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Civil Religion and Mainstream Christianity

Written by James McMahon : October 30, 2007

In my last post, I shared my concerns about the impulse of a large section of mainstream Christianity to gain political power of American national government in order to return America to its status as a ‘Christian’ nation. The main reason for concern in the post was that, in my opinion, when Christians begin to think in those terms they reject their allegiance to their one true King and His kingdom, which is above all other kingdoms. If you really think about what is going on in those terms then you begin to see that it is a form of idolatry.

Since the last post was focused on the implications of turning from the King to human government, I wanted this post to focus on the consequences of this turning on the internal realities of the church’s teaching, life, and worship. First, it is important for me to define what I mean by civil religion. Civil religion simply describes the religious overtones and undertones of a secular society that bind the citizenry together within the religion of the state. This is often seen in the generic religious expressions of political leaders, the celebration of national holy days, and the veneration of national heroes (a good article introducing this can be found here).

With that definition established, we can now turn to the manifestations within the Christian community when it turns to the illusion of exercising political power within government. When Christianity connects itself with the state, the teaching of the community is affected. An example of this was seen by my wife (who doesn’t necessarily always agree with me on this issue) and I in a church worship service recently. The syncretism of civil religion with Christianity allows church leaders to make assertions about the teachings of Scripture that are frightening. In the service, the pastor and congregation stood to read a passage of Scripture aloud together. The passage happened to come from Romans 13. After reading the passage, the pastor commented that this meant that it is a Christian’s duty to always obey the state and never question what it does. As a student of history, this comment infuriated me because it was the same logic used by German churches in the 1930’s to accept Adolf Hitler and the rise of Naziism and all its horrors (I am not equating America with Nazi Germany so please do not misunderstand me).

Second, the consequences of interweaving the church with the state also manifest in the life of the church. Another example of this is coming to the surface where I live. The state is about to pass a law making it illegal for churches to help illegal immigrants by providing food, water, clothing, and/or shelter to help alleviate the needs of these human beings. The consequences of violation of this law will be the imprisonment of pastors, priests, and the Christian laity who choose to obey their King rather than the state. As a result of this the local Catholic archbishop has said that the church will not abide by this law because it is immoral and unjust. On the other hand, those within the Christian community that have so interwoven Christianity with America undoubtedly will submit to what the government decrees, because in their illusion of an American-Christian government, the state has authority over the church.

Third, this amalgamation of church and state impacts the worship of the community. Not only is worship offered to God but also to the state, its holy days, and its venerated heroes. Ironically, from my own experience, the state’s holy days and venerated heroes usually take precedence over the worship of the one true King within His own community. On this third point I would like to hear some examples from your own lives where you have witnessed this combination of civil religion and Christianity because it is perhaps the most easily recognizable.

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6 Responses to “Civil Religion and Mainstream Christianity”

  1. Joe on October 30th, 2007 3:09 pm

    I think it is a tough line to walk between submission to authority and serving a corrupt system. It’s tough to distinguish when Jesus was submitting and building integrity and Character when he was being oppressed and when he was doing something revolutionary as an activist. It’s a tougher job to exegete the current culture and see what that has in store for us.

    I have to say I agree that the church I go to endoctrinates a lot of Government support. We have stood to honor soldiers in the congregation and sung the songs of each branch of the military. We have a large American flag in front of our church. I don’t know we don’t have all the flags of all the countries flying. We should be a nation united, not seeing anyone different around the world. We are all created in God’s image and loved the same.

    Let me know what you think.

  2. James on October 30th, 2007 11:55 pm

    I think you make a valid observation Joe. Sometimes there is a noticeable tension between Christian responsibility as a citizen of a nation and allegiance to Jesus. Within that tension it is easy for the lines to become blurred.

    I constantly struggle with this tension because until recently I was an active leader in a congregation located two miles from an Air Force base. Most of the people I knew, taught, or served with were either active military, retired military, spouses, or children of military personnel. I never backed away from sharing my Anabaptist convictions and often times was shown respect, though it was often mixed with condescension.

  3. Anna on October 31st, 2007 8:21 am

    James,

    We most likely live in the same state and I commiserate with you on the horrible law that will go into effect starting tomorrow. I wish I could have signed the petition along with the Bishops and Priests up in the big city. As it is, I will continue to write and call in protest. May we be faithful to our King when the need arises.

    There are tremors of dissent amongst the military in our area. I recently came into contact with a young man who is starting an Iraq Veterans Against the War chapter in our town. He is not a believer but was welcoming of my offer of practical support for his efforts nonetheless. Keep up the Witness and feel free to e-mail me.

    ~Anna

  4. Jessica on October 31st, 2007 2:26 pm

    I wonder is the pastor would have the same comments about blindly obeying the government if it wasn’t Bush in the White House. Did he have the same conviction when Clinton held office?

  5. James on October 31st, 2007 11:16 pm

    Anna,

    Thanks for the comment. I have yet to see the same dissent among the military and former military in the military town I live in, but then again it is an unpopular position to take especially when doing so means you will most likely stand alone even within the Christian community.

    Jessica,

    I think you’re probably on to something, though blind nationalism can lead people to look past ideological disagreements for the ‘good’ of the homeland.

  6. Jason Barr on November 13th, 2007 11:47 am

    Jessica,

    I’m not the pastor, but when Clinton was in office I was pretty much a raving right-winger, so Clinton could do nothing right anyway.

    Now with the benefit of a little mellowing out and a little more study about the way of Jesus, I still don’t think too highly of Clinton. Really, he laid the foundation for a lot of abuses of Presidential power Bush has used - and worked on the foundation built for him by Reagan, who… and so on. Anymore I’m not so sure it matters much who exactly is in office because the system has this tendency to bend people to itself as if it had a will and mind of its own. Democrats and Republicans likely have a lot more in common than they have in difference.

    That said, I do believe you were the first person to bring up Bush in this thread. Why should his convictions be different whether it is Bush or Clinton in office? We follow the true King, Jesus, regardless of who holds any particular political office.

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