There is a stark contrast between what American Civil Religion glorifies and what Christianity glorifies.
For those not familiar with what American Civil Religion is, here’s a definition by Britannica.com: “a public profession of faith that aims to inculcate political values and that prescribes dogma, rites, and rituals for citizens of a particular country.”
Civil Religion isn’t a bad thing on its own. It’s neutral actually. The concept was laid by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his writing “The Social Contract” in 1792 where he argued that proper civil religion helped make a healthy body politic. Civil religion could offer something that people could rally around and help them form a people as a nation state.
In a sense, Rousseau was arguing for the state to take on features of religion for the purpose of creating a cohesive society.
Conceptually that’s not a bad thing. However, when the idea of civil religion takes on as much meaning and identity formation, as, or possibly more, than one’s religious faith, then we start to see problems. Lines get blurred as to what is God and what is not. We see this play out currently in the blurring of lines between what is patriotic and what is nationalistic. One is fine and healthy. The other is destructive and divisive.
The current form of American Civil Religion is not healthy as it stands. It’s takes on far too much of a religious overtone with its language and symbolism. Unfortunately there are now what are called “patriotic churches.” This makes no sense theologically. Christianity is not tied to a nation, nor should it be. It goes across boundaries because Christianity’s ultimate loyalty is the Kingdom of God, not a nation, a flag, or a ruler.
American civil religion and Christian faith are not the same thing. Civil religion has taken to glorifying violence and greed – celebrating those things. Making heroes of those that are violent and those that hoard wealth. These are not Christian values in terms of what Jesus taught. And if we are honest with ourselves, these are not healthy or sustainable values for any society either. They are selfish to the core. They are the definition of sin – turning inward on oneself. And when an individual or a society turns in on itself, then it disregards others and their wellbeing. And in doing so, actually disregards ones own wellbeing. Because we are tied together.
Christianity and Christian faith glorify God and what God is about. And what is God about? Forgiveness, mercy, grace, love, peace, shalom. God is about favoring the poor, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, releasing those in bondage. God is about justice. Those are not values that are glorified in American civil religion. American civil religion is not serving its people very well. It is time to reframe this civil religion.