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.

Do Americans and Christians Worship the Same God?

Robert Bellah said no. American civil religion involves a god different from the Christian one:

What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion-there seems no other word for it-while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian. At a time when the society was overwhelmingly Christian, it seems unlikely that this lack of Christian reference was meant to spare the feelings of the tiny non-Christian minority. Rather, the civil religion expressed what those who set the precedents felt was appropriate under the circumstances. It reflected their private as well as public views. Nor was the civil religion simply “religion in general.” While generality was undoubtedly seen as a virtue by some, as in the quotation from Franklin above, the civil religion was specific enough when it came to the topic of America. Precisely because of this specificity, the civil religion was saved from empty formalism and served as a genuine vehicle of national religious self-understanding.

But American civil religion may surpass Christianity in wisdom and significance:

I would argue that the civil religion at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people. Like all religions, it has suffered various deformations and demonic distortions. At its best, it has neither been so general that it has lacked incisive relevance to the American scene nor so particular that it has placed American society above universal human values. I am not at all convinced that the leaders of the churches have consistently represented a higher level of religious insight than the spokesmen of the civil religion. Reinhold Niebuhr has this to say of Lincoln, who never joined a church and who certainly represents civil religion at its best:

An analysis of the religion of Abraham Lincoln in the context of the traditional religion of his time and place and of its polemical use on the slavery issue, which corrupted religious life in the days before and during the Civil War, must lead to the conclusion that Lincoln’s religious convictions were superior in depth and purity to those, not only of the political leaders of his day, but of the religious leaders of the era.[xii]

Perhaps the real animus of the religious critics has been not so much against the civil religion in itself but against its pervasive and dominating influence within the sphere of church religion.

We know we’re not supposed to put our trust in princes. But what about the princes’ gods?