Civil Religion

There's always been a level of syncretism in this nation where Christianity and patriotism become so intertwined that America begins to don the mantle as God's chosen people.

“America’s religious heritage also contributed to a sort of deification of the national enterprise. In recent years, this tendency, first seen during the American Revolution, has been tagged “civil religion.” Civil religion is the attributing of sacred character to the nation itself. Throughout history rulers had claimed divine sanction either by saying they themselves were divine (as Roman emperors did) or that they were chosen by the God or gods of the nation…”

 

There’s always been a level of syncretism in this nation where Christianity and patriotism become so intertwined that America begins to don the mantle as God’s chosen people. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to be on the rise again. Thus I found this quote from George Marsden very interesting:1

America’s religious heritage also contributed to a sort of deification of the national enterprise. In recent years, this tendency, first seen during the American Revolution, has been tagged “civil religion.” Civil religion is the attributing of sacred character to the nation itself. Throughout history rulers had claimed divine sanction either by saying they themselves were divine (as Roman emperors did) or that they were chosen by the God or gods of the nation…

But now America had a problem. How could they claim religious sanction for their nation? Thomas Paine, for instance, was a notorious infidel. After the Revolution he authored scathing attacks on Christianity. With leading citizens such as Paine or Jefferson, clearly the nation could not officially claim a Christian sanction.

Americans resolved this problem by three primary means, all aspects of civil religion. First, Deist leaders of the Jefferson sort argued that the natural laws on which American rights were founded demonstrably originated with the Creator… Hence, official references to “God” in American life, as “in God we trust,” or “so help me God” could have this vague meaning.

Second, Americans civil and political leaders informally continued to speak of the nation as though it were a Christian nation, or at least a biblical nation. Both politicians and clergy continually referred to America as the new elect, and Americans as the chosen people, a covenanted people…

Finally, the United States was the first modern nation systematically to shift public veneration of the government from veneration of persons to veneration of the nation and its principles.

The following was an aside in one of Pastor Ryan’s recent sermons. He was making a point of how Christianity has been watered down to praying a prayer or wearing a cultural marker, which is NOT THE GOSPEL. His statement also captured, in my opinion, the essence of civil religion:

Because I’m an American, I’m a Christian. And because I’m a Christian, I’m American.

So what do I do with dual citizenship in two very different kingdoms with goals that are poles apart? In which kingdom am I placing my hope and which takes priority? Do I approach people and issues as an American or a Christian first?

Again these questions aren’t aimed at anyone. I am just using the Socratic method to encourage my own critical thinking.

1. Religion and American Culture, George M. Marsden, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, 1990, pp. 42-44.

Persis Lorenti is an ordinary Christian. You can find her at Tried With Fire and Out of the OrdinaryThis article appeared on her blog and is used with permission.

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