Thursday, November 22, 2012

Against the American Civil Religion

I have written on this topic a bit before, but chose to wait until the inevitable election hotheadedness died down before writing on it again.

A bedrock principle in America's founding was for the State to stay out of religion (and religion out of the State), so that each individual could worship as he or she saw fit. This has resulted in America being a very religious country, with the majority being of the Christian religion; in turn, this has resulted in America being the number one sender of missionaries to other countries as well, thus spreading the Gospel for others.

So there can be little doubt that, even though our founding fathers were far more Deist than Christian, we have been extraordinarily blessed by the freedoms offered us in this nation. I cannot think of a single nation in history which has so successfully fostered religious freedom, particularly toward Christians. Even when Christians controlled governments (such as in the Holy Roman Empire), there was not as much religious freedom as we see today in our increasingly secular state.

So let me begin by saying, clearly and confidently, that I am utterly thankful to live in this country, completely thankful for our Constitutional rights of free religion, and very proud to be an American.

On this Thanksgiving holiday, let me say: I give thanks that I live in America. I give thanks that I have the freedom to write this post.

Now that this has been said clearly, let me tell you that the part of American culture which absolutely terrifies me as a Christian is not the culture wars, or the rise of Islam, or socialism, or even the increasing secularization of the country.

No, what terrifies me is that American patriotism has become its own religion--and that many people who think they are Christians worship at its altar instead of at the cross.

Let me explain what I mean, before you get out the pitchforks.

When Christianity first came around, it was in a unique situation--the Pax Romana, the greatest period of peace in history up to that time. Rome was the most powerful empire in history, and it owed much of its success to its religious tolerance. Though pagan at heart, Rome pretty much looked the other way about whoever or whatever you as an individual wanted to worship. They even let the Jews in, despite that fact that the Jews were seen as superstitious and elitist for denying that anyone else’s religion was valid.

There was one exception to this tolerance--the Imperial Cult. The civil government of Rome was itself seen as something to be worshipped and paid allegiance to. Thus, people were expected to sacrifice and worship the office of the Roman Emperor.

The Christians did not take this well. Though they followed the civil law in all other regards, early Christians absolutely refused to take part in any aspect of the Imperial Cult. They did not attend the gladiatorial shows associated with the Roman state; they did not eat foods sacrificed to the pagan gods; they did not participate in civic holidays which were designed to worship the Emperor. In almost every way the Christian was indistinguishable from the non-Christian in Rome…except that when it came time to bow the knee to the cult of the Emperor, they refused to do so. No prayer or homage or temple payment or sacrifice went to the Emperor. In fact, most early Christian writers advised against serving in the Roman military or working for the Roman government, because it would be almost impossible to avoid the worship of the Imperial Cult in those situations. At the Council of Jerusalem in AD 51, the Gentile Christians were told that they were not bound to the Mosaic Law...but they were reminded still to avoid eating meat sacrificed to the Imperial Cult.

Their refusal led to fierce persecutions and many, many Christian martyrs died refusing to worship a government instead of Christ.

I am heartbroken to say that, two thousand years later, many churchgoers defile our Christian ancestor’s martyrdoms--and feel proud to do so. Because here we stand in modern America, and we give to America the allegiance and spiritual worship that the early Christians died refusing to give to Rome.

I, sadly, honestly believe the following statement to be true and un-exaggerated: many (perhaps the majority) of people who will sit in pews this Sunday at church do not worship Christ as fervently as they worship the American cult. In the hearts of most “American Christians,” their love of America exceeds their love of Christianity, and their loyalty to their politics exceeds their loyalty to their faith. Need some quick evidence? How about all of the liberal Americans who go to church on Sunday yet vote in support of abortion, despite it being one of the oldest prohibitions of our faith, both in the Bible and in early historic documents? Or what about all of the libertarian Americans who go to church on Sunday yet embrace the economics of Ayn Rand, not realizing the rabid atheism inherent in Rand’s philosophy? Or what about all of the conservative Americans who go to church on Sunday and yet at voting time conveniently forget the dozens of passages about helping the immigrant and the poor? Or think of how for most American churchgoers, their key concern in elections is gun control or environmentalism or economic theory or any of a hundred other things which, though important in civil government, have nothing whatsoever to do with the things of God.

Now of course, caring about civil law is not in itself a worship of the State. It is when our discussions about politics move beyond the realm of political philosophy and begin to use religious convictions, feelings, statements, and practices that we get into trouble. It is when we start seeing the State as the method for effecting positive change in society that we get into trouble. It is when we start caring more about the kingdom we live in on earth than the Kingdom of God which we are supposed to be building that we get into trouble.

Increasingly in America, church-going Christians are using religious terminology for Civil Law discussions…and elevating civil law into its own religion. In other words, the religious and civil spheres are blending. And history has shown us time and again that this will end badly for believers: whether it was under the pagan Roman Empire or the Catholic Holy Roman Empire or the atheist Maoist regime or the neo-pagan Nazi Reich, the worship and adoration of the State has always ended with persecution of true believers.

I am not the first to say this, of course. Secular historians and sociologists have noted for years the increasing tendency for American patriotism to look and sound as though it was its own religion, and to be discussed with religious fervor. The theory was first espoused by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967, and the evidence for what he then called the "American Civil Religion" has only grown since then.

What has happened in America is that most Americans have either supplemented (or replaced) their private religion with a secular religion worshipping the American state.

Let’s talk about specifics, shall we? For clarity, I shall call this worship of the American state, “Americanism” or the “American cult.” Let’s discuss just ten (of many) examples of Americanism:

1. For Christianity, only the Bible is sacred, inerrant, and should be used as a guide to life and morality; hence it should be carefully interpreted in light of context and original intent.

For Americanism, the Constitution is sacred, inerrant (or practically so), and should the guide for evaluating any and all laws for validity; hence it is critical that our Supreme Court interpret it as "intended by the Fathers." To hint that the Constitution is wrong or outdated is seen as abhorrent and an attack on the sacred.

2. For Christianity, the Founding Fathers whom we carefully study are the apostles—men who walked with Jesus and were divinely inspired as they wrote the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James, and Paul.

For Americanism, the Founding Fathers are those men who threw out the British and worked together to write the ‘sacred’ Constitution: Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams.

3. For Christianity, the object of worship is the Cross, and before it we should kneel to remember that Jesus shed His blood for us. Before it we confess our sins and pledge our belief in the teachings of the early church (such as the Apostle’s Creed).

For Americanism, the object of worship is the Flag, and before it we should cover our hearts or salute, and pledge our allegiance to the flag and the country for which it stands.

4. For Christianity, our hymns are the Psalms, or old songs like Amazing Grace or Hark! The Herald Angels Sing--songs which remind us that the Creator of the Universe became flesh for us, to save us from our sins.

For Americanism, the hymns are the Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America--songs meant to remind us that America has a special and exceptional role in the history of the world.

5. For Christianity, the saints are those men and women throughout history who believe in God and serve His kingdom, often through self-sacrifice, bravery, poverty, etc.

For Americanism, the saints are those who bravely serve in the Civil religion, often for little pay, as firefighters and policemen and soldiers and teachers.

6. For Christianity, the martyrs we admire are those who were slain for their faith, often in the face of great persecution.

For Americanism, the martyrs we admire are those soldiers who died protecting our country.

7. For Christianity, the holy days of special worship are Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost, where we pause and take time to honor the birth of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit.

For Americanism, the holy days of special worship are President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, and Thanksgiving, where we pause and take time to honor the births of our presidents, soldiers who died in service, the birth of our nation, those who die in work, those who served in foreign wars, and the survival of our settlers with help from the Natives.

8. For Christianity, the priests of our religion are our pastors, the High Priest is Jesus, and the interpreters of Scripture are the theologians.

For Americanism, the priests of our religion are our elected officials, the High Priest is the President, and the interpreters of civil scripture are the judges.

9. For Christianity, our duty as freed men is to share the Good News with others, live a lifestyle that gives God honor, and disciple our children.

For Americanism, it is a sacred duty is to vote, serve in jury duty, and register for the draft.

10. For Christianity, the world is fallen: nations are but temporary things which exist purely to punish evildoers and protect the innocent, and we all are to wait patiently on Jesus to return and set things right. The Second Coming is the vehicle for world peace, freedom, and prosperity.

For Americanism, our nation is exceptional in history (“the greatest nation in the history of the world”) and has a God-ordained mission to spread freedom and liberty throughout the world. America is the vehicle for world peace, freedom, and prosperity.

How thoroughly have we Americans gone down this path? So thoroughly that even now, as believing readers of this quite orthodox/conservative Christian blog, many of you are irritated at me and disagree with me. You see me as either ultra-conservative or ultra-liberal or ultra-libertarian or just generally anti-American; ironically, such feelings actually prove my point. The offense that you take to this article is proof that your religious/spiritual feelings are all too wrapped up and intertwined with your feelings about America as a country.

So while you may be offended (or should I say convicted?), try and be truly honest with yourself.

Isn’t it true that your have prayed and thanked God for American soldiers more often than for Christian martyrs?

Isn’t it true that your blood boils hotter at someone ‘taking away your constitutional rights’ than when you hear someone bash the Bible?

Isn’t it true that your children (and probably you) can recite the Pledge of Allegiance by heart yet can't recite any creed of Christian beliefs?

Isn’t it true that you have (at sporting events, school, etc.) saluted the Flag more often than you have knelt at an altar or Cross?

Isn’t it true that when you have said the words, “I’m just worried about the future for my kids,” you are more likely referring to the qualifications of the nation's President than the qualifications of your child’s youth pastor?

Isn’t it true that in your private life, the way in which you celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at Easter is not all that different from the way in which you celebrate the pilgrims and Native Americans on Thanksgiving?

Isn’t it true that you could better sing our national anthem than recite any one of the Psalms?

Isn’t it true that you are more offended when someone says that they will not vote or that they dodged the draft than if they say that don’t evangelize or don’t make their kids go to church on Sunday?

Isn't it true that if you hear someone say that America has done something horrible (like unlawful incarceration of terror suspects or torture or mistreatment of Native Americans) that you are offended and try to explain it away rather than admit that this is indeed a sad reality of even a great nation made of fallen men?

Do you see, then, why I say that Americanism has spread dangerously inside our veins as Christians?

Let us be blunt, fellow Christian: when you hear a politician talking about our “God-given rights” as Americans, or our “God-ordained mission” to spread freedom, or how “God blesses” our nation…to what God are they referring? Who is this God of Americanism?

Is it really the God of Jacob and Abraham, who sees us all as fallen creatures needing redemption, and views nations as temporal things made by sinful man? Is it really the God who, as Jesus, responded “Pay unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” caring little for political debates of the day and instead was concerned about what we were giving to God? Is it really the God who did nothing to deal with the oppressiveness of Egypt or Babylon or Rome, and cares nothing about individual national boundaries, but rather is in the act of building a universal kingdom of co-priests from every tribe and people?

Did God all of a sudden, in 1776, decide that it was time to start spreading freedom through civil law rather than through grace?

Or is this American god who singles out America as a modern 'city on a hill' an idol we have constructed, a cult of worship not significantly different from that of ancient Rome, albeit with a greater focus on individual freedom and free-market capitalism?

Do not be on the wrong side of this issue, fellow Christians. It is often said that we are dual citizens, both in heaven and in America…but in reality this is false. When you are in God's everlasting kingdom, you won't waste a single minute thinking about your 'citizenship' in America. You are not a dual citizen: you are a citizen of heaven, and a pilgrim in America. This is your hotel, not your home.

America is a man-made institution, which started a few hundred years ago and will one day fade into the history books, forgotten by all except future students at exam time. You and I are eternal beings: Time Lords here on earth whose job it is to recruit fellow immortals before it is too late. We will live much, much, much longer than America. Our ideals and decisions will have a much greater impact than even the greatest American law or vote.

This Thanksgiving day, give thanks not for what some Native Americans shared with some British citizens a few centuries ago, but rather for what Christ shared for you twenty centuries ago. Give thanks not that you are free from socialism or monarchy, but that you are free from sin and death. And this Thanksgiving, honor those early Christians who died opposing the Imperial Cult by being certain that you are not worshipping a modern-day version of the same.


  1. Amen! These are things that I have considered a lot recently. I have personally been withdrawing more and more from things of political nature and have been trying to focus more on the kingdom that is to come. I feel that we could also apply the core concept of Matthew 10:37 to secular allegiances. Perhaps think of it as "the person who loves an earthly kingdom more than His Kingdom is not worthy of Him/It." Thank you so much for this article, Michael. It is an exceptional reality check.

  2. I remember the situation in China many years ago, most of Chinese people there were against in worshiping God (I don't think so if until now), they kill people whose worship God. Thanks Michael for posting this. God bless!

    Bible Teaching Church in Mississauga