Civil Religion without Turning George Washington into John Piper

One of the gospel allies is surprised at and disturbed by the depth of American Protestants’ attachment to civil religion. The problem is that he and his allies, whenever they evaluate politics, American or otherwise, by Christian categories, enhance American civil religion.

Here’s why. In his famous essay on American civil religion, Robert Bellah wrote:

As S. M. Lipset has recently shown, American religion at least since the early nineteenth century has been predominantly activist, moralistic, and social rather than contemplative, theological, or innerly spiritual. De Tocqueville spoke of American church religion as “a political institution which powerfully contributes to the maintenance of a democratic republic among the Americans” by supplying a strong moral consensus amidst continuous political change.

Put more succinctly:

American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.

This is precisely what Thabiti Anyabwile did, for instance, when evaluating the 2016 election. He regarded it as having religious significance, whether or not Trump or Clinton were on God’s side:

I don’t think the goal right now is merely a quiet conscience. I don’t see how such a goal can be met without abdicating a significant moral responsibility to oppose evil. It’s not enough to say, “I had no part in the evil.” We must actually resist the evil as best we can. We’re in that Bonhoeffer-like moment where we can choose peaceful exile in some Evangelical enclave or enter the fray bearing our cross. If we choose exile, like Bonhoeffer, we’ll have no right to participate in our Germany after Hitler. If we choose to bear our cross, we’ll have the right now and later to testify to what’s right in the sight of God.

This may be the way Christians should think about elections — or even the 2016 contest — though it would be good to have some scriptural support. Believe it or not, the Bible has no good examples of democratic elections. But aside from biblical sanctions, Anyabwile looked at the 2016 election as having cosmic and moral significance. That is the way that most Protestants, from flag-waivers to draft-card igniters, have understood American politics. Why? The United States is special and deserves the application of eschatological standards.

The same approach is evident in Thabiti’s friend, Nick Rodriguez. In his defense of a vote for Hillary Clinton, he again raised the stakes of religious meaning (and missed almost altogether any of the policy debates that Trump and Clinton were having):

My hope is that I’ll be able to vote for a candidate who unambiguously protects life in 2020. But until then, I hope that Christians throughout this country will work together to protect us from the threat Trump represents. Our leaders can play a big role in giving us permission and guidance within the law to do this in a way that preserves our witness and honors Christ. And though we strive for a particular result, I pray that we would ultimately trust God with the outcome, and that we would glorify Him with our actions both before and after the coming election.

Imagine writing that for a secular or mixed audience. But just because he’s writing for the audience of the gospel allies does not mean Rodriguez is any less reluctant to view the election not as folly — because as Ecclesiastes tells us all is folly under the sun — but as a clear and meaningful indication of the nation’s goodness (no matter how fallen).

Meanwhile, here is how someone sounded on the 2016 election who was not hampered by civil religion:

If President Trump does keep out of wars like the one the last Republican president started in Iraq, if he limits immigration and helps restore the US labour force to prosperity, he will have done what no other Republican or Democrat could do. On the other hand, should he live down to the worst expectations — getting into wars like Iraq to, as he puts it, ‘seize the oil’, or inflaming racial tensions at home — I have no doubt that he would be even more effectively opposed in his folly than George W. Bush was. The anti-war and civil-libertarian left, which has been conspicuously silent in the Obama years, would roar back to life.

The opposite would be true with President Hillary Clinton: in advancing globalist economics and pushing a foreign policy of interventionism and nation-building, she would have the support of many Republicans in Congress — and of Acela conservatives in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. She will reduce the left to sycophancy and make accomplices of the right’s ‘wets’. (Or ‘squishes’, as we call them here.) Whether Trump succeeds or fails as a president, he will force American politics to make a choice between globalism and the nation.

Imagine an evangelical choosing between globalism and the nation without quoting John 3:16, “For God so loves the world.” So the choice must be globe.

Protestant Nationalism

With all the attacks on and outrage over white nationalism and white theology, a historical perspective on the origins of nationalism might be instructive. This is from Philip S. Gorski’s The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe (2003):

Confessionalization contributed to the development of Western nationalism in at least two ways: (1) by bringing cultural and political boundaries into closer alignment with one another; and (2) by supplying a discourse through which national distinctiveness could be articulated — and at least partly reconciled with Christian universalism. Like most agrarian societies, medieval Europe possessed an elite, high culture (literate and Latinate) that spanned political boundaries and a crazy quilt of popular cultures (oral and vernacular) that were confined to particular regions. Insofar as confessionalization stimulated the development of mass vernacular cultures that were neither local nor fully European, it helped to create the cultural homogeneities that nationalism would later mythologize and extol. . . . Of course, students of the subject have long argued that nationalism is a secular ideology that first emerges during the French Revolution. But recent work by early modernists has show this view to be untenable. However one defines it — qua movements, discourse, or category — nationalism can be found in the early modern period. While there were secular forms of nationalist discourse, grounded in narratives of cultural and political distinctiveness, the most common type of nationalist discourse in the early modern period was a religious one, which drew on the Exodus story, and on the notion of chosenness more generally. (163)

How Did that Work Out for You?

From the history of Cleveland Presbyterianism (1896):

OF Cleveland Presbyterianism it may be said that it was from the beginning New Englandized, and then recruited from New York rather than from Pennsylvania. In type of theological belief, then, it has always been liberal, but at the same time evangelical and fairly aggressive, as seen in its missionary spirit. The network of churches now numbers seventeen, counting the East Cleveland, Windermere, and Glenville Churches, which are out of the city only by a narrow bound. The aggregate membership of these churches is about 6,500. All the congregations are housed in admirable buildings, and the value of the property is fully $1,000,000. These churches furnish sittings for about 10,000 worshipers, while in the Sunday-schools there are 6,500 scholars.

The 1801 Plan of Union was a killer. It placed Presbyterians on the front lines of United States religious nationalism. They made America great and Presbyterians have not been able to give up their seat at the table ever since.