Discussing
A Primer on American Civil Religion

Paul Vander Klay

Bethanykj
September 7, 2010

I have plenty to say on this topic as it's part of my dissertation, but I'll save it for future posts except to point people to this quotation from Abraham Lincoln that I think demonstrates the right idea: my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right

Mantolwen
September 7, 2010

As an outsider - I'm British - I can see a lot of religion being pulled into American politics that would simply cause anyone trying this line in Britain to not have a chance of election. Admittedly, my country is a lot more multireligious, but although we're okay with people admitting that they do follow one faith or another, we'd not be okay with them using that faith to try and get votes.<br>A lot of British people, as far as I can tell, are frustrated by the apparent opinion of most Americans that they are 'God's people' living in 'God's country', and what you have said makes me glad that some Americans recognise this as well.

Faithsayer
September 7, 2010

Was the civil religion of the founding fathers somehow more palatable, or was it just as wrong then as you feel it is today? I, too, abhor political God-talk as a means to somehow sanctify or legitimize a party's or a candidate's views, or to pander to either conservative or liberal Christians. As a committed Evangelical who knows and holds to the theological meaning and historical legitimacy of the term, I hate that my once-clear Christian identity has been compromised and prostituted by political activists. (I would like to see Christianity reclaim classic Evangelicalism as a theological movement, and Republicans reclaim classic Conservatism as a political movement.)<br><br>And yet, do I want a political candidate who is Christian to feel he cannot, even must not, speak in reference to his beliefs? Is there any danger that demonizing civil religion, or political God-talk, could marginalize legitimate political views of a Christian candidate? I agree that talk of America being a "Christian nation" is neither biblical, nor wise ("blasphemous" may be a stretch). However, is it unbiblical or unwise to proclaim that we are a "nation of Christians" whose biblical beliefs shape our political views of public policy, whether about life, economics, governance, or war? If we slowly accede to voluntary maginalization of our views, are we turning over the keys to the "barbarians" at the gates (those without biblically-informed views of life)? Government should not be about promoting religion, but should we not make even more sure it is neither about restricting it, especially the expression of the Judeo-Christian and biblical truths that undergird our Constitutional guarantees?<br><br>I don't disagree with you in principle, but in practice I don't think the lines can be nearly as clearly drawn as you suggest. I worry about too much political God-talk, to be sure, but I worry more about too little biblically-informed governance. I don't have any answers, and am not trying to be contrary. I'm just not sure about the boundaries. I appreciate your thoughts and insights.

Jesse Brauning
September 7, 2010

Thank you for your common sense in a world full of crazy.

Ty Woznek
September 7, 2010

I appreciate the post.<br><br>Point 1: This can be said of any government. God used Babylon as His instrument to punish Israel. So, the US is unique just like everyone else and the claim, as you said is, well, sad.<br><br>Point 2: I get your point, but your example is off. Grace means power as well, not just unmerited favor. Grace as a virtue can be a inner or moral strength. I get your point and what you are trying to say, but I don't fully think that is what she was going. Christianity does not have a monopoly on the term.<br><br>Positive recommendations are fantastic! They fit with Jeremiah 29:7. While religion should influence public discourse, great discernment should be used. I especially appreciate your mention that both sides of the political aisle do this.

Neal Tedford
September 7, 2010

Call it what you will, but the founding fathers of our nation and its pioneers would be very much at home with what was said at this rally. When your house is on fire or your plane is going down you are not as concerned with "clear religious thinking", but more concerned with the future of yourself and your loved ones. While the author is disecting the finer points of clear religious thinking, our house is in danger. Freedom in America is in trouble. It's judges are silencing the moral wishes of the people. Let's not be in denial about what is happening to our nation nor to its history.

Jackflash98
September 8, 2010

You know I stumbled on this and i must say, I really dislike politics from the pulpit. You always find one person passing on their judgment of what "They" think would be best, and passing on their (Opinions) <br>Its such a turn-off, and you can see the shift from biblical statutes to "Man" statutes within the body of Christ.

JCarpenter
September 8, 2010

Thanks Paul for the best analysis I've yet read on the subject. Your first point, the identification of America as the Chosen Nation to save the world, is I think experiencing some modification. I think the call is less and less to export freedom and democracy, and more to hunker down within the national/cultural boundaries, to keep America safe from invasion by "the other." Beck himself tries to make the distinction between Pres. Wilson's sense of evangelizing the world with American democracy and Western liberalism, focusing more inwardly instead on the American interior culture---narrowly defined.

Paulvanderklay
September 8, 2010

Did "the founding fathers" speak with one voice on the subject of religion? Could Thomas Jefferson and John Adams worship together? Was it a Christian voice? <br><br>I would certainly agree that the civil religious tradition of speech in the USA has its roots well back into the colonial period but that doesn't mean it is something Christians today should embrace. The Deism of some of the "founding fathers" seems to be behind some of the syncretism I mentioned in the piece. <br><br>It is certainly true that a number of Puritian preachers used hyperbolic language about God's purpose for their mission to the new world, yet their conception of the community they applied this language to was a very different thing from the religiously diverse context even of the Revolutionary period. <br><br>Take the Deism of Jefferson, the hyperbole of the Puritans, add to it the "manifest destiny" of the period of westward expansion and we can pretty clearly see the roots of our political language today. <br><br>I don't see why the church should give this tradition of political speech a pass just because it has some of its roots in the "founding fathers".

Faithsayer
September 8, 2010

I would challenge your suggestion that that the current season of civil religion and political God-talk finds its roots in the historical movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. What I hear now, at least on the more vocal conservative side of the aisle, seems much more deeply rooted in the Third Great Awakening revival movement, the rise of Dispensational eschatology and the prophetic movements of the early 20th century, the grassroots nature and strengthening of Fundamentalism in the post-Scopes era, and the resulting rebirth of "American" Evangelicalism in the 40s and 50s. I would suggest it is those pools of cultural influence that have shaped most of the language of fundamental liberties and expectations, American exceptionalism as a "Christian nation," national righteousness as a biblical goal, and the "promise" of God's "blessings" (whatever that may mean) in response to national repentance. The syncretism of those often conflicting conservative theological viewpoints is what I find most frustrating about the current expressions of political God-talk. They often use Christian buzz words, but it's clear they don't know what they're talking about. I think the Founding Father's God-talk was much more general and much less divisive and disenfranchising.

Paulvanderklay
September 8, 2010

Thanks, that's very helpful.

Violamg
September 8, 2010

Just as a note:<br>In Mormonism, the US is considered (in scripture even) to be superior and God-blessed compared to other nations (see 1 Nephi in the Book of Mormon) due to its democracy, etc. So Glenn Beck making such statements is not in contradiction to his faith at all.

Paulvanderklay
September 9, 2010

Thanks. That's helpful. I think the LDS is the quintessential American church. Richard Mouw had an interesting quote from a Mormon scholar on some key commonalities between LDS doctrine and 19th century Protestant liberalism. I posted that quote on my blog <a href="http://wp.me/p10bzQ-hO" rel="nofollow">http://wp.me/p10bzQ-hO</a> .

JCarpenter
September 9, 2010

GBeck went to great lengths discussing the American historical difference between "manifest destiny" and "divine providence," both terms which I'd think can be used for anyone's ends or purposes---think Mexican War 1847 and John Brown. In the same breath, he also came close to validating a pseudo-archaeological theory that the moundbuilders of central U.S. were of an "advanced" civilization, perhaps . . . ancient Israelites . . . but of course, the Smithsonian and the U.S. govt. buried the story and the evidence, so as not to counter their policy of manifest destiny, subjugating the Indians, etc. Conspiracy theory, fueled by Mormon story, and of course, a connection to current events. Mormon history doesn't look kindly on "big government" either---look at their issues in the 19th century v. the U.S. as they settled Utah.

solid4JC
September 10, 2010

Thanks Mantolwen, I'm another 'outsider'- from New Zealand. Kiwis really do see themselves as living in "God's Own Country" &amp; that is despite Christianity being a minority religion here, though a lot of Kiwis would call themselves christian simply because they live here &amp; are not Muslims or Hindus ! <br><br>We had the awfull spectacle a couple years ago of a 'christian' political party touting for votes in the media &amp; some of our churches. For those of us used to our politics being secular the "Civil Religion' speeches of the candidates was quite sickening and I felt like they were using the Name of Christ to further their own agendas. It all went horribly wrong when the leader of the party after getting into Parliament, went to Gaol for child sex offences. <br>The more people in a Nation become believing, practicing Christians repenting of their own sin &amp; acting righteously by God's Grace, the more that Nation goes onto God's side.

Paulvanderklay
September 15, 2010

Joe Carter had what I thought was a really interesting piece on the subject at <a href="http://Firstthings.com" rel="nofollow">Firstthings.com</a> <br><br><a href="http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/09/under-which-god" rel="nofollow">http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/09/under-which-god</a><br><br>

Frank Nicodem
September 29, 2010

I completely agree and have always appreciated that quote. However, I don't think it fixes the current debate as all sides would add their own "and we're the ones on God's side".

Bethanykj
September 29, 2010

certainly. I think the quotation implies a kind of humility about those who would be so sure about God's mind, but not everyone sees that.

Benjamin
July 25, 2011

I had to share this with my sister it was so good. I recently turned my back on ACL and I do not miss it. Something about political religious talk always bugged me, but I could not nail it down. Blogs like these have been very helpful.

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