Monday, November 16, 2009

Civil religion: the enemy of christianity

My wife Jane is taking a Sociology class and in the textbook for the class (Sociology: A Brief Introduction, Alex Thio) there is a chapter on 'Education and Religion.' There is so much to look at, but on pp. 303-304 they talk about "Civil Religion." This, to me, is the crux of the problem in a large number of churches in the good ol' US of A. So many people are adherents of this civil religion rather than Christianity, and they don't even know it (or they don't see anything wrong with it; or they see it as the same thing). I will quote directly from this secular textbook:
Rather than a formal separation of church and state, sociologists see full integration of the two in the form of civil religion, a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that sanctify the dominant values of a society. The civil religion is a hybrid of religion and politics. The state takes up certain religious ideas and symbols, and religion sacralizes certain political principals, backing up the government's claim to a right to rule with its own moral authority. Thus, a civil religion can unify the citizens of a country by heightening their sense of patriotism.

The U.S. civil religion includes faith in what is popularly known as the American way of life, with freedom, democracy, equality, individualism, efficiency, and other typically U.S. values as its creeds. The "American way of life," said Will Herberg (1983), is the common religion of U.S. society by which Americans define themselves and establish their unity. Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism are its "subfaiths."

God plays an important role in civil religion. God is cited on coins ("In God We Trust") and in national hymns ("God Bless America"). References to God are made in all oaths of office, in courtroom procedures, at political conventions, in the inaugural address of every president, and on practically all formal public occasions.

But the God of U.S. civil religion is not the god of any particular church. Adherence to U.S. civil religion requires only people's belief in God, however they choose to define the deity - as a personal god, an impersonal force, a supreme power, an ideal, or any other form. Americans do not have to believe in Moses, Jesus, the Bible, heaven and hell, or any other doctrine of a particular religion. They are instead exhorted to go to any church of their choice. As President Eisenhower said, "Our government makes no sense, unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith - and I DON'T CARE WHAT IT IS." The civil religion does not favor one particular church but, rather, religion in general. Everyone is expected to pay at least lip service to religious principles, if not to join a church, synagogue, or mosque. It is considered un-American to be godless or, worse, to attack religion.

Like a genuine religion, U.S. civil religion contains symbols, rituals, and scriptures. Its sacred writings are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. George Washington is seen as the Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny. Abraham Lincoln, the martyred president, is seen as the crucified Jesus and his Gettysburg Address as a New Testament. The civil religion's holy days are the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day, when Americans sing sacred hymns such as "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful," invoke the name of God, listen to sermonlike speeches, and watch ritualistic parades. The U.S. flag, like the cross, is supposed to inspire devotion.

Oh man... There is more, but I think that paints a pretty clear picture. I don't even know where to begin. In fact, I wonder if one even CAN begin to explain what is wrong with this to someone who doesn't see it themselves. Even just simple things like Christ being superior to government; the Bible being superior to the Constitution; all religions are NOT the same; religion and Christianity are not the same thing; etc., etc., etc. I think the problem is: too much of who we are as the church is wrapped up in preserving our country and/or way of life, and not near enough is about loving God and others.


Jim said...

" I think the problem is: too much of who we are as the church is wrapped up in preserving our country and/or way of life, and not near enough is about loving God and others."


Whisky Prajer said...

As your resident Canuckle-head, let me quickly point out that "civil religion" isn't just a U.S. American issue. Nationalism needn't be a central issue for a congregation, either: I think you got to the heart of the matter when you posted about the family-centered church (which, BTW, reminded me of this piece by Lauren Winner).

dan horwedel said...

Good point, Darrell. Thanks.