Civil Religion: The Liturgical Season is Upon Us

No matter what the churches claim, Christianity in the United States has two liturgical seasons, the Holy Season, which runs from Advent to Easter (or Pentecost if you’re lucky), and the Civil Season, which runs from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving. (Rather handy division of the year, isn’t it?) At the beginning of summer, we are clearly now in the thick of Civil Season, or Civil Religion Time—which replaces Ordinary Time.

Civil religion in the U.S. never goes away, but its major feasts are in that six-month period. God-and-country language and rituals are more prevalent, and syncretism in the churches (“when you see the red in the flag, think of the blood of those who died to make us free, and also think of Jesus’ blood that was shed to make us really free”) runs rampant but is hardly ever questioned.

Why is it so difficult for Christians in the U.S. (and elsewhere, sometimes, but especially in the U.S.) to see this for what it is: idolatry?

15 Responses to “Civil Religion: The Liturgical Season is Upon Us”

  1. Nathan says:

    I’m not sure why it’s so difficult, but it seems many things in life are this way: once the light clicks on, it’s hard to figure out how you ever made it stumbling in the dark. I recall a monk saying something about man’s limitless capacity for idolatry, turning even truths about God into idols. Delusion is hard to overcome, especially when complacency is not simply easy, but expected.

  2. Luke says:

    It has been so embedded in our culture since the inception of our country. It’s not as if we’ve gotten ourselves into a mess within the past few decades. The Puritans et al. began the mess when they first came (seeing Native Americans as the Canaanites…need I say more?).

    I would also say that we like tangible, concrete things. We belong to a mysterious kingdom that grows without explanation, empowered by the Spirit that blows where it wishes. However, we like things we can control and see progress on. Trying to see ourselves as enmeshed with a nation-state with great resources gives us great comfort and security if we see our goals and values as the same (if that’s not cognitive dissonance, I don’t know what is). It’s almost as if we love the idea of Jesus as the pre-incarnate Son of God who died for the sins of humanity but don’t give a damn about his message. We search the scriptures & find things we want to, such as justification for violence (often citing the example of Jesus in the Temple with the whip), thinking that negates the other teachings of the Savior. Most American Christians embarrass me, and reform has to start in the pulpit. I think a basic understanding of the Kingdom of God is essential for all Christians. Maybe you could help in bringing this to the lay level, MJG.

  3. MJG says:

    Nathan,

    I agree, and I guess we need to be careful about forgetting how we were before “seeing the light.” Interesting comment from the monk; Calcin said the same thing.

    Luke,

    Totally agreed—it’s been here since day one. NT scholar Robert Jewett (among others) has written some great surveys of the history. His “Captain America” book is outstanding.

    It does need to start in the pulpit—and the children’s pulpit! I have heard so many really bad, syncretistic children’s sermons. Propaganda at such an early age.

  4. Frank says:

    Mike Bird’s take on it – http://euangelizomai.blogspot.com/2010/06/no-flags-in-church.html

    I find it fascinating that, by and large, this doesn’t happen in other countries. I wonder if that is because churches in many other countries are already tied to the state in at least a nominal way (Church of England or Scotland, entrenched Catholicism in much of Europe, ethnic Orthodox churches, etc.).

    I’m with you on this. I made a few comments in a sermon from the Book of Micah a few weeks ago and have gotten some push back. This is a difficult topic to bring to the church, especially one where many are ex-military or work in civilian military jobs (defense contractors, Aberdeen Proving Ground, etc.).

  5. MJG says:

    It is indeed a touch topic. Baby steps required, but persistent ones.

    I saw Mike’s piece.

  6. One of the difficulties I’ve seen is that Christians in America don’t see being an a religious American as incompatible with being a Christian. By “religious American” I mean a person devoted to the nation of America out of a deep sense of identity, duty and significance. Though this is a vague generalization it does have some descriptive value, Americans are notoriously lacking in critical self-reflection and are distracted by the “bread and circus” of the entertainment industry. Most people I know just don’t care to think deeply about how their lives do and don’t reflect the message of the gospel.

    Culturally, Americans are a religious paradox. On the one hand, a president cannot get elected or even end a speech without invoking the name of “God.” On the other, as soon as that “God” is identified with a specific religious tradition a fundamental tenant of the constitution (separation of church and state) is violated. People are expected to be “religious” but not in a way that can really count for living like Jesus.

    Philosophically, most Americans falsely believe that politics and religion are separate spheres of existence. This enlightenment fiction makes it easy to relegate religion to a private enterprise with no bearing on what happens in the real world. So, as a preacher I’m expected to give them poetic words to give their lives meaning without actually challenging that way of life. As thinkers most Americans don’t have the historical and philosophical resources to analyze how power works within religious and political structures.

    I like to think that Christians in America aren’t trying to be unfaithful, they just don’t know better.

  7. MJG says:

    Well said, Tyler. One of the benefits of a book like Revelation is that it can wake us up from the sleepy state of normalcy.

  8. [...] question of allegiance is interesting, though. This post by Michael Gorman again raises the issue of our Christianity and our [...]

  9. Josh Rowley says:

    And the 4th of July is a Sunday this year! Ugh.

    By way of preparation, I’ll be posting an anti-nationalism peace quote every morning between now and Independence Day on my blog.

  10. MJG says:

    Josh—

    Yeah, it’s a bad year in that regard. Thanks for letting us know about the anti-nationalism piece/peace. When I blog again, I’ll note it, too.

  11. Scott Savage says:

    Seems like a good opportunity to ask a question I have been mulling over off and on for a while now. It has to do with the comment made about “anti-nationalism.”

    My question has to do with what Paul says in Colossians 1:16. “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through him and for him.”

    In light of Paul, particularly this verse in Colossians, to what extent is anti-nationalism a fruitful endeavor? Is the Christian faith properly “anti” to anything?

    Josh, I welcome your extended comments along with Dr. Gorman’s as it was your post that prompted me to write. I fear I am being antagonistic and that’s not reason for writing.

    My first thought it turn to conversations about the rescue of creation, thus the restoration of a truly holy way of organizing (Philippians 1:27 implied) as humans who properly rule over the creation.

    Peace,
    Scott

  12. MJG says:

    Scott,

    You raise a good question and imply an answer along the lines of Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh in “Colossians Remixed” or (even more, perhas) Stan Saunders and Chuck Campbell, “The Word Before the Powers.” But I don’t think this is an either-or situation; these books question nationalistic commitments by virtue of their presenting the empire/reign of God as the basis for any redemption of the powers. So I would suggest that by virtue of being “pro-Kingdom of God” the church is inherently anti-other kingdoms, not in a final sense but to the degree that those kingdoms are not on God’s side, so to speak. In Revelation, the nations finally come to God and one another for healing, but along the way Babylon has to fall.

    Moreover, I tend to see the powers in Colossians as something other than nation states, etc. The fundamental point, however, is that whatever the powers are, their role is not to compete with or replace Christ for supremacy but to be subservient to him in our beliefs and practices because they are such in reality.

  13. Josh Rowley says:

    Hi, Scott–

    My first thought in response to your comment was to reconsider my use of the prefix “anti”; but then I considered the sound of “pro-nationalism,” and I realized that I really am, for theological reasons, anti-nationalism. I should note, however, that to be anti-nationalism is not to be anti-nation; rather, nationalism blinds nations to their proper place of subordination to their creator (here I have in mind Colossians 1:16), causing them to think too highly of themselves and overreach. In this sense, nationalism is anti-nation.

    I believe William Stringfellow makes the case that nation-states, while not identical to the powers and principalities, are one of the primary manifestations of the powers and principalities.

  14. Jason Poling says:

    Start that civil season with Mothers Day, if you know what’s good for you…

  15. MJG says:

    Jason—

    Agreed, but it presents a problem: the overlap of the ages.

    Scott—Josh said it a bit better than I did.

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