be rejected by two-thirds of the population. Like any other modern leader, a Christian leader needs a governing majority. There’s no other land to flee to, no other land to colonize.

    I think civil disobedience is compelled on a Christian should the State force churches to perform gay marriages, to force contraception, abortion on a population (I’m not talking about HC “benefits.” The bishops and any other religious folk in positions of power who kipped down with those trying to pass a vital, personal piece of legislation without any real transparency, deserve every thing that’s coming their way.) I don’t think noted possibilities will occur because progressives view orthodox faith and religion as dying impulses. I don’t think they hate us. They scorn us. They think of us as anthropological throwbacks and the only antidote I can see to that is competent engagement in all facets of life and in all vocations. Not to mention the natural terseness that accompanies true conviction.

    Maybe I’m wrong and the future will be one in which those Christians who are 35-40 years old today will witness their grandchildren being so marginalized because of their orthodoxy that their social and economic decline will be remarkable.


  6. @ Erik: Oh, indeed! I do think we as Christians are better off either homeschooling / private-schooling / Christian-schooling our kids. But it might be nice if public schools would at least acknowledge Christianity’s existence, and the key role it has played in our civilization; of course, I realize that’s too much to ask of progs, these days…

    @ Zrim: Yes, I’m no neo-con; I have no time for Fox News, and I saw that post of DGH’s when he put it up; most interesting, that story-behind-the-story…


  7. Has Sarah Palin elaborated upon her remarks made about waterboarding and baptism? Has anyone taken her task about such sick comments? I wonder if what she said was scripted or an off the cuff remark which showed her true colours once again.


  8. Dan, this is a good question. You think of Jimmy the Greek, JoePa, and now Sterling. Is it that sports is closer to a world where interpretive spins won’t work and so the NCAA and or the pros are more responsive (even though I’ve heard some people think that if Sterling took the NBA to court he’d win in a big way for a violation of his — some sort of rights). I’m not sure this has to do with civil religion, but maybe with sports’ clearer sense of wins and losses, hits and errors.


  9. DGH, I think there is some connection with American Civil Religion. Obama had to weigh in before 24 hours had passed, and (I have now learned) the Jesse Jackson sighting that I got a glimpse of this morning was because he was at the Clippers game last night. Baseball now annually celebrates the anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier.

    All about me, but sometimes you live life and wake up to a major development that has been happening for a long time right in front of your eyes and you say to yourself “How the devil did I miss that?” For me, having grown up in the 50’s and 60’s considering myself about as much of a sports can as any other male my age, I find myself shocked at the amount of time, energy, money and devotion sports receive today. Until I thought about it just recently, the importance that sports has in the culture compared to 30 or so years ago just hadn’t registered. That we use the sports world as a locus for our civil religion rituals seems plausible. In other words, interpretive spins not only work, on some levels they are essential– at least in today’s hot house environment, where sports bears a lot more cultural weight than it used to.

    As to your aside, I’m not a California lawyer, but I imagine Ms Sterling’s lawyers will soon be weighing in reminding folks that it is a community property state.


  10. Paul
    Posted April 30, 2014 at 9:38 pm | Permalink
    Has Sarah Palin elaborated upon her remarks made about waterboarding and baptism?

    I almost clicked on a google hit to find out what this latest Palin news story is about, but then I remembered I stopped caring about her and her views around the time she resigned from her public office. And why I cared before then still kind of makes me ashamed.


  11. Will, but public schools still recite the pledge and observe Xmas. If you want more than that — as in “acknowledge the key role it [Christianity] has played in our civilization” — then maybe the neo-con and neo-Cal ethic still clings?


  12. “Has anyone taken her task about such sick comments?”

    Seriously? Well, those Old Testament saints would never dream of torture, I am sure. Or of mixing inappropriate metaphors Palin offends mostly because she is a brassy, rhetorically tacky politician. But really, so what?


  13. Could part of the problem be that Palin didn’t go far enough?

    Baptism is not a ritual torture but a ritual death. Of course, insofar as baptism is a ritual identification with the crucifixion, the line is a little blurry. Jesus was tortured before he died. Nevertheless, baptism is identification with death (Rom 6). It’s a symbolic identification with God’s judgment against sin. That’s why we rightly connect it to the flood and why Paul connected it to the Red Sea (1Cor 10) and why Paul connected it to circumcision (Col 2:11-12). When we are baptized we are identified with Christ’s death.


  14. Will S. said, “Though perhaps not; progressives are mostly motivated by pure hate against Christianity, anyway.”

    Indeed; but. And get some relief.

    “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. John 15:18


  15. Dr. Clark, as I read Darryl’s post I thought of Kline’s By Oath Consigned. I wondered if anyone else was thinking along those lines. Maybe Sarah Palin is a closet Klinean.


  16. John 19: 31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35 He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. 36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”

    Mike Gerson—“There is power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.”….“We worship freely, but that does not mean that leaders of our nation and the people of our nation are not called upon to worship because those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Bills of Rights, and our Constitution did it under the guidance of and with a full belief in God.”


  17. Dr. Hart,
    I’ve mentioned to MLM that there is a great book out by a Presbyterian academic at Chapman University, Dr. John Compton, “The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution,” well worth checking out. Dr. Compton has done a great job of outlining the 19th century revivalists’ campaigns against the lottery and demon rum, their impact on judicial rulings concerning federalism and property rights, and how this contributed to New Deal rulings which the religious right has been yelping about for years. I love the irony. Dr. Compton has done his homework on this, but it could be a companion piece to “From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin.”


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