There is a thing in all cultures known as a civil religion, and this does not refer to Christianity or any particular “organized” religion. It is the collective beliefs that a particular culture disseminates, and it typically borrows heavily from organized religions.
Defining what, exactly, the breadth of American civil religious belief covers is a huge task, but we’ve talked a good deal about several themes in previous posts: do what feels right; be true to yourself; don’t trust institutions; always be skeptical; etc.
I have not been supportive of these civil religous beliefs in general for the previously-mentioned reasons in several past posts. What this results in is my rejection of American civil religion (which does not mean that I am completely opposed to every single “virtue” Americans typically accept, just the broader narratives constructed from many of these “virtues”).
I am not at all alone in rejecting this civil religion, among Christians and non-Christians, alike. The stereotypical form Christians take in this rejection, however, is an appeal for the U.S. to “return to its Christian foundations,” or for Christians to “take back America,” or some other variation on this theme.
And while I agree that American civil religion needs to die, I’m also going to say this idea of a past “Christian America” needs to die with it because it isn’t true, and it damages both Christians and non-Christians.
[A couple points of clarification before explaining this position: first, the messed up ideas of American civil religion owe a lot to distorted views of Christianity, thus – second – this is the beginning of an attempt at pointing to the information needed to delineate the differences between Christianity and American civil religious beliefs.]
OK, here we go. First, I should direct you to the research of three well-known and respected Christian scholars who, at the time of publication of their book, represented universities in the Catholic, Mainline Protestant, and Evangelical Protestant Christian traditions: Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden. Their book is “The Search for Christian America.”
Before people think I’m nuts (too late?), here are some indisputable facts: when the U.S. formed as a nation, surely the vast majority of citizens were Christian; most of the Founding Fathers were at least nominally Christian (and several were active Christians); and much of shared public life, owing to this prevailing Christian influence, has had a Christian tinge to it.
Yet, this does not a “Christian nation” make, nor is it something Christians should necessarily be happy about, and it is also a primary contributing factor in why the civil religion is what it is today.
I’ve made the claim, now I have to try to demonstrate it. I refer back to two early posts for some American historical context (https://stainedmirrors.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/loud-noises/ and https://stainedmirrors.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/215/).
Now some extended quoting from the aformentioned book:
“The new nation, it is widely felt, emerged from the generally Christian actions of generally Christian people. And these actions bequeathed Christian values, and a Christian heritage, to later American history…We feel that a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly or even predominantly Christian, if we mean by the word “Christian” a state of society reflecting the ideals of Scripture…We feel also that careful examination of Christian teaching on government, the state, and the nature of culture shows that the idea of a “Christian nation” is a very ambiguous concept which is usually harmful to effective Christian action in society…[pgs. 15, 17]
“In making our case, we do not want to contend that Christian values have been absent from American history. On the contrary, we hope to show that there has been much commendable Christian belief, practice, and influence in the history of the United States and the colonies which formed the new country. Christian goals and aspirations certainly had a part in the settlement of North America. It is also indubitable that Christian factors contributed to the struggle for national independence and that Christian principles played a role in the founding documents of the United States. We want to give due recognition to these positive Christian aspects of our history, for they have had a marked influence on the shape of modern America. Their presence, we agree, justifies a picture of the United States as a singularly religious country…[pg. 18]
“…how much Christian action is required to make a whole society Christian[?] Another way of stating the same issue is to pose it negatively – how much evil can a society display before we disqualify it as a Christian society? These kinds of questions are pertinent for all of early American history. When we look at the Puritans of the 1600s, do we emphasize only their sincere desire to establish Christian colonies, and their manifest desire to live by the rule of Scripture? Or do we focus rather on the stealing of Indian lands, and their habit of displacing and murdering these Indians wherever it was convenient? Roger Williams, one of the Puritans himself, asked these very questions and came to much the same conclusion as we have more than 300 years later…In the age of the American Revolution the same questions are pertinent. Do we praise American patriots for wanting to be free of Parliament’s restraints upon their freedom, or condemn them for taking away freedom of speech and press from their opponents? Likewise, do we praise American patriots for their defense of “natural law” and “unalienable rights,” or codemn them for failing to heed Paul’s injunctions in Romans 13 to honor their legitimate rulers? The same questions apply to the period between the Revolution and the Civil War. How do we bring together our assessment of the great evangelistic and reform movements, which did so much to spread biblical righteousness in the country, with inhuman treatment of black slaves and Indian outcasts? Obviously, the need in responding to these sorts of considerations is for a balance that can acknowledge both good and evil in our past and come to conclusions that take both sides into account…[pgs. 19,20]
“For those who hold to the “Christian America” view, the situation may be summarized as follows: America was founded as a “Christian nation.” But the nation turned from its Christian foundation and in recent decades has been taken over by secular humanism. The goal today is to become a Christian nation once again – by restoring America to its “biblical base,” to the “biblical principles of our founding fathers,” to a “Christian consensus,” etc. (Typically this biblical heritage is linked directly to America’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution)…it is important to realize that this is in part an historical argument, and that as an historical argument this line of thinking contains a number of severe difficulties. In what sense can the authors of the Declaration of Independence be said to hold a “Christian world view”? We have already discussed in an earlier chapter the ambiguities of “Christian” as an adjective ascribed to world views. Something that is “Christian” may turn out to be only generically Christian, that is, having some Christian lineage; or it may be only weakly or vaguely Christian. Certainly the Judeo-Christian heritage was an important influence, as we have already seen, during the Revolutionary period. But there were many non-Christian influences too; and America’s origins were, in important ways, a mixture of these non-Christian and Christian influences. This is especially the case when we try to discover a direct link between explicitly Christian thinking and the founding documents of America…[pg. 129]
“The Declaration of Independence…rests on a different view [than the Bible as the sole basis for American law and government]. It is based on an appeal to “self-evident” truths or “laws of nature and nature’s god.” The reference to God is vague and subordinated to natural laws that everyone should know through common sense. The Bible is not mentioned or alluded to. The Constitution of 1787 says even less concerning a deity, let alone Christianity or the Bible. The symbolism of the new government was equally secular. In fact, the United States was the first Western nation to omit explicitly Christian symbolism, such as the cross, from its flag and other early national symbols. Further incidental evidence of the founders’ own views is the statement from a treaty with the Islamic nation of Tripoli in 1797. This treaty was negotiated under Washington, ratified by the Senate, and signed by President John Adams. The telling part is a description of religion in America: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, – as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims…, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”…[pg. 130-131]
“In the early American republic Christian influences were indeed strong, as were some anti-Christian influences…Two points should be emphasized equally here. The first is that, unlike some of the explicit atheism associated with the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, the American Revolution and the constitutional practice growing out of it were emphatically not anti-Christian or antireligious. Almost everyone in the early republic believed that religion of some sort was good for the nation. The second point is equally important. While religious tolerance left Protestant Christianity in a far more influential position than any other religion, the founding fathers explicitly chose not to make any specific religion the basis for the republic or its policies…[pg. 132]
“…the specific claims about [our] earlier period may be true – in this case, that early America was generally Christian in the structure of its law, its institutions, and its culture. Yet the fallacy lies in what remains unsaid, in the failure to recognize how profoundly different the world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was from our own, and in the method by which such an image of the past is constructed. In the first place, the approach is extremely selective. It fails to take into account some of the countervailing evidence that we have seen in earlier chapters: the 80 to 85 percent of Americans who at the time of the Revolution were not church members, the success of un-Christian currents of thought in beguiling the generation of the founding fathers, the institution of slavery that Christians allowed to be legitimated in the Constitution, and the testimony of Christians from that generation who were painfully aware of the rampant ungodliness in their society and the paltry influence of Christian thinking in their policies.
“If the first mistake is presenting a half-truth, the second is wrenching events and ideas from their original contexts. To depict early America as a Christian nation, without further clarification, leaves the impression that the only difference of consequence between that age and our own is between strong faith and weak, genuine courage and feigned, serious thinking and shallow, noble purpose and selfish. Assuming the similarity of past and present, this vision overlooks the profound Christian legacy that Western society enjoyed in the early modern period – capital for which individuals in that day were not themselves responsible and which we today find largely spent. It also ignores major elements of change. In the infant republic nine out of ten citizens (i.e., white males) could claim a heritage that was British and Protestant. The radical pluralism – of ethnic origin, religion, and culture – that has developed in the two centuries since the Revolution places almost every public decision today about religion or morality in a different context. Whatever positions Christians may take in responding to a secular world, working to turn back the clock – as if nothing had changed in the meantime – is the surest means of failing to meet those challenges which are uniquely today’s.” [pgs. 150-151]
And in that last sentence lies the rub: my fellow Christians, the past is gone and the context of the world is vastly different than it ever has been (which is NOT to say that many of our problems are thus different – a lot remain the same as always, but the context within which to approach them is unique).
Hearkening back to those earlier posts linked above, we’ve noted how our American cultural heritage is one of hyper-reactionism and sensitivity. This is true across the spectrum of our culture, both religious and non-religious (ironically, some of the most zealous moralists out there are non-religious, which has always baffled me). Let’s recognize this and do our best to compensate for it.
America and God are not linked together any more or less than any other nation is with God. The Church is international and owes no allegiance to a nation-state. When we became Christians, we acknowledged the truth that our identity is located in Christ – as citizens of His Kingdom, not of any kingdoms of the world.
That doesn’t mean we have to be “anti-American.” It just means we need to open our eyes. As far as nation-states go, I think the U.S. is the best example of success humanity has produced. I appreciate and respect the sacrifices made on various levels by numerous individuals to create and foster this nation-state.
But first things have to be first. My allegiance to God first and foremost means I can’t wear blinders when it comes to any other relationship I have, be it with other people or institutions. God and the Church are infinitely more important than any nation-state ever could be. And when we marry God and the Church to anything else, nation-states included, we damage and distort the identities of all parties involved.
So by all means have your Christianity influece your philosophies and thus your politics. Let us ask God to help us, this nation, and ALL nations. Let us acknowledge that our nation does have a heritage that has been vastly influenced by a variety of Christianities. But let’s let go of the idea that this nation was birthed to be a Christian beacon to the world – history tells us otherwise.
Our beacon is Christ in us individually and in the Church collectively. The Church is the City on a Hill, and our Kingdom is not of this world. Let’s manifest the Kingdom of God in the ways God calls us to, and we’ll find that America and the world will be blessed for it.