November 19, 2017

U.S. Civil Religion – An Election Year Series

Maine Lighthouse 1

Presidential election years in the U.S. provide Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all.

I’d like to take Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these. To prompt my own thinking and to give us material for these conversations, I’ve chosen three books to work through this year. These were recommended by Harold K. Bush in a book review at Christianity Today about John D. Wilsey’s book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. Here is what Bush said:

For Christian readers wishing to engage these issues, among the most helpful recent resources are Richard Hughes’s Christian America and the Kingdom of God (2009) and John Fea’s outstanding Was America Founded As a Christian Nation? (2011). Hughes gives voice to some of the fear and trembling about America’s legacy that inspires leftist critique, within and beyond the church. In some respects, Fea strikes an important balance to this more critical and disapproving account. His study is well-balanced, well-documented, and impressive in its willingness to give both sides a hearing.

American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion builds effectively on these previous works.

So then, these are the three books I’ll be reading and referring to throughout the year.

We begin today with a quote from Richard Hughes’s introduction to Christian America and the Kingdom of God. I do so to set in place the term “civil religion,” which I’m using as the theme of this series.

The term goes back to an influential essay in 1967 by sociologist Robert Bellah in which he distinguished American cultural “Christianity” from biblical Christianity. Hughes agrees with Bellah that the idea of America as a “Christian Nation” is accurate in some respects but most certainly not in others.

It is not outlined as such in our Constitution, so it is not a legal designation. However, it does describe an unofficial ethos that is pervasive in the cultural and ceremonial experience of the United States. This civil “Christian” culture is not specifically “Christian” in the biblical sense, as Hughes notes:

…it can speak of God, but it may or may not speak of Christ. It can speak of morality, but it may or may not speak of divine revelation. It can speak of endurance, but it may or may not speak of resurrection or eternal life. And it can speak of community, but it may or may not speak of the community of saints.

Many do not see or appreciate the differences.

Hughes gives several examples of how various individuals, groups, and state and local governments have tried to enshrine the idea of America as a “Christian Nation” into law and into our cultural and ceremonial observances and notes that the Civil War was an important time in which Christianity became thoroughly infused with cultural presuppositions. Historian Mark Noll has written a book describing the Civil War as a “theological crisis” in the country, a major turning point in American religious thought. Richard Hughes gives one example for us from that period to consider today:

What is crucial to emphasize is this: America’s civic faith draws on Christianity at many points. Indeed, it overlaps with the Christian tradition in so many ways that many Christians fail to distinguish the one from the other. A single example of this profound overlapping will suffice: Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862.

The first stanza of that majestic hymn that celebrates America’s civic faith equated “the glory of the coming of the Lord” with the cause of the republic in America’s Civil War. It then suggested that in the guns of the Union Army, God himself “hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” Indeed, Howe concluded, in the midst of that war, “His truth is marching on.”

The second stanza suggested that God was to be found “in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps” as the army of the republic retired for the night. And there, in those camps, Howe affirmed, Americans could “read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps,” for “His day is marching on.”

The third stanza spoke of a “fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel,” thereby suggesting some connection between the gospel of Christ and the nation’s military agenda. The fourth stanza suggested that it was God who had sounded the trumpet summoning Americans to war, and then confused that war with the final judgment described in the Bible. Thus, through the power of the war, “He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat.”

But the fifth stanza did the most to confuse America’s civic faith with the Christian religion, for it directly linked the work of Christ with the work of the Union army, and the cross of Christ with the cause of temporal freedom.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea;
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Over the years, millions of Christians have sung that song, fully convinced that they were singing a Christian hymn, or at least a hymn that was in keeping with the central themes of the Christian gospel. And to the extent that America is a Christian nation both culturally and ceremonially, they were right. But as we shall see in chapter three, the sentiments of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are altogether foreign to the message of the Christian faith if we measure those sentiments against the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.

Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” clearly celebrated certain aspects of America’s civil religion. But to the extent that it confused America’s civic faith with the Christian message, it also celebrated what I describe in this book as the ceremonial and cultural establishment of the Christian religion.

Comments

  1. The closer to the genuine article a counterfeit is… The more dangerous it is.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > closer

      Or not. Because it is not, really at all. Even the excepted text admits this:

      “””The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are altogether foreign to the message of the Christian faith””” … “””celebrated … the ceremonial and cultural establishment of the Christian religion.”””

      Huh? Some ambiguation between the Message and the Religion? Not healthy. Religion is the practice of the Message; when it is something else it is Bad.

      I went through a period where I read quite a bit on the topic of civic religion. Ultimately I came away thinking of it as a nearly entirely Bad Thing. Actual diversity is much healthier. The irony that those most eager to take offense at Political Correctness or deliberate Multiculturalism in turn make the fiercest appeals to Civic Religion [itself a construct of serious Political Correctness]…. I don’t know, there is a deep current of incoherence as well as a lack of self-reflection. I would rather deal with an honest self-aware Fundamentalist – Civil Religion is troubling as you never know what someone means, if anything, by their words.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        “””millions of Christians have sung that song, fully convinced that they were singing a Christian hymn”””

        I am frequently critical of the Pastoral Class so here I want to give a shout out: two pastors I have known in my time – one Southern Baptist and the other Free Methodist – both declined on the Battle Hymn due to its militarist [anti-Christian] message. Maybe that is a more common thing than I realize; but I found it to be impressive.

        • Donalbain says:

          If a Christian sings it, believing it to be a hymn, it IS a Christian hymn. Christianity has at times been militaristic and at times pacifist. It has been left wing and right wing. It has been everything that Christians have made it.

      • The irony that those most eager to take offense at Political Correctness or deliberate Multiculturalism in turn make the fiercest appeals to Civic Religion [itself a construct of serious Political Correctness]

        Not to dispute what MAY be true, but without a specific example, this is a “strawman” argument. Are there people who fit this description? Maybe, but I cannot put my finger on a specific person. Perhaps Ted Cruz comes closest, which is why I don’t care for him.

        Who are you thiking of?

        • Christiane says:

          I hear ‘Ted Cruz’, I think ‘carpet bombing’ of innocent civilians:

          http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/02/politics/sean-macfarland-isis-carpet-bombing-cruz-trump/index.html

          • Like “inconceivable”, Ted Cruz “appears” to not understand what the term “carpet bombing” means. In the context of the debate, he was using it to mean sustained bombing of enemy troops and troop positions as was done against Iraqi troops in the Persian Gulf War. My hunch is he knows what the term actually means and, hence, would know that it is a war crime but is using it for rhetorical effect in an effort to appeal to hawks.

          • This is about conflating religion and civil life. You are either missing the point, or just going off on a different path.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            No, I do not think that is an example of Civil Religion conflating with actual Religion. That is straight-up nationalism, militarism, and just plain stupidity.

        • Christiane says:

          Hi OSCAR,
          I see things differently. Here’s why: Cruz has sold himself as a ‘conservative evangelical Christian’ and has openly also courted the people that would LOVE to see carpet-bombing take place in the Middle East . . . so he is either two-faced OR he, himself, is trying to conflate ‘conservative evangelicalism’ with dishonorable war crimes practices, as thought being a ‘Christian’ somehow made it ‘okay’ to bomb innocent civilians.

          I hold HIM accountable for dragging a lot of trusting evangelical Christians into saying that they ‘support Cruz’ and who do not realize what this means as to their own Christian witness . . .

          frankly, my argument is ‘since when’ does Cruz think it is okay to say you oppose abortion on the one hand, but have no problem carpet bombing innocent civilians who likely will include pregnant women and babies among the victims?

          We are Americans, and we don’t want to practice war crimes on innocent people. It’s not honorable. We don’t need a ‘leader’ who tries to present criminal and dishonorable behavior as ‘okay’ with his Christian supporters . . . he’s a hypocrite, OSCAR, and that is how I see it. He’s a scary guy.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          oscar, there is a news program on a Evangelical Radio station hosted by a lady – but I cannot remember her name. I will try to catch it when she is on today. Her program, while she is clearly a very intelligent person, is nearly a non-stop conflation of Civil Religion and Christianity; from her program you would think the founding fathers were all choir boys.

          Neither Trump nor Cruz are true ‘conflationists’, IMO. Cruz maybe a bit more so than The Trump; but both to me are out-and-out Populist Nationalist [The Trump] and Militant Center-Right Nationalist [Cruz]. Trump makes a lot of appeal to The American Dream, Former Greatness, etc… which is certainly in proximity to Civil Religion, but not it itself. I have heard much less of Cruz – who makes more exact efforts to woo Evangelicals. Once he becomes the front runner [inevitable now?] it will be interesting to see if he goes more towards the Civil Religion angle.

      • I haven’t studied civic religion in depth but would agree that diversity is a good thing (and actually a better reflection of God’s intentions for us all along, but that’s another subject) but, it seems to me that there must be a certain level of cultural cohesiveness, of shared values in order to maintain a peaceful society and that is the purpose of civic religion in a multicultural society.

        Recent history is full of examples of societies that did not possess or did not place much emphasis on such shared values and the strife and violence that resulted: Rwanda, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and others come to mind.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          > there must be a certain level of cultural cohesiveness, of shared values
          > in order to maintain a peaceful society

          Certainly. But is that necessarily Civic Religion. These values could be Cultural, or entirely Humanist, which is what I think you would find in much of the EU.

          It becomes religion when we related some of these values to the divine.

          It is fine to say “we hold these truths to be self-evident” – and to stop there. Or to say “we hold these truths to be of highest value in order ordering of a society”. Period.

          This is often what is after all what is being said. You cannot find anything about democracy and representation in Scripture. So why not just say that?

          • “It becomes religion when we related some of these values to the divine.”

            Okay, I see what you mean. I had always thought that the phrase “civic religion” was used to indicate a set of values, traditions, etc. that functioned as a religion or held similar unifying characteristics of religion but did not necessarily adopt the language of religion or relate these values to the divine.

            For example, many of the popular myths and legends surrounding George Washington serve to hold him up as an example of what an American should aspire to be like; the symbolism behind the flag; the Pledge of Allegiance; all of these things function as ways to pull a disparate people together and give them a common cultural heritage, no matter their ethnic or national origin.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            People need stories about Heroes.

            And if there are no real heroes, they’ll make them out of whatever’s handy.

            “Ain’t about you, Jayne. It’s about what they need.”
            — Captain Mal “Tight Pants” Reynolds, Free Trader Serenity

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        The irony that those most eager to take offense at Political Correctness or deliberate Multiculturalism in turn make the fiercest appeals to Civic Religion [itself a construct of serious Political Correctness]….

        But it’s THEIR Political Correctness, NOT the Other’s.

        “HERE AHURA-MAZDA, THERE AHRIMAN!”

  2. This is only tangential to your subject (or maybe not), but two things about Howe’s Battle Hymn strike me as odd. The first thing is that in stanza four the lines “Be swift, my soul, to answer him; be jubilant, my feet” reverse the traditional roles of the actors – the usual thing would be for the soul to be jubilant and the feet to be swift, not the other way around. I suspect Howe wrote it this way as much to maintain the meter and rhyme scheme as anything, but the effect is intriguing, jarring even, when you think about it because in wartime many people do find themselves taking on non-traditional roles.

    The second thing I find odd is that since the last third of the 20th century – about the time of the Vietnam conflict – the line “let us die to make men free” in the fifth stanza is usually sung instead as “let us live to make men free”. It is a small but telling shift, perhaps, in the general public’s subconscious regarding America’s willingness to sacrifice its own for the sake of others.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > “let us live to make men free”. It is a small but telling shift,

      Maybe it is the more poetic meaning you imply. I’ve taken that to be a dialing back of the militarism a bit to make it more apropos to civilian/civic action; culture warriors are not engaged in actual war, appropriating to themselves only the slightest of actual risk. Singing about dieing might be [still] a bridge too far.

      As the first point – I agree the reason is most likely just the meter.

      • Donalbain says:

        Someone dying never makes someone else free. A death is always a tragedy, never a victory.

    • “The second thing I find odd is that since the last third of the 20th century – about the time of the Vietnam conflict – the line ‘let us die to make men free’ in the fifth stanza is usually sung instead as ‘let us live to make men free’.”

      Interesting. I could probably count the times I’ve sang this on one hand in the last ten years; we don’t sing it at my current church, even when July 4th rolls around on the church calendar 🙂 but it is in our hymnal. I’ll have to look.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a popular tune for filking.
      From way back; I remember this one from grade schoo in the mid-Sixtiesl:

      “Mine eyes have seen the glory
      Of the burning of the school;
      We have tortured every teacher,
      We have broken every rule;
      And we plan to lynch the Principal
      Tomorrow after school
      As we go marching on!

      “Glory Glory HallelujaH!
      Teacher hit me with a ruler;
      Shot her in the bean
      With a rotten tangerine
      As we go marching on!”

      • Christiane says:

        THAT set of lyrics must be where our graduating senior boys got the idea to hang an effigy of the principal in the office window facing the main road for all the world to see.

        The night of graduation, a number of unknown (to the authorities, we all knew who they were) senior boys HID in the building until it was locked up. They then commenced to exercise colossal mayhem. . . I remember hearing that they detached St. Michael’s statue from it’s base in the main hall and hid it in a closet on the third floor . . . the whole lawn was rolled, as well as all of the trees and bushes . . . and then there was the EFFIGY OF THE PRINCIPAL who had tried to enforce strict discipline as regards these spirited young men. . . . yep, the word got out and we all tried to make a drive-by to take pictures before the scene of the crime was cleaned-up . . . the boys did themselves proud as they went all out and the mess was awesome

        and this was a CATHOLIC school . . . lots of spirit there, for sure 🙂
        I really loved that school!

  3. I saw a bumper sticker yesterday ( l live in Texas) that said, “God, Guns and Lipstick”. I guess that’s a radical right woman. Where exactly guns play into the sermon on the mount remains a question for me. I saw a woman on the news saying that some people were saying that Trump was not a religious person “but I know that he is.” Pardon me but this average Betty from Iowa doesn’t “know” diddley squat about his religion yet she is going to vote for him in part based on her certainty about his love of God. It’s not only scary but also embarrassing how stupid we are and I mean stupid to the extreme.

    • I don’t think most Christians worship Christ. He’s just the means to the Father, whom they worship wholeheartedly and follow his Old Testament example.

      See, Jews and Christians absolutely do worship the same God!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Substitue Gold for Lipstick and you have the financial advice I used to get at random hours over the phone from a guy who must have had Glenn Beck as his financial planner.

      I am so glad that guy finally stopped drinking.

  4. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is not altogether unfamiliar to people outside the US. My own Taiwanese-born wife certainly was familiar with it, although I’ll have to check with her as to how much the lyrics had been changed, if at all. (If they hadn’t, then I have no idea what they were doing singing it in Taiwan.)

    Rong-ya, rong-ya alleluia…..

    Any other non-Yanks out there have any views on the BHOTR?

    • Donalbain says:

      The Battle Hymn of the Republic is known through much of the world. At least the tune is, as it is sung at many football games.

  5. I would suggest as a title for this series, Can of Worms. A year of this? Will be interesting to see if the Monastery survives that.

    Battle Hymn of the American Empire, even bigger and better than the Roman. My studies are tending toward trying to figure out where things went wrong pre-Nicene. Currently checking out the so called desert fathers (and [shhh!] mothers). Their answer to civic religion seemed to be to escape it as much as humanly possible, but I find them to be as extreme as the Battle Hymn.

    It greatly offends me for so called Christians to pray publicly with a tag line in Jesus’ name. Also greatly offends me to allow Satanic prayer in the name of fairness and equality. The country wasn’t founded on Christian religious dogma, it was founded on Masonic principles, which allowed for any private religious belief which recognized a monotheistic Highest Power often called the Great Architect as well as God. Seems as good an answer as any to me against the Wheaton Bigots, but the Masons have pretty much run their course..

    I was raised and educated in the concept of the Judeo-Christian culture. That worked well enough back then, maybe not so much now. I don’t have a replacement name yet but I’m working on it. I did finally figure out this morning who it was that Ted Cruz reminded me of. Joseph McCarthy. Scary.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      And Ted Cruz is shaping up as God’s Anointed(TM).

      Remember 2012 and “Not the Mormon! Not the Mormon!”?
      2016 is “Not the Trump! Not the Trump!”

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > It greatly offends me for so called Christians to pray publicly with a tag
      > line in Jesus’ name. Also greatly offends me to allow Satanic prayer in
      > the name of fairness and equality.

      I am offended by neither; I just find it to be juvenile.

      > The country wasn’t founded on Christian religious dogma, it was founded on Masonic principles,

      Maybe, maybe not. Most importantly – who cares? Whatever Jefferson thought or didn’t . . . he was not a prophet [unless I suppose there is a religion that claims he was]. And how much of this is using the past as a proxy to discuss the present? Why not just ask – what are the best values for organizing a society? That depends on what kind of society we want. So… what kind of society do we want?

      I do not give a damp turd if Jefferson was a “Christian” or not – I do not care because it does not matter. Fights over the identity of so-and-so, except among historians, are *not* about the identity of so-and-so, they are about the identity of the people in the argument. That conversation can be had without the proxy; the proxy is about status – and whatever someone believes is true or not regardless of what a guy who died ~180 years ago thought.

      This is why I believe Civil Religion is a bad thing; it just gets in the way.

      • “Why not just ask – what are the best values for organizing a society?”
        I agree. Even if the US was founded as a “Christian” nation, things have changed. When my children were babies, we really didn’t have any family rules because we didn’t need them. But as the kids grew, changed, my job situation changed, etc., the rules had to change, too, because life isn’t static. Now, our economics, our ethnic background, our religious affiliations are all changing and the best thing to do is decide how we organize the society we have now, not the one we used to have, or wish we had, or think we will have.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          “””the best thing to do is decide how we organize the society we have now, not the one we used to have, or wish we had, or think we will have.”””

          This.

      • Donalbain says:

        Satanic Prayer at public meeting is far from juvenile. If it makes people think for just a minute about the widespread Christian privilege in the USA, it has served an important purpose.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          That’s why I suspect this Satanic Temple doesn’t take themselves all that seriously.
          This sounds like something the Discordian Society would do.

    • –> “I would suggest as a title for this series, Can of Worms. A year of this? Will be interesting to see if the Monastery survives that.”

      It has great potential to be a slippery slope leading away from continuing Michael Spencer’s legacy of Jesus-shaped spirituality.

      • “It has great potential to be a slippery slope leading away from continuing Michael Spencer’s legacy of Jesus-shaped spirituality.”

        First of all, I don’t believe in “slippery slopes.” In most cases that’s a logical fallacy. However, please be sure that I have no intention of moving away from our purposes here. One characteristic of many of us who became post-evangelicals is that we got fed up with evangelicalism’s historical ignorance and lack of understanding with regard to tradition. This is one of those discussions that needs to take place if we are to strip away some of the false identities and practices our Christian faith has latched onto here in the U.S. Becoming “Jesus-shaped” not only means embracing certain things, but also discarding others.

        • Oh, I know people hate the term “slippery slope” here. Thought I’d use it anyway…LOL. Logical fallacy or not, it does convey a sense of moving toward a different path.

    • Charles, i think Deist is more accurate regarding many of the early movers and shakers, regardless of whether they were Freemasons or not.

  6. We do not fight against human (flesh and blood) instead we put on the weapons of Truth, Salvation, Love, Faith Hope Grace. I believe that Paul reiterated that when writing to a local church that it is being strong in the Lord and His mighty power. The hardest is to love our neighbor – whether it be friend or foe.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Shortly after 9/11, one atheist blog stated that America historically IS a Christian Nation but not a Christian Nation at the same time.

    A Christian Nation in the sense that its founders and a majority of its population were working from and within a generally-Christian consensus, but not a Christian Nation in that one church or denomination was able to dominate and force it’s One True Way on everybody. And that this combination was a source of strength.

  8. Thanks for bringing up this topic. It’s something that very much needs discussion, and I think here at IM at least the discussion stands a chance of staying charitable.

    I’m convinced that most Americans who call themselves Christians still think of themselves first as Americans, with Christianity as an identity subsumed under that. Until this changes, we will not solve the problem of civic religion as a counterfeit Christianity that is convincing to many.

    • –> “I’m convinced that most Americans who call themselves Christians still think of themselves first as Americans, with Christianity as an identity subsumed under that.”

      That’s been my perception, too. Many Christians appear to be pretty nationalistic. Some nationalism is a good thing and okay, but not when the Kingdom of ‘Murica becomes more important than the Kingdom of God.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > That’s been my perception, too

        Ditto

        > Many Christians appear to be pretty nationalistic

        Many… but I believe the perception is skewed upwards by some very loud and angry groups.

        > Some nationalism is a good thing

        Disagree; all nationalism is entirely bad. The State is a *necessary* legal fiction; devotion to it, except as a necessary proxy for its citizens, is always completely misguided.

        It is doubtful that most modern states are even all that much correlated historically to the groups which most nationalists identify with; history is now too long, humanity too mobile, and political arrangements too complex, for almost any of these identities to hold up to much critical scrutiny. The notion of The Nation is obsolete – at least in the West.

        • –> “Disagree; all nationalism is entirely bad.”

          I guess I’m looking at it from the viewpoint that it’s good to support the country in which I live and want it to help its people flourish and thrive. I like the USA, I want to see my country “get it right,” I like rooting for US athletes during the Olympics, etc. etc.

          But admittedly, it’s perhaps a utopian, rose-colored glasses perspective…

        • “The notion of The Nation is obsolete”

          That’s a pretty broad statement. I’m not sure I understand your meaning. Maybe it would be helpful if you defined Nation. A people group? A geographical area with recognized borders? A voluntary (or involuntary as the case may be) assembly of peoples with like-minded values? A system of government?

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > Maybe it would be helpful if you defined Nation

            Exactly!!! What does it mean? In the Old Testament it mostly refers to people groups (tribes) or linguistic groups, something that related more-or-less to kingdoms. Even in the progression of Scripture we can see the scope of the concept of Nationhood changing. And today? In the west it operations primarily as a self-assigned identity label.

            > A geographical area with recognized borders?

            Which would be best described as a Sovereign State. Almost every one of which today are populated by at least a large majority of immigrants. Especially in the West.

      • What is frightening to me is the people that believe America IS the Kingdom of God. Once that notion takes hold, how are we different than any country or non-country (the likes of ISIS) who believe their existence is due to God’s wanting them to exist or commanding them to exist?

        • Yes. And at some point America became not the place founded so that people could have religious freedom, but became God’s post-New Testament version of Israel, His Chosen Nation. I’d be curious when that mindset began to change.

          • Here’s a link to the essay by Robert Bellah that Chaplain Mike references. From the sources cited in the essay, it’s been there pretty much from the beginning.

            http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            Not really a change; many of the first colonist groups were apocalyptic ‘cults’. They referred to the new world as the New Israel, and themselves as the new chosen people. This has been an undercurrent in American politics since day zero.

          • About the New Jerusalem on these shores: that was literally what they believed in the Mass. Bay Colony, and Winthrop’s famous “city on a hill” (so well-beloved by Reagan) was about this. In tremendous contrast to, say, the commercial aspirations of the Virginia colonists.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Not really a change; many of the first colonist groups were apocalyptic ‘cults’. They referred to the new world as the New Israel, and themselves as the new chosen people.

            Their voyage to American was their Exodus from sinful Egypt.
            And the native peoples they found there were their Canaanites.

    • “I’m convinced that most Americans who call themselves Christians still think of themselves first as Americans, with Christianity as an identity subsumed under that.”

      My identity is pretty fluid. I’d love to consider myself a Christian first and foremost but tend to fail at that most of the time. It’s sometimes the best I can do to just believe I’m a child of God.

  9. Steve Newell says:

    Should a Christian Chruch be flying a national flag? If so, should that flag fly at the same level or below the “Christian” flag (I didn’t know that we had a flag)? Should a national flag be in the worship space of a Christian Church?

    The only one I have opinion on is the last one. There should be no national flag in a Christian worship space. Is it acceptable to have the US Flag in the USA? Is it acceptable to the Russian flag in a church in Russia? How about a Chinese flag in a church in China? Where to we draw the line?

    • The first time i volunteered to help with VBS at my former church, it gave me the creeps when the pastor held in succession the U.S. flag, the Texas flag, and the Christian flag (I, too, never knew such a thing existed) and had all the children recite the respective allegiances to them. Talk about conflating Christianity with civil religion not to mention what a confusing message for those kids–to which one do they owe supreme allegiance?

      • That must be a VBS thing. The only time I ever heard the pledge of allegiance in my church was when I took my kids to VBS years ago. And yes, there was a pledge to the Christian flag too, a pledge I didn’t know existed.

        The really bizarre part was when the VBS leader first whipped the kids up with the Daniel story, telling about how “Daniel refused to worship the king—hooray!—and even though he was punished he still wouldn’t do it—but God rewarded him for his faith—hooray!—and we’re gonna hear more about Daniel later, but first, it’s time of the pledge of allegiance!—I pledge allegiance to the flag…”

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Each church can decide that for themselves. And thankfully we have many of them. 🙂 It depends on what you feel the flag means/represents, and how you approach the importance of symbols.

      Personally I would not attend a church that prominently displayed the national flag. But I also refuse to recite the pledge of allegiance [on the grounds that it a false statement]. People I very much respect make a different choice.

  10. It used to be that a civic religion would entail worshipping the King/Emperor as a god or one of the gods. How else was a man so mighty and in such a position? he had to be a demi god of a type.

    Christianity, to use one example, came along and upended that. There is only one true God, (some would say) Jesus, and we will not bow our knee to any false god, either man or image. Unfortunately, this ended up meaning that only one man on earth was at the very top of the Christian totem pole, and even tho he very clearly “wasn’t God”, he was nonethless “God’s man on earth”. And quite used to having political power, even over actual kings, along with all spiritual power.

    So really, what all changed? Degrees, I guess. It’s bad taste to call the President a god. Or a pope. Yet the whole civil religion is predicated on putting our god on his throne, or in our God’s name.

    Not sure how many people here play the Elder Scrolls video games (morrowind, skyrim, oblivion, etc). They are roleplaying games in a fantasy universe. One of the things you can do is pledge allegiance to the Imperial Cult, which basically is the state sponsored religion and worships the Emperor alongside more standard deities like a god of war, god of commerce, god of love, etc. Of course in the game, you can get perks for choosing a particular deity out of the group…extra attack power, for instance, or higher ability to barter.

    I’m sure it’s quite intentional on the part of the developers, but I definitely see parallels between that Imperial Cult, Rome, and America’s civil religions. And we definitely deify and worship and usher into the great white mount olympus house those we elect to run this country.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      I don’t think this definition of Civic Religion matches what the scholars mean – which admittedly can be a bit vague.

      The Ruler Deification of bygone ages and the notion of Civic Religion in a republic are miles apart.

      • Yeah, true. But in my mind some interesting parallels or consistencies.

        Christianity truly is the Civic Religion of America. Europe got rid of their best and brightest and they came here to be free.

    • SottoVoce says:

      George Washington = Tiber Septim?

  11. The civic religion of the US is called God, Family and Country, and it’s bears more than a passing resemblance to Blood and Soil.

  12. America was founded as a Christian nation. As such, it is as close as we will ever have to God’s Kingdom here on earth. I know it’s true, because I read it in a book by this Barton fellow.

    • Donalbain says:
      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Oh yeah. That one.

        Notice that it is arranged as a classic “Last Judgment” composition:
        1) Christ at the center, sitting (or rather standing) in Judgment. (Holding the Book of Life?)
        2) Above and behind Christ (upper half of the picture), the Hosts of Heaven.
        3) Left Foreground (Christ’s Right Hand) the Faithful Saved.
        “Enter now into the Kingdom prepared for you before the foundation of the world…”
        4) Right Foreground (Christ’s Left Hand) the Damned:
        “BEGONE FROM ME, YE CURSED, INTO EVERLASTING FIRE! JOIN THE DEVIL AND HIS ANGELS!”

      • The painter is Mormon. Some Mormons believe that the Constitution was divinely inspired; he seems to be one of them.

        He has many paintings of Mormon temples on his site.

  13. It’s true that the Battle Hymn of the Republic (which I love for its beauty and grandeur) is quite militaristic. Also true that at the time it was written, America was at war, with both sides reading the same Bible and both white sides praying the same prayers to the same God to give their side victory. ( I suspect the prayers of black people were pretty well concentrated on one side.)

    But certainly this has been true throughout the history of Christianity, at least ever since Constantine made Christianity respectable and even state-sponsored. I’m surprised to see commenters here basically agreeing with Mr. Hughes statement: “The sentiments of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are altogether foreign to the message of the Christian faith if we measure those sentiments against the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.” I thought I was the only pacifist here.

    Christians have almost never paid any attention to the message that Jesus preached about loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us. I guess through the first few centuries, Christians were forbidden to serve in any military, and those soldiers who wished to become Christian had to repent of their warfare and never do it again. But within 75 years after Constantine, joining the military and fighting for ones country was reborn as a noble and honorable profession, and has remained so to this day.

    I don’t mean to sound cynical. I think warfare and aggression are probably bred into the human gene, and we aren’t terribly far from the tribalism of our primate ancestors (apologies to any non-evolutionists here). Any brakes or boundaries we can put on our propensity to bash each other over the head is admirable. For the most part, most of us channel our aggression rather harmlessly into cheering for some alpha male politician, or screaming at a football game. Good for us. But surely we can’t pretend that any but a few saints come even close to Jesus’ vision.

  14. A history lesson regarding the Enlightenment would be helpful, particularly in the context of Kant. That would put Rousseau’s definition of civil religion into proper context. Religion at that time was largely reduced to good morals, because the historical context of Christianity, including the resurrection, had been discounted. Religion became a means to an end – stripped of its prophetic power.

    The First Amendment granting religious freedom is a Christian concept from a protestant perspective. Centuries of European religious wars led to the end of state-sponsored religion. It needs to stay that way.

    Why on earth would Randian, libertarian Tea Partiers endorse State-sponsored religion? I guess big government is fine when conservatives are running it.

  15. Wonderful post and comments today. What smart people we have Herr, always a pleasure, as some say. “The Kingdom of God” by someone named Miller. I think, is an important book concerning civil religion. I read this Yeats ago when my Lutheran church used it as s textbook for a.n adult Bible study. It was eye opening to me, and has given me a basis for. My thoughts on this topic.

  16. John Bright was the author , great reviews on Amazon as very relevant today; an appeal to let the church be the church. Ignore my Kindle spelling.