Jamie Smith’s Bait and Switch

I was afraid that neo-Calvinism’s refusal to distinguish the sacred and secular would go here — that is, to a defense of civil religion. Jamie Smith’s latest editorial does just that.

Mind you, he is aware of the defective versions of civil religion, especially the one that has sent U.S. soldiers “to die face down in the muck of Vietnam” (thank you, Walter Sobchak):

civil religion is what we get when we divinize the civitas, when devotion to “the nation” trumps other allegiances and inspires a fervor and passion that is nothing short of religious. David Gelernter names this in his 2007 book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Walter McDougall’s more recent book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, which Robert Joustra reviews in this issue, identifies the same problem in its subtitle: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. In McDougall’s argument, civil religion carries the usual whiff of irrationality: the hard-nosed rationality of national interests is compromised because of vaunted values and misguided mythologies.

But Smith still thinks civil religion is salvageable.

The envisioned good of a diverse, pluralistic, yet civil society that liberal democracies hope for is not a generic vision. It has a particular history—rooted in Christianity—and demands particular virtues. In short, the very project of a well-functioning, pluralistic, liberal society depends on the formative power of tradition-specific, “illiberal,” non-democratic communities that can inculcate virtues of hope, respect for dignity, commitment to truth, and more. Families, synagogues, churches, mosques embed their members in a Story that makes such virtues “make sense.” These non-political spheres of society cultivate people who become the sorts of citizens who know how to be patient and forgiving precisely because they believe in something beyond the state.

See what he did there? Civil society in liberal democracies owes its existence to Christianity. In those societies synagogues, churches, and mosques embed citizens in “a Story.” They become patient and forgiving.

Christianity did that? Or was it the Enlightenment (which owes its existence in part to medieval and early modern Europe). Maybe by using the indefinite article in “a Story” you can get away with blurring churches, synagogues and mosques into one happy, fuzzy, gentle, and kind civil society. But that is certainly not the experience of most western societies where Christians ran things and established their churches.

Smith really pours it on when he leads the following cheer:

But one of the by-products of a healthy church forming citizens of kingdom come is that they are then sent into the earthly city with Christlike virtues that also contribute to the common good. We might miss this because it doesn’t primarily play itself out on a national scale; rather, it is enacted at the parish level, in a thousand different neighbourhoods. There we also find Christians, Jews, and Muslims collaborating for the sake of the vulnerable, the lonely, and the marginalized while also nourishing the virtue incubators we call families.

Well, in point of fact, when Christians go into public with a comprehensive w-w they have to be especially aware that they are not like Jews or Muslims. Pot down the w-w gauge and perhaps you have less conviction about being distinct from those people who do not profess Christ. But I don’t know how Smith gets the Chamber of Commerce view of Christianity’s civil nature from Christ’s own words:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matt 10:34-35)

That explanation of the antithesis is what makes Abraham Kuyper’s pillarization of Dutch society so intriguing. The Netherlands was not the American melting pot (or even the Canadian multicultural stew). It was a series of religious subgroups that kept to themselves the way that states’ rights advocates in the United States thought about relations between local and federal government.

But if Christians want a seat at the table of a liberal international order that preserves democracy from autocracy, Smith does a pretty good impersonation of 1950s mainline Protestantism.


12 thoughts on “Jamie Smith’s Bait and Switch

  1. Is this the kind of civil religion Smith has in mind?

    In the Orthodox countries, there has been an upsurge of religious identity, but levels of religious practice are comparatively low. And Orthodox identity is tightly bound up with national identity, feelings of pride and cultural superiority, support for linkages between national churches and governments, and views of Russia as a bulwark against the West.

    Meanwhile, in such historically Catholic countries as Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, there has not been a marked rise in religious identification since the fall of the USSR; on the contrary, the share of adults in these countries who identify as Catholic has declined. But levels of church attendance and other measures of religious observance in the region’s Catholic-majority countries are generally higher than in their Orthodox neighbors (although still low in comparison with many other parts of the world).

    The link between religious identity and national identity is present across the region but somewhat weaker in the Catholic-majority countries. And politically, the Catholic countries tend to look West rather than East: Far more people in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and Croatia say it is in their country’s interest to work closely with the U.S. and other Western powers than take the position that a strong Russia is necessary to balance the West.


  2. Don’t even the hybrids promote “civil religion”? Sure, covenant families can have a “conversation” about how their private religion makes them more self-sufficient than the families who keep needing grace from other families, but at the end of the day, the Senator continues to put the religion of American empire in competition with the religion of the Soviet empire. So there is religion in both parts of “the hybrid” but it’s “civil religion” that he wants to kill for, even if it turns out that the people from those less well off families actually do the killing.

    1950s–Eisenhower, religion is good and I don’t care what it is, as long as you will still kill for your country…

    Hauerwas—Troeltsch said it better. He saw quite clearly that if Christians were to assume the task of forming the ethos of modern societies, the “myths” once thought constitutive of the Christian faith must be rejected or reinterpreted. Reinhold Niebuhr learned that lesson well. Neuhaus wants Christianity to be BOTH
    orthodox AND the “form” of culture. One of the benefits of assuming the mantle of Troeltsch is you get to call anyone who worries about making Christianity a civilizational religion a “sectarian.” The claim that politics is a function of culture, that at the heart of culture is religion, and that religion is meant to serve as a public source of transcendent meaning—this is pure Hegel and Plato and underwrites the claim that America has avoided the unhappy choice between heteronomy and autonomy and that therefore America has avoided and can continue to avoid the idolatry called theocracy. The religious right needs to understand that it does not need to use first-order theological language in public when it can appeal to “transcendence”—though in the process the religious right may fail to notice it has thus accepted the philosophical presuppositions of Protestant liberalism. Such an account of theology assumes that you know what “transcendence” means prior to knowing what it means for God to have called Israel from the nations. The problem begins by accepting the language of “values.”


    When Jamie Smith rejects the idea that God imputes the guilt of Adam to the human family, he gives up the right to talk about American corporate solidarity


  3. A friend knew that I was a fan of Smith, and passed your blog along to me!

    Jame Smith’s piece is indeed interesting (puzzling?), especially at a couple points. But the response here on this blog mostly misses those pressure points, and is barking up the wrong tree.

    For example, Smith writes, “reconsidering civil religion is necessary precisely because civil religion is inevitable. It’s not a question of whether we have a civil religion, but which.” While some may try to contend this point, I’d immediately and happily grant that he is absolutely correct.

    However, he also writes, “as implausible as it might seem, civil religion is an irreplaceable moral source of civil society.” First of all, is this even true? And secondly, even if true, is this *desirable*? What is the project at hand that warrants the need for a “moral source” altogether?

    He answers this question, in the Neocalvinist vein (to which I am deeply sympathetic): “the biblical vision of our human calling to tend the earth and love our neighbours…propels us into social concern for the societies in which we find ourselves. The church sends us into the world as agents of renewal.” But this biblical vision is independent of whether the audience happens to arbitrarily inhabit a liberal democracy. What about the Christians in Rome? What about the Christians in medieval Europe and Christendom? It seems like Smith is taking liberal democracy as a given (which makes sense in a pragmatist paradigm insofar it’s what we actually do inhabit), and trying to work within the confines of the categories that’ve been served to us. But why not re-calibrate the categories? Why do we need to appeal to the “moral source” of a shared common civil religion, in order to do good — especially at the parish level that Smith highlights? I can only see this being necessary if you’re grabbing at the reins of broader power — in which case I think he’s probably right. Or at least in cases of paternalistically setting public policy for others, such as in government roles, etc. But in grassroots-centric, ground-up initiatives, it seems unnecessary.

    If I’m understanding Smith correctly, I’m broadly sympathetic with his main sentiment: it’s precisely civil society and community that buffers liberal democracy from devolving into a crude libertarianism. Which is to say, it’s better to have pluralist pockets of communitarians — who are cultivated to love one another in patience and humility — than isolated atomistic libertarians, who intolerantly don’t want people infringing on “muh freedom.”

    All of my push-back on Smith’s piece being noted, I think this blog response above mostly misreads him. For example, Smith doesn’t suggest that civil society in liberal democracies “owes its existence to Christianity,” with your alternative proposal being the Enlightenment. No, he’s merely saying the liberal *vision* of a diverse, pluralistic, and civil public has its gestational roots in the broader Christian imagination.

    Moreover, while this blog suggests that Smith is blurring lines between churches, synagogues, and mosques into a fuzzy generic “civil society,” he explicitly rejects that, multiple times. He describes “thick, particular, unapologetic religious communities.” He later says again, “thick particularity of confessional religion.” The point is not that all these communities need to blend together–as per the 1950s mainline Protestantism comment–but rather that insofar as they can have occasional overlaps of vision for the common good (rooted in their distinct traditions), there can be cooperation in civil society. It’s much more like evangelicals helping at the local soup kitchen — humanists and Christians momentarily setting aside their profound differences on metaphysics, to love their neighbors and community.

    It’s certainly a fascinating conversation.


  4. Aaron, just because you quote the stuff with which your sympathetic doesn’t make it so.

    How do you have “thick” congregations and then “collaborate” with Jews and Muslims? One answer is the 2k option. You collaborate not as every-square in Christians but as citizens. That distinction between citizenship and Christian identity does have Christian influences — all of them Augustinian and 2k. But the way North American neo-Calvinists render Kuyper, that distinction is much harder to maintain. In fact, it yields proposals like Smith’s that are downright gullible about the wickedness of civil religion.

    The problem with Smith’s version of neo-Calvinism is that he wants thick Christianity but thinks it will be liberal. When on earth has that happened (unless you are 2k). Even Kuyper argued for separate Calvinist labor unions.

    The editorial (and you) misread civil religion and Kuyper. Why do you do this? Merely for the religious seat at the table. BenUp and be a separatist.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hart (do you prefer D.G.?), one of the very purposes of saying that there’s something “with which I am sympathetic” suggests a position of epistemic humility, wherein I am *not* simply proclaiming it “as so.” It’s merely one position among others — one with which I happen to be sympathetic. I had already gathered that you weren’t from your introduction, so I figured I’d charitably put my cards on the table! ^_^

    How does one have “thick” congregations and then “collaborate” with Jews and Muslims? It’s as simple as the example I already offered: Evangelicals helping at the local food kitchen, run by secular humanists. One can be an unapologetic confessional Christian and still love their neighbor right alongside other communities that also happen to love their neighbors, too. It’s not a somehow tricky nut to crack.

    The trouble with the 2k option is that it is beholden to categories that are ultimately irreconcilable. Saint Augustine had this correct, and the 2k camp misapplies him toward their cause. While Luther’s 2k suggests that one can indeed hold “dual-citizenship” in the Kingdom of God and the land they inhabit, Saint Augustine correctly parses the Civitas Dei and the Civitas Mundi as rival cities vying for our devotion and allegiance. While Luther’s kingdoms are spatial-temporal, Augustine’s cities are political-devotional.

    The point is that the 2k distinction between “citizenship” and “Christian identity” is precisely one that doesn’t hold up: Christian identity *is* a new citizenship (among other things as well). The earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” was explicitly to reject the Roman pledge of allegiance “Ceasar is Lord.” The Scriptures describe the redeemed community as a *new* people, a *new* nation (1 Peter 2:9). Christians are now “sojourners,” and instead of holding “dual citizenship,” they are described as “citizens of heaven” (Phil. 3:20) — and are even “ambassadors of Christ” (2 Cor. 5). Ironically, you suggest that I ought to “be a separatist” — but on this correct reading of the Scriptures and Saint Augustine, I already am one! 😉

    Moreover, the attempted categories of separating “religion” and “politics” into a purported “private sphere” and “neutral, public sphere” respectively is a division that is untenable and crumbles under scrutiny. Politics are always already religious (i.e. they smuggle in metaphysical claims purporting to be ‘neutral,’ and vy for allegiance), and religion is always already political (i.e. it has a bearing on our ultimate devotion/allegiance, and has a bearing on our everyday lived-out lives in relationship to one another).

    I’ll grant that it’s a bit odd that Smith here is seemingly attempting to reconcile thick confessional identity with (classical) liberalism, but I’d again chalk it up to taking our current circumstances as the given.


  6. Aaron, I answer to most names (including bleepbleep),

    It seems to me that you are as guilty of bait and switch as Jamie, or more like having your caking and eating it.

    Having thick congregations and collaborating with Jews is not “simple” and I think you discount the seriousness of the anti-thesis and the Lordship of Christ by saying so. If Christ is Lord of all, how do you “collaborate” as a Christian seeking to honor Christ with someone who denies Christ? Have you actually thought about that? Or is it the case that you believe all the positive but forget all the negative of Scripture and the past — all that stuff about cutting off the offending brother. Jamie seems to be the Mr. Rogers of Kuyperians. Always a swell day in the neighborhood because we never have to say anything disagreeable.

    On the matter of dual citizenship, Paul was a citizen of both and his actions reflected that when he appealed to the Roman system. Where oh where have Kuyperian dismissals of 2k actually thought long and hard about the nature of citizenship as something legal rather than a feel good affirmation of the brotherhood of man?

    Yes, I’ve heard many times how confessing Jesus as Lord was oh so anti-Roman. Odd then how Paul and Peter both say honor the emperor (namely Nero). Again, you minimize the challenges and get everything you want — cake and icing.

    And please do refine the public private meme. It’s tired. Sure, everyone has a metaphysic. But that’s not a religion. And when it comes to traffic court, do you really want the Orthodox Jewish judge to follow the Talmud? Or do you want the laws of your state, which happen to be non-explicitly religion in nature and try to accommodate a diversity of religious views.

    Sure, go ahead and show up as a Calvinist in the public square and see how far that gets you. Maybe the better approach is to seek something that you share in common with your fellow residents. And unless that is NW Iowa or certain suburbs of Grand Rapids, what you have in common is not Jesus. Once you acknowledge that, how thick is your religion going to be in public life. Why, heck, Jamie didn’t even let on that he was a Calvinist when he ripped Rod Dreher a new one in the WaPost.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Aaron – DGH is exactly right here: you are trying to have it both ways. And you are wrong in your reading of Augustine. He doesn’t pit the Kingdom of God against civil government as such. For Augustine the two kingdoms/cities represent the choice between following a way of life according God or following a way of life according to man (i.e. flesh). Augustine’s Civitas Mundi is the “world” Jesus refers to repeatedly in the Gospels when talking about the human society outside the Kingdom of God. It is not a reference to temporal civil government. For Augustine, God established civil government in order to maintain a just society, but that temporal civil government is flawed, doomed to pass away, and should not demand our ultimate allegiance. Jesus says “my Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) and “render unto Caesar” (Mark 12:17). There are two kingdoms, and we owe allegiance to both, though our ultimate allegiance is to the Kingdom that never perishes.

    Also, you misunderstand the purpose of the confessions refuting the idea that Caesar is Lord. The Romans believed – or at least the emperors often claimed – that they were gods. (Emperor Vespasian famously quipped on his deathbed “Vae, puto deus fio” or “Woe is me, I think I am becoming a god”) They weren’t saying “Caesar is the lord of the Roman Empire,” they were saying “Caesar is God.” The confessions were not intended to refute the idea that Caesar was the rightful ruler to whom they owed temporal allegiance, they were refuting the idea that he was God.


  8. The apostle (Paul) used his Roman citizenship twice.

    Acts 16:37 The first time was after being beaten and imprisoned in Philippi. He used it to no apparent benefit to himself. He announced his citizenship AFTER his beating and humiliation. The effect was to put the public authorities on the spot. Paul got a severe beating-and then an apology. Paul did not get, or try to get, an audience with the powers. The powers wanted Paul to leave town, and Paul did.

    Acts 22:25-27.The second time Paul “used his Roman citizenship” was after the Jews had tried to kill him, but BEFORE he was flogged. The consequences of this dragged on for the rest of Paul’s life. His citizenship in Satan’s kingdom did not keep Paul from being killed. Paul was never legally free again, spending the rest of his time in the Roman legal system/under arrest.

    Paul used the right of appeal to avoid being killed). Paul did not use that second master loyalty as a means to spread the gospel, because there was nothing about being Roman that could add to the gospel.. Being Roman didn’t make being in Christ more effective. Being Roman didn’t create opportunity for the gospel.


  9. @mm
    Your summary of these texts is incorrect. The text states that the magistrates were fearful and personally came to apologize. Paul did get an audience which he demanded on account of his citizenship. The text indicates that Paul’s status brought with it some level of respect from the authorities – a useful thing for the recently converted jailer. Secondly, your statement that the authorities wanted Paul to leave and that he did skips a significant piece of the text. Prior to leaving he visited Lydia. Then he met with the brothers to encourage them. He was able to take his time getting out of town because of his Roman citizenship.

    Your second synopsis is also problematic. Of course his citizenship didn’t keep him from ever dying, but no one would suggest otherwise. Nor does the fact that something can save your life mean that it keeps you from ever dying. The implication of the text is that Paul’s citizenship saved his neck and was the means by which he was able to travel to Rome (in chains). Thus he used his status to aid his spreading of the gospel. Thus one could say that being Roman made him more effective as a minister of the gospel by creating increase opportunities for the gospel.

    I don’t understand what point you are trying to make or what this has to do with Jamie Smith’s bait and switch, but your exegesis of the passages in Acts is terrible.


  10. All versions of “civil religion” are deviant, even those versions which tell us you can’t kill Muslims for Jesus but that you can kill Muslims for the secular kingdom (to which you are also loyal)

    pastor Martin Luther–“When Christians went to war, they struck right and left and killed, and there was no difference between Christians and the heathen. But they did nothing contrary to Matthew 5;38-39 because the Christians did it not as Christians. but as obedient subjects, under obligation to a secular authority.”

    Click to access Secular-Authority-To-What-Extent-It-Should-Be-Obeyed.pdf

    When the Nazis occupy France, use of your membership in the party will get you an audience with the new magistrates. And perhaps the respect you get from the occupation would be useful for keeping you alive to preach the gospel that teaches that Jesus is not the example for sinners but instead the Saver of sinners (and besides Jesus did not have Roman citizenship). And if you want to add years to your ministry, try to collaborate also with the regime which shall replace the Satan that God has now ordained.

    Colossians 2: 15 God disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly. God triumphed over the powers by Christ.

    I Peter 2: 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor. slaves, submit with all fear to your masters, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel…
    21 For you were called to this,
    because Christ also suffered for you,
    leaving you an example,
    so that you should follow in His steps.
    22 He did not commit sin,
    and no deceit was found in His mouth
    23 when He was reviled,
    He did not revile in return;
    when He was suffering,
    He did not threaten
    but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly.

    II Corinthians 11: Five times I received 39 lashes from Jews.
    25 Three times I was beaten with rods by the Romans.
    Once I was stoned by my enemies.
    Three times I was shipwrecked.
    I have spent a night and a day
    in the open sea.
    26 On frequent journeys, I faced
    dangers from rivers,
    dangers from robbers,
    dangers from my own people,
    dangers from the Gentiles,
    dangers in the city,
    dangers in the open country,
    dangers on the sea,
    … 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? 30 If boasting is necessary, I will boast about my weaknesses. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is praised forever, knows I am not lying. 32 In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of the Damascenes in order to arrest me, 33 so I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.


  11. markmcculley – you are wrong that Paul’s Roman citizenship never helped him spread the Gospel. The opposite is true: by demanding a trial by Caesar, he found himself in Rome – his ultimate goal – where he preached daily to Caesar’s “household.” Also, you are wrong that he was never free again – he actually won his appeal to Caesar, was freed, and then was at some point executed on a different occasion as Nero furthered his descent into madness and depravity (unless, of course, you consider erecting a 150 ft golden nude statue of yourself normal behavior, not to mention his extremely bizarre sexual proclivities).

    The Roman Empire and the Nazis can’t be fairly compared. The Roman Empire didn’t have an inherently immoral raison d’etre like the Nazis did. The Romans saw themselves spreading justice and civilization to otherwise barbarian peoples, as well as maintaining peace in the Mediterranean. The Nazi goal was to establish a pure race by the murder of millions of “inferior” peoples and nations, while the Romans simply wanted to dominate them and fleece them financially. One could proudly call himself a Roman citizen and a Christian. The same couldn’t be said as a Nazi.


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