Archive for the ‘Civil religion’ Category

Arnold Toynbee on Nationalism

Monday, October 15th, 2012

“Nationalism is the real religion today of a majority of people. [It] has been superseded only nominally by the higher religions, each of which aims at converting the whole of mankind to its own prescription for putting the individual in touch with ultimate reality. Almost all of us are nationalists under the skin.”

–Arnold Toynbee, 1971, quoted in Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin?

Christians and Politics

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

Here is part of the handout for my forum presentation at church Sunday. It will be preceded by an excerpt from the second-century letter to Diognetus and followed by Miroslav Volf’s values for voters.

Some Reflections on Christians and Politics

Some Preliminaries

1. Christians are first of all citizens of God’s kingdom, subjects of the Lord Jesus. Our first and ultimate loyalty is to that kingdom and to its politics and fellow-citizens. All other loyalties, allegiances, politics, political affiliations, etc. are subordinate and secondary to our citizenship in God’s kingdom. See Matt 6:33; Phil 3:20.

2. Before we start thinking about politics as state-crafting, we should think of politics as the public expression of our participation in the kingdom of God. Therefore, before we choose or construct a politics within a given country, we are given a politics—the politics (public life) of Jesus.

3. No human kingdom (i.e., state: republic, democracy, monarchy, socialist state, etc.) is or ever will be the kingdom of God.

4. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of humans will normally be in conflict.

5. As Christians we should therefore think of ourselves as people of another culture living in a host culture as a contrast-society and therefore, in a real sense, as exiles or resident aliens. See 1 Peter 1:1; 2:11.

6. Our primary political activity is to be the church: to worship God truly and to live out the demands of the kingdom of God and the lordship of Jesus.

7. Our political activity in the host culture/country/city should be an expression of our most basic Christian commitments such as (1) love of God, neighbor, and enemy; (2) prophetic concern for justice and shalom; (3) the call to be peacemakers. The basic purpose is to seek the common good, the welfare of the city, not to gain control or power. See Jer 29:7.

8. Religion and politics often use each other for what each perceives as gain, usually meaning either protection or power. Jesus said, it shall not be so among you! See Mark 10:43-45.

9. The bottom line in domestic and especially international politics is often self-interest. For many reasons, Christians must look beyond national self-interest.

10. Christians need to be especially wary about the use of God-talk by states and politicians, always asking, “What do they mean when they say ‘God’?” Which god do they mean? Most political God-talk, even in countries with some form of Christian heritage or presence, is not Christian faith but civil religion (nationalism in religious garb).

11. There is a variety of legitimately Christian ways to understand Christian political involvement in general and in particulars. This diversity ranges from being very active to withdrawing from some or even all aspects.

12. Christians should probably be suspicious of politics and politicians in general, because there is so much seeking, use, and abuse of power, so much lying, and so much death associated with politics.

Some Particulars in our Context

1. The United States is not a Christian country. It was founded by Deists on deist and Enlightenment principles. It is now a secular state with a religiously pluralist populace.

2. The United States is not God’s chosen people, the light of the world, the city on a hill, or the world’s last hope.

3. The dominant religion in the U.S. may well be “Americanism.” See Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and Peter Leithart, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empire in Biblical Perspective.

4. Christians need to recognize the inherent realities and dangers of the country/culture in which we are located: the world’s lone “superpower” (empire?) with military bases in scores of countries; rampant consumerism; the deification of freedom and choice; and a sense of being specially blessed by God/god because of this military and economic might and this freedom.

5. Christians cannot escape being influenced by their host country/culture. But for Christians, some American values are not only wrong, they are idolatrous. Therefore the values we bring to politics and voting need to be examined and re-examined again and again.

For further reading: Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation. Michael Budde, The Borders of Baptism: Identities, Allegiances, and the Church. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. David Gushee, Christians and Politics Beyond the Culture Wars. Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Resident Aliens. Ted Lewis, ed. Electing Not to Vote. Ron Sider, Just Politics. Jim Wallis, God’s Politics. J. Philipp Wogaman, Christians and Politics. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus.

Reprise: This is NOT Independence Sunday

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Reprinted (with minor changes) from 2009:

In some U.S. churches, at least some Methodist churches (and I suspect others), this Sunday’s bulletin will announce that it is Independence Sunday—perhaps along with something else (like the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost), or perhaps not.

But it is not Independence Sunday, because that liturgical day does not exist, or at least should not exist. “Independence Sunday” is an American invention, an example of American civil religion: the inappropriate Americanizing of Christianity and Christianizing (in some vague, superficial sense) of America.

The misnaming of the Sunday nearest July 4 is a theological mistake in at least three specific ways. First, it nationalizes a calendar (the liturgical or church calendar) and a day that belong to the entire Christian church. “The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost” or “The 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time” or simply “The Lord’s Day, July 1, 2012? is theologically appropriate because each of these is inclusive, universal, catholic. But “Independence Sunday” is exclusive and parochial. When we come as Christians to worship God, even on the Fourth of July weekend, we come to celebrate our oneness with people from every nation, tribe, and race, and to recommit to a divine mission that includes all peoples. There may be appropriate ways for Christian individuals and churches to acknowledge their particularity as Americans or Iraquis or Koreans, but hijacking the Christian calendar and liturgy is not one of them.

Second, “Independence Sunday” robs not only the Christian church, but also, and far more importantly, the Lord of the church. It takes the focus of worship off the Triune God who liberated Israel in the Exodus and then came to rescue wayward humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, substituting—however subtly (or not!)—a national deity who is usually thought to have chosen America and poured special blessings on the American people as Americans. Sunday—every Sunday, no exceptions—is the Lord’s day, the day devoted to the adoration of Jesus as Lord and to communion with him. Centering on anything or anyone else negates the very reason for the gathering and transforms it into something else, something alien.

Third, the language of “Independence Sunday” misleads both Christians and non-Christians into thinking that one’s true identity and freedom are given to them by one’s nation state. It will not suffice to say something like “We celebrate our freedom as Americans but also, and more importantly, our freedom from sin because of Jesus.” Why is this insufficient? Because comparing the two trivializes the latter, the one that really matters. Why do these words not make “Independence Day” language in church appropriate? Because the use of “we” in “we celebrate” erroneously suggests that there is something as significant, or almost as significant, about the assembled group’s identity as Americans as there is about its identity as Christians.

The custom of singing songs and offering prayers about peace, justice and similar topics on the Sunday nearest July 4 may be a good thing—if they are appropriately interpreted by the pastor in non-nationalistic and non-militaristic ways. In my experience this is seldom done. (But at least it’s better than blatant nationalism.) A church can do this without either misnaming the Sunday or misfocusing the worship service.

Revelation, Civil Religion, and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

I am assisting my pastor in a series of sermons on the messages to the churches in Revelation in connection with the lectionary reading from Mark for the day. So far it’s been a fascinating intertextual experience!

Last Sunday I preached on the message to the church in Smyrna:

8“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: 9“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.


My main point was that in order to be ready to suffer faithfully, this church had escaped the temptations of the two cousins Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and Civil Religion. The former was documented as the religion of most American teens (and, I would suggest, adults) by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Of course I had to show how a form of this disease already existed in the first century in the sacrificial systems meant to keep the gods blessing us with fertility, prosperity etc. As for civil religion, that was the imperial cult.

In any event, the sermon was a sermon, not a lecture. But I think I was successful in helping people see the the gods and narratives that these ultimately non-Christian “spiritualities” depend on and embody:

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
There is a god who created the world, looks down on us from heaven with a smile, wants to bless us, wants us to be good to ourselves and kind to others, is there for us when we are in a jam, and promises us a place in heaven if we are good.

Civil Religion
There is a god who created the world, looks down on our country (fill in the blank) with a big smile, has blessed us more than any other nation, thinks our values are his values, wants to expand our influence around the world, wants us to be good to our friends but helps us defeat our enemies, and expects us to love our country as a way of loving God.

Revelation is a manifesto against TMD and Civil Religion.

Hauerwas on the Death of America’s (Protestant) God

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

This piece from last August by my friend Stanley Hauerwas of Duke, about to retire from there and also the outgoing president of the Society of Christian Ethics, is worth pondering. A few excerpts:

America is the first great experiment in Protestant social formation. Protestantism in Europe always assumed and depended on the cultural habits that had been created by Catholic Christianity. America is the first place Protestantism did not have to define itself over against a previous Catholic culture. So America is the exemplification of constructive Protestant social thought.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer thus got it right when he characterized American Protestantism as “Protestantism without Reformation.”

That is why it has been possible for Americans to synthesize three seemingly antithetical traditions: evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning. For Americans, faith in God is indistinguishable from loyalty to their country.

American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce an interesting atheist in America. The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny. Thus the only kind of atheism that counts in America is to call into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Consequently, America did not need to have an established church because it was assumed that the church was virtually established by the everyday habits of public life.

Protestantism came to America to make America Protestant. It was assumed that was to be done through faith in the reasonableness of the common man and the establishment of a democratic republic. But in the process the church in America became American – or, as [historian Mark] Noll puts it, “because the churches had done so much to make America, they could not escape living with what they had made.”

As a result Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people.

America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the society Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. Put as directly as I can, I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism, at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America, come to an end. It is dying of its own success.

It is impossible to avoid the fact that American Christianity is far less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America’s god is not the God that Christians worship.

We are now facing the end of Protestantism. America’s god is dying. Hopefully, that will leave the church in America in a position where it has nothing to lose. And when you have nothing to lose, all you have left is the truth.

So I am hopeful that God may yet make the church faithful – even in America.

Take me Out to the (Civil-Religion Affair) at the Ballgame

Monday, October 24th, 2011

I grew up playing baseball and watching the Orioles, both on TV and at the ballpark. I used to be an avid fan, though recently I only go to games on special occasions, and I almost never watch baseball on TV. For years I have avoided the national anthem by making a pre-game trek to the men’s room or concession stand.

Last night I watched a few minutes of the World Series game as the top of the 7th became the seventh-inning stretch. The announcer invited everyone to stand for the singing of “God Bless America” in honor of “our men and women in the armed forces at home and around the world.” A female master sergeant proceeded to offer a heartfelt rendition of the song.

Which “god” is this song about? In this context at least, it is a fictitious deity made in the image of American power and prowess. I understand why the average American wants a god made in the image of the United States and dedicated to its protection and blessing. But why are Christians also so enamored with this fictitious deity?

The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not interested in blessing America or Americans any more than any other nation or individuals. Even more importantly, the God revealed in Jesus Christ has absolutely no interest in blessing the American military machine or furthering American military interests around the world. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Sports have their place in any culture. But they can become, and in the U.S. have become, another arm of nationalistic and even militaristic propaganda. The book of Revelation might counsel us to be wary, and even to “come out.”

The Death of Sen. Mark Hatfield

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

One of my heroes as a young Christian has passed away: Senator Mark Hatfield (August 7). Wes Granberg-Michaelson has a fine obituary in the current Christian Century. Thanks to David Jacobson for pointing this out, and for indicating the following important paragraph from the article:

Yet Hatfield was wary of attempts to use religion to give a patina of righteousness to political power. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1973, with President Nixon on one side and Billy Graham on the other, he said, “If we as leaders appeal to the god of civil religion, our faith is in a small and exclusive deity, a loyal spiritual Adviser to power and prestige, a Defender of only the American nation, the object of a folk religion devoid of moral content.” Speaking against the backdrop of Vietnam, Hatfield said that “we must turn in repentance from the sin that scarred our national soul.” Few of his speeches received such widespread attention as this one did. His prophetic words touched many people—and solidified his position on President Nixon’s “enemies list.”

A Must-Read: Cavanaugh’s “Migrations of the Holy”

Monday, September 19th, 2011

I have been out of touch for quite some time now, largely due to all the commitments associated with the beginning of the academic year. I may have to rename this blog “Civil Religion Alert,” however, since that seems to be my “shtick” these days.

Now that 9/11/11 is behind us, much could be said about what transpired. Our church service was unfortunately consumed with 9/11, some parts good, some bad, some ugly–the last of these being a call to worship that included a psalm text about shattering our enemies. (Ouch.) Fortunately, in the providence of God, the lectionary readings for the day made it virtually impossible not to say something Christian and uncivil (i.e., not civil-religion-ish), so the sermon was (largely) part of the good.

Another antidote to civil religion has appeared in the form of a new book by William T. Cavanaugh at DePaul University, author of the important book Torture and Eucharist. The new book is called Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Eerdmans, 2011).

Indebted to Hauerwas but carving his own way, the Catholic Cavanaugh has written an excellent well-written and well-argued series of essays critical of American civil religion and its liturgies, and constructively presenting an alternative theology of liturgy and ecclesiology.

It is a book that I will be recommending to many folks, including those in my current class on the book of Revelation. (I interpret Revelation as a manifesto against civil religion, ancient and contemporary, in my book Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness, from Cascade, 2011).

Civil Religion (again)–and an Antidote from Allan Bevere

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

On a church sign in rural Delaware (seen returning from a day at the beach):

Jesus is the only way to salvation.
Thank you, troops.

Thank God (literally) for the new little (in size, not impact) book by Allan Bevere, a Methodist pastor with a Ph.D. in NT from Durham (England), called The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World.

It’s published by a small press but will, I hope, get some significant attention in the church. Here’s the text of my endorsement for the book:

Allan Bevere has written a timely, eye-opening, and thought-provoking book for Christians, whether they consider themselves conservative or progressive. He calls on us to forsake the seductive, insidious error of Christendom and civil religion in order to follow Jesus and bear witness to the reign of God. May this book contribute to the renewal of the church for the sake of the world and the glory of God.

Tolle, lege!

Civil Religion Undone

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Although we seldom see success stories in the uncivilizing of Christian faith in the U.S., here’s heartening news from one of my students, who also happens to be a reader of this blog:

After numerous conversations with my pastor and occasions when I shared your words and those of others, as well as my reflections on other churches, this July 4 Sunday [2011] was different at my church. My pastor did not lead a pledge to the flag and made no reference to the flag. He wished the congregation a pleasant holiday, and included in the prayers those who are ill at home and abroad in various capacities, and did use as a recessional hymn one verse of Eternal Father. That was it, and I was so proud of him for his willingness to change after 11 years of pledging and hauling out the flag [emphasis added]. The pastor was concerned that some in the congregation would take him to task for not doing the flag thing, but it seems that no one said a word, at least not yet.

My response was, not surprisingly, “Hallelujah!” Both this student, for such a witness, and this pastor, for such courage, deserve our admiration and gratitude.

Thoughts?


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