More Civil Religion at Christmas

I had the misfortune of attending church on December 26 at a relative’s church where the pastor of visitation (I believe), a former military chaplain, led the service and preached. He managed to mention the military and war at least 10 times during the service, even apart from the sermon, which was on the birth narrative in Matthew, focusing on cruel Herod and the slaughter of the innocents.

Now he actually made a good point: that the story of the incarnation is not an unrealistic, feel-good fairy tale but one in which the horror of human evil is recognized and is a central part of the narrative. So far so good. I’ve preached and taught this myself.

But the rather startling conclusion to the sermon was that while evil is still real, it will not win in the end, not because the counterintuitive, vulnerable power of God seen in the incarnation and cross will triumph, but because God’s truth is marching on, especially (he clearly implied) in the form of U.S. military power and activity. So the post-sermon hymn–on the day after Christmas!!!–was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”!!!

With Charlie Brown, I feel like saying, “Good grief!” and asking, “Doesn’t anyone know what Christmas is all about?”

18 Responses to “More Civil Religion at Christmas”

  1. I actually used the same passage on Dec. 26, and even to some extent the same idea about God’s Kingdom displacing the Worldly Kingdom (as seen in King Herod). But I talked about precisely what he did not mention, that is, because God showed the way of love and vulnerability, showing the lie of the worldly view of power by taking the world’s worst and offering God’s best in return. In fact, I even touched a bit on the the world’s reliance on things like military might as part of the worldly kingdom that would be/has been replaced with the the might of love instead! I don’t think I scored too many points with that one.

  2. Oh my goodness! I wrote my first comment before fully reading the whole post. “Battle Hymn of the Republic?!”

  3. Mike, you gotta find some different relatives ;-)

  4. MJG says:

    Cody–Good work!

    Cody again–Yep, all stanzas of it.

    Jason–Fortunately the relative agreed with my concerns before I even expressed them verbally. (Sitting down and not singing wouldn’t send a message, would it?)

  5. Scott Kohler says:

    Very appropriate Charlie Brown reference. Wow. As a Canadian, it always boggles my mind how frequently the US military becomes part of American Christianity. Reminds me of John McCain being interviewed by Rick Warren on television before the 2008 election and saying, “We WILL defeat evil.” Good grief.

  6. MJG says:


    My 2.5-year-old grandson is here and has been watching CB’s Christmas and listening to it in book form (which I gave him). So it’s been on my mind and seemed like a perfect expression of my sentiments.

  7. Luke says:

    I’m left scratching my head wondering how people can get to this point? Saturday Night Live should do a skit on this with the weekend updates on “Really?!?!”

    Really American Christians? You serve a God who sent his Son to defeat evil by means of dying and not retaliating and you hold celebrations annually about the American military? Really?!?!

    Really American Christians? You think the answer to the world’s problems is to establish more military bases in foreign countries all the while your religion is about peace and hoping for a day when the lion will lay with the lamb? Really?!?!

    Really American Christians? You baptize members and give a golf clap and then give a standing ovation to the soldier who comes home from Afghanistan after brutally killing 6 terrorists? Really?!?!

    Seems a bit off to me…

  8. MJG says:

    Hard to argue with you, Luke. I have a line about this in Reading Revelation Responsibly that goes something like, after a while, the unthinkable becomes so normal that it becomes natural, and not doing it seems unthinkable.

    Part of the problem is a failure on many people’s parts to see that “God… sent his Son to defeat evil by means of dying and not retaliating.” Many Christians do not believe this. They believe Jesus died and did not retaliate in order to forgive their sins and transport them to heaven at death, not to conquer evil. There’s a HUGE difference.

  9. I totally agree with you. In my mind, William Cavanaugh’s work is the best at showing this. He is clear and convincing. I am leading a few reading groups through some of his work. It is slow and methodical, and I lead the discussions. But over time my people are beginning to see that America really has a civil religion. The type of gestalt shift that people need to go through is rather huge, so I think it takes time and sympathy to guide people through it.

  10. Clay Knick says:

    Bad theology is a cruel taskmaster. The sad thing to me about this is that this sermon is cast upon the unsuspecting people of God as the Word of God rightly preached. The sheep are feed, but they’re given the wrong kind of food.

  11. MJG says:

    Clay: precisely.

  12. MJG says:


    Good for you. Are you reading Torture and Eucharist??? or something else?

    Time, patience, sympathy–all true, and especially gestalt shift, or (better, perhaps) conversion.

  13. K. Rex Butts says:

    Only when people are comfortable with an empire replete with adequate military power and the financial resources to support such power, do they fail welcome a message like that while failing to notice the disconnect between such a claim and the actual gospel.

    Grace and Peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  14. MJG says:

    Rex: ditto my words to Clay.

  15. Susan Kossey says:

    Here I go again. My husband will really think i’m nuts. Theology is interesting to me now, though – because he constantly reads. You know – Carl Barth, the Letters of Paul, and then some random novel of Tom Clancy. There is something in the manly soul that must fight for something. And, women depend on men to protect them from danger – sometimes – if they feel like it or want it. Perhaps what you are talking about is intrinsically in the male psyche and not in any particular religion. Every society has a need/want to defend its way of life and protect its citizens. There is nothing immediately wrong with that. However, in some countries – you have basic human rights that are grossly neglected. Typically, it is the Christian that suffers first. Should we then bite the hand that protects us? If you think that the Red Cross is really going to deliver them better than the Navy Seals – be disillusioned 100%. All I can say – is that if i was sufferring – i sure would not be praying for the Red Cross to come first.

  16. Susan Kossey says:

    I think the way men are created in God’s image is that God is the source ultimately of our ability to defend and protect anything. For those who go for survival of the fittest – it’s ‘lion/lamb.’ Who will win? The lion. But, Jesus Christ refers to Himself as the Lamb of God. Slain from the foundation of the world. He must have known we’d be a bunch of fighters and he’d need to show us what he originally intended for the earth. For things to be as they were at Creation. At peace. For people to be getting along and not murdering one another. And, yet -in the Psalms – King David refers to the Lord as a ‘dread champion.’ It is evil that he is fighting. He even tells his own disciple – get behind me, Satan. He seems to be able to see the real enemy. Satan can work through anyone at any time who is not under the divine protection of God through Jesus Christ. Satan tried to tempt Jesus by telling him that he would give him ‘all the kingdoms of the earth.’ This was a revealing statement.

  17. Susan Kossey says:

    At this point in history – it is well worth noting that the book of Revelations reveals what will happen to Satan. He will be bound for a thousand years. Why? I believe it says because he was the source of deceit. Wherever we find deceit and lying that is where Satan is dwelling. He combines truth with a lie. His ultimate outcome he knows is coming…and he wants humans to believe they will have the same. To live with themselves in total darkness (without the light of God). Remember, he is impervious to flames. However, when a body is ressurrected at the judgement – much like the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man – you have a situation where people are realizing they’re in the wrong line. They are headed for what is called ‘the second death.’ Rev. 20:14 “This is the second death, the lake of fire.’

  18. Susan Kossey says:

    If Satan leads people to death, and Jesus Christ leads people to God and life – then He is loving to warn us of the result of our choices on this earth. They seem much more far reaching than the temporary satisfaction of people to see their particular views or parties winning. The song ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’ seems like a challenge similar to the one Elijah gave to the Prophets of Baal. The REAL Lord will soon stand up and whoever is on His side will win.

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