Civil Religion Watch

As most readers of this blog (and/or my books) know, I have an almost fanatical concern about civil religion, especially the variety found in the U.S. So I am asking you, my readers and friends, over the next few months to help identify and make public various expressions of civil religion.

To start off the new year: There is a church in the northeastern part of Baltimore called Christ and Country Church. I wish I had known about it before my Revelation book went to press.

23 Responses to “Civil Religion Watch”

  1. Josh Rowley says:

    Hi, Michael–

    Here is a self-description of a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation (my denomination) that is looking for a pastor:

    “We believe in the supreme authority of scripture in matters of faith and practice, which include the tenets of our faith and the principles of our country. Both are extremely important in our life and worship. We embrace the polity of the Presbyterian Church USA as set forth in the Book of Order as well as the many creeds that express our commitment to the Lord. Since we take a high view of scripture, we have gone on record as not supporting the ordination of gay or lesbian persons. In short, we regard the Word of God as the inherent truth in all situations. We also stand firm in our allegiance to this country and for the freedoms we enjoy. Being in a military community, we recognize how God and country are woven into the fabric of this nation. We, as citizens, have been blessed by God. We take special pride in celebrating the national holidays that honor our country and its servants. These special times are a reminder of what God has done for us and what he has accomplished through his people. At Grace Covenant, we realize our rich heritage as both Christians and citizens. Our theology revolves around worshiping our Creator and, in turn, giving thanks for this great land he has chosen for us. God is the head of our church and we are his body. As we breathe and move, we bring glory to him and show what he can do when people follow his will in word, deed and action.”


  2. MJG says:


    Unfortunately, this is not an unusual position for a church near a military base. (I speak as one who lives less than 2 miles from one.) But it is much more explicit than many, I think.

    What is particularly interesting in this statement is the complete absence of any explicit mention of Jesus! (The closest we get is “the Lord,” but that does not seem, in context, to be Christological.)

    Moreover, in place of allegiance to Jesus as Lord, we find firm allegiance to this country and a special cognizance of the interweaving of God and country grounded in the community’s military identity, which means, ultimately, God and war. (No wonder no Jesus!!) This church confuses the blessings of God in Christ with the (alleged) blessings to and in this land/country.

    Fundamentally, then, and despite its claims to “a high view of scripture,” this church has replaced the God revealed in Scripture, and most fully in Christ, with an American tribal deity.

    As I say in my Revelation book, when we lose the story of Christ, especially Christ the slaughtered lamb, we are headed for major trouble.

    As I also say in my Revelation book, this kind of bizarre militaristic civil religion has become so common, and sounds so benign at first, that the unthinkable, in theology and practice, has occurred and taken on the appearance of being totally normal.

  3. Josh Rowley says:

    I agree with your analysis, Michael. Civil religion is common among Presbyterians, but it’s not usually as explicit as in this church’s statement.

    In addition to your comments, I’d add that this congregation seems to see the state (specifically, the United States)–rather than the church–as God’s chosen people and as God’s primary agent in history. And citizenship is substituted for discipleship: “We, as citizens, have been blessed by God.”

    I suspect these Presbyterians take Scripture seriously, but that they read it without the story of Jesus as their hermeneutical lens. It seems to me that it would not be terribly difficult to lift OT passages describing God’s chosen people waging war out of context (perhaps adding a bit of Romans 13) and to come up with a statement like the one in question. For this reason, I think your qualifier “and most fully in Christ” is especially important. Unless Scripture is read with the understanding that the story of Jesus “trumps” (as Richard Hays puts it) the OT, how can the OT not be misused?

  4. MJG says:

    Good additional insights about the nation replacing the people of God/the church, Josh,

    I have an essay on recent shifts in Protestant ecclesial hermeneutics (in the book I edited called Scripture), including the shift from nation-centered to church- and kingdom-centered reading. This church proves that those shifts are neither complete nor universal.

    I agree that they think they take Scripture seriously. And they probably even think they take Jesus seriously! I agree with (my good friend) Richard Hays’s principle but am a little uncomfortable with the language of “trumping.” I prefer to say that we must choose whether to read the OT through the lens of the NT or vice versa. This church is a vice versa church, reading the NT through the primary lens of (certain parts of) the OT–al without knowing it.

    I will use this CIF text (or whatever it is) in my next course on reading Scripture in the church.

  5. Josh Rowley says:

    It is a CIF (Church Information Form). It’s from a church in Virginia and is currently posted on the PC(USA) Web site.

    I’m aware that the language (found in The Moral Vision of the New Testament) of the NT trumping the OT when there is a discrepancy between the two causes some evangelicals discomfort. I like it because it’s honest and practical: it doesn’t try to force agreement between texts, and when disagreement is found, it gives the reader clear direction–go with the NT!

    That said, I also find the language of reading the OT through the lens of the NT helpful. I suspect one of the main reasons that some people fail to employ these (not mutually exclusive) reading strategies is that they are functional inerrantists. They might not call themselves inerrantists (due to the fact that inerrancy is intellectually untenable), but in practice they act like they believe the words they read in the Bible were dictated by God and have been preserved without error. This belief makes it difficult to read parts of the NT as clarifying or correcting parts of the OT because doing so suggests that the older scriptures were somehow in error. I frequently have conversations with lay persons who are struggling to reconcile two passages of Scripture; it often becomes clear to me that the person’s struggle is due in part to an assumption (usually unstated) of biblical inerrancy.

    For example, I’ve had numerous conversations over the years on the subject of violence. I will say something to the effect that I believe Jesus rejected violence. The frequent response: “What about the OT?” (And sometimes, “What about the book of Revelation?”) I usually make a trajectory argument at this point, pointing out a movement in the canon from a more violent God to a less violent God. This argument is sometimes accepted. Other times, it is objected that I’m suggesting that parts of the OT describe God inaccurately–at which point I know I’m talking with a functional inerrantist.

    Sometimes I will reply that the OT describes God “incompletely”–which I think is true. But this reply is itself incomplete, as I do in fact believe that OT descriptions of God as a deity who sanctions genocide are inaccurate. As someone who grew up in evangelical churches, I would have tried to explain away the OT’s violence as recently as a decade ago. In the last decade, however, my mind has been changed–by my reading of Scripture! Previously, I–like many evangelicals–talked a lot about the Bible but read it only a little. The more I have read it, the clearer it has become to me that prioritizing the NT (in one way or another) is necessary on intellectual and ethical grounds.

  6. Scott Kohler says:

    Josh and Mike,
    Don’t mean to just jump in the middle of a good conversation, but I wonder about the “trajectory” argument’s validity in the issue of violence. I’m not sure that “a movement in the canon from a more violent God to a less violent God” quite satisfies me. I think the issues of judgment and defining/focusing the people of God in the OT can also be worked around so that we can also understand the final rejection of violence in Jesus and the NT. When people ask about the violence of the OT, we can also insist, “but I am not Israel in the Old Testament at the time of the giving of the promised land,” which frames the whole thing in terms of a different part of the story.

    I forget where I read it (I expect in one of the interviews in the Hauerwas Reader) but Stanley Hauerwas has said that he used to think he had to hold back from endorsing a pacifistic position, saying, “I don’t know if God might direct me to engage in war as he did in the OT.” He came to realize that was not going to happen. A reading of the whole canon that comes to grips with that being a very specific stage in the story of God’s people (and not simply a time when the people had a meager grasp on God’s intentions) can also come to accept that we don’t have to know why and how it was appropriate then in order still to be sure that it isn’t that way now that we are living in light of the incarnation of God as the Messiah of the people of God.

    To me, something along these lines is a more satisfactory beginning at least on the question of violence in scripture than the trajectory argument. My two cents.

  7. Scott Kohler says:

    Sorry, that was kind of off-topic from the civil religion discussion that this is supposed to be. It was fascinating reading that church’s CIF (and thanks for explaining what CIF means…)

  8. Josh Rowley says:

    Hi, Scott–

    I should clarify that the trajectory argument I made earlier doesn’t fully satisfy me, either. I sometimes make it when talking with persons who are either holy warriors or just warriors in an effort to move them from an uncritical attitude toward violence to a critical attitude toward violence. Barclay uses a trajectory argument to question violence in Introducing the Bible.

    I don’t believe God is violent. The trajectory I’ve mentioned is not, in my opinion, a development of God, but is instead a development of our understanding of God. With the greater revelation that is Jesus Christ, we can now see that God is not violent. Without this greater revelation, the writers of the OT were at a disadvantage. Revelation is progressive or unfolding.

    You may be thinking of Hauerwas, but Richard Hays has also made the comment you mention (in The Moral Vision of the New Testament).

  9. Scott Kohler says:

    Josh, I think I stand corrected. It was Hays. I have been thinking for a while that I had read that in Hauerwas, but just searched for it and couldn’t find it.

    Thanks for your response to my trajectory concerns. Still not sure if it’s the OT writers who were mistaken or if it’s our understanding of why God might have done such a thing that needs to be left open.

  10. MJG says:

    Now it’s I who hate to jump into the middle of a good conversation. Just a few thoughts.

    The not-100%-pacifist argument–”God might ask me to engage in war”–is thoroughly Barthian. He treats war and abortion very similarly–almost 100% but not quite, since God might command, and God’s command must be obeyed.

    The “trajectory” argument is used by Yoder, especially (as I recall) for constructive thinking even beyond the NT witness, and I think it has some validity and usefulness–but is not 100% satisfactory.

    Progressive revelation (a similar concept, but not synonymous) strikes me as more problematic. At a lecture I gave on Paul and violence at Princeton, someone in the audience came up afterward and asked Richard Hays and me simultaneously about what to do with violence in the OT. We both–independently, since we had not ever discussed it–appealed to allegory! I think that is a way of saying that the problem is fundamentally about hermeneutics, not revelation or God’s character.

    Finally, my hesitation about the language of “trumping” is due to its possibly being taken to a Marcionite extreme, even though Richard himself would never move in that direction.

  11. Josh Rowley says:

    Michael’s comment about Yoder’s use of trajectory arguments beyond the NT calls to mind Hays’ treatment of divorce in the Moral Vision of the New Testament. Hays argues that there is a movement from no tolerance of divorce in Mark to greater tolerance in Matthew, and that the church today can and should continue this trajectory by teaching that divorce in cases of abuse is also acceptable.

    Michael, I’m wondering why you find progressive revelation “problematic”? If Jesus is God’s supreme revelation, then isn’t the NT witness clearer than the earlier OT witness?

    And I’m wondering what the allegorizing of an OT passage would sound like. I’ve heard of examples like the flood as a type of baptism, with the ark prefiguring the church. (Of course, this typological reading of the OT isn’t even true allegorizing.) But I’m not sure what I would do with Joshua slaughtering women and children at God’s command.

    Finally, on the subject of Marcionism, I think defining this “ism” is important. It’s my understanding that Marcion thought that the deity of the OT was not the God of the NT; therefore, he argued that no part of the OT should be included in the Christian canon (and even objected to the inclusion of some parts of the NT). When Hays uses trumping language, he does so only as a kind of tie-breaker–that is, when there is a discrepancy between an OT passage and a NT passage, go with the NT passage. But he thinks there is also a great deal of continuity between the two witnesses, and in any case doesn’t argue that parts of the canon should be removed.

  12. John Andrew Kossey says:


    Have you considered making a useful distinction between civil and commercial religion?

    Commercial religion, at least as practiced in the United States, uses “liturgical” calendars and similar trappings to allure individuals to shop and spend money on gifts such as clothes, jewelry, and automobiles.

    Commercial religion thus hides in plain sight to help people celebrate events such as Christmas and Easter.

    Whether an “innocent” veneer for some or a core custom-shaping tradition for many, commercial religion reminds me of the activity of money-changers in the Jerusalem temple more than Christ incarnate, crucified, and resurrected. Commercial religion is far removed from cruciform-shaped theology.

    About four years ago, National Public Radio aired an insightful commentary on how Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) has become the patron saint of fourth-quarter retail profits. For me, such an association epitomizes commercial religion.

    If civil religion extols guns and military might, commercial religion feeds on gadgets and greed. (I apologize if I have made this point too hyperbolically.)


  13. MJG says:


    You make some important points and a useful distinction, I think, though I would suggest that civil (political, military, etc.) and commercial religion are closely tied to each other, since the military guarantees economic security and might, etc. so that “we” can buy, buy, buy.

    In my Revelation book I suggest that there are two liturgical seasons in the US, the civil (roughly Memorial Day to Thanksgiving) and the sacred (roughly Advent to Easter or Pentecost). I may need to re-think that now!

  14. John Andrew Kossey says:


    Without doubt, civil and commercial religion are indeed interdependent and feed upon each other frequently.

    I suggest that in practice, civil and commercial religion are distinguishable, collective cancers on humanity. Depending upon one’s perspective and/or tradition, either may seem somewhat more benign than the other.

    My hypothesis is that commercial religion finds “innocent” ways to encourage people to spend money–buy things–in concert with popular liturgical calendars. It really does not matter to those commercial religion proponents whether the celebrated holidays are civil, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, etc.

    Civil religion also encourages spending huge sums on massive, annual parades showing off impressive military hardware and uniforms for soldiers.


  15. Susan Kossey says:

    At risk of really getting in trouble with not only you all, but my husband John – may i add to the mayhem? (He forgot to sign off) Jesus Christ did say to Pilate “You would have no authority if God had not granted it to you.” Or something to that effect. He recognized the authority that God granted to rulers. Joseph did this with Pharoah and surprisingly -even though he had different beliefs than the Pharaoh – was second in command of all of his charge. Paul, the apostle, had a different outcome when he turned to be more peaceful. Knowing, that previously he himself had killed many Christians (and watched Stephen be stoned to death) – he was tolerant of others abusing him quite badly. Actually, both Peter and Paul didn’t have very pleasant deaths according to historians of the time. Perhaps death is not the ‘thing’ to fear – but God who grants eternal life. Threats are merely that. John McCain seems to embody the bolden spirit which sees though the physical pain to the eternal side. He may or may not ascribe to any church in particular – but it seems that he understands the concept more than most. You can’t force a person to believe that God is the source of evil and all this earth has to offer is ‘survival of the fittest.’ He is not. He is the complete opposite of what we see on this earth. His ways lead to peace and the sword will be turned into a plowshare when His Son Jesus Christ rules. William Penn was a Quaker and believed similarly and treated everyone the same. Many Quakers refused to join either side in the American Revolution- and were jailed for this. However, in the age to come – they will be blessed for being ‘peacemakers.’

  16. Susan Kossey says:

    Playing devil’s advocate – my favorite painting is one of George Washington, in his military attire, beside his horse and kneeling on one knee in the snow at Valley Forge. I can’t imagine that he was praying for defeat. King David never let the enemy defeat him either. Perhaps what is happening is a fulfillment of prophecy. The armies of the nations will gather for war at Armageddon – and all do themselves the heck in. God won’t have to do much. If freedom reigns – it will be because Jesus Christ returns and redeems those who call on His name and who’s armor is the Lord.

  17. MJG says:

    Well, this looks like an interesting family conversation to have! I’m not sure I should intervene before that happens!

  18. John Andrew Kossey says:


    Susan and I have been married for 26+ years. We have learned to disagree in the context of being loving. What the Lord Jesus has fulfilled is vital to salvation, so I remain steadfast in my comments.


  19. David Jacobson says:

    A friend told me about the memorial service for the victims of the shooting in Arizona. Held at the University of Arizona, it had an odd feeling of a pep rally, with people cheering the President Obama’s entrance. But, I was struck when Janet Napolitano (Homeland Security Secretary) read from Isa. 40, followed by Attorney General Eric Holder reading 2 Cor. 4:13-5:1. Then the President spoke, quoting Ps 46 and Job 30:26.

    It was very interesting to watch, in an otherwise very “civil” ceremony, what was essentially a miniature Christian service with its OT and epistle readings (there is no missing, of course, the fundamentally Christian nature of the 2 Cor. reading), followed by the “message” by President Obama.

    He asked “Did we spend enough time with an aging parent…Did we tell a spouse how desperately we loved them, not just once in a while but every single day…?” He submitted, “What matters is not wealth or status or power or fame, but how we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.” Finally, he concluded with a benediction.

    These are words that could have been spoken at any Christian pulpit, and I am glad that they were spoken. Is this a victory for Christian teaching guised in a civil ceremony?


  20. MJG says:


    I have finally found the words to respond to your comment–but they are someone else’s! They are a blog post for the religion page (I think) of a Kansas newspaper. The writer is a former student of my good friend Andy Johnson at Nazarene Seminary in Kansas City:

  21. David Jacobson says:

    Thanks Dr. Gorman. ” Embracing words that heal and eschewing words that wound is a Christian response.” If words are truly healing words, then they are worth embracing for others. Not surprisingly, many of these types of words come from the Christian scriptures: “But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus….”

  22. Christopher says:

    The following is from the newsletter of a Presbyterian church in South Carolina regarding their July 4th , 2010 Sunday worship service.

    “That morning’s worship service features: (Our) Color Guard’s flag presentation and the Pledge of Allegiance, patriotic music. patriotic hymn sing, no sermon but a Reading of the Declaration of Independence, and we will join in prayers for our nation. We ask that all our Community First Responders and active and veteran Military please dress in uniform for this service so we can acknowledge all that you have done and do for us. Additionally , everyone is invited to bring a flag to church (mind the size). You will be asked to wave it during singing, the ushers will give out small flags to those present. So invite all your friends, neighbors, and acquaintances to” (church’s name) Celebrates the Flag on The 4th of July.”

    Not sure if this is an example of civil religion or the worship of an idol?


  23. MJG says:


    I think this qualifies as over-the-top civil religion and idolatry. Replacing the sermon with a reading of the Declaration of Independence is literally unbelievable. I’m not sure what else to say except that this is no longer a Christian worship service.

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