I’ve been rethinking my understanding of civil religion. Until now, I know I’ve tended to speak of civil religion, particularly American civil religion, like it’s some monolythic entity. But in thinking through some unrelated issues I had one of those “Doh!” moments when I realized how one dimensional that was. It’s clear to me now that there are at least two streams I should be speaking of.
Stream 1: The Theocratic Nationalism of the Right
For me, this was the more obvious stream of civil religion. Wherever we hear people speaking of America as a “Christian Nation”, as if the land itself has been baptised, wherever we see Jesus wrapped in a national flag, as if he’s some kind of national mascot, that’s theocratic nationalism. In many ways it represents the deification of fighting for “freedom” and a denial of Christ’s universality. Tending towards legalism, Theocratic Nationalism is the civil religion of the patriarchal state.
Stream 2: The Deistic Universalism of the Left
For me, this was the less obvious stream of civil religion. But it’s there. Wherever we hear people promoting the therapeutic deity of the lowest common denominator, the “undemanding” god that’s for everyone and anyone, the domesticated god that no one could find offensive, that’s deistic universalism. In many ways it represents the deification of fighting for “equality” and a denial of Christ’s uniqueness. Tending towards licence, Deistic Universalism is the civil religion of the nanny state.
What we need is more Uncivil Religion
By this I mean a Christianity that views citizenship as secondary to discipleship. Uncivil religion refuses to water down it’s worship and witness of Jesus as the one and only Messiah. It accepts the untamed Messiah won’t be for all citizens. It’s prepared to betray the nanny state agenda. Uncivil religion refuses to water down it’s worship and witness of Jesus as self-sacrificing and stranger-loving. It accepts untamed Messiah won’t be for all citizens. It’s prepared to betray the patriarchal state agenda. In short, it espouses a Christ-centric agenda over a citizen-centric agenda.
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5 thoughts on “Two Streams of Civil Religion”
Wow, thanks for your reflections on that and giving a third way that truly is Christocentric. I could use some more uncivil religion in my own life
I have a hard time trying to visualize the uncivil religion you describe. When I try to imagine, the vision is eclipsed by aspects of the Civil Right you first described. I need a better lens for clarity. Got any lens cleaner?
Lens cleaner, hmmm. I think the part of the problem is, we are too used to thinking of church and state in terms of mutual obligation. Both streams of civil religion suffer from this.
Theocratic nationalists tend to assume Christians have an obligation to support the state where it defends freedoms such as free speech and open association. Anything less would be uncivil. Yet, did Jesus hold his tongue with the Pharisees, just because they gave him a free meal? No. How uncivil was it of Jesus to insult his host? Very! Jesus said what needed to be said even when it offended his hosts. Like him, we need to expose the tombs lurking under the whitewash of democracy.
Deistic universalists tend to assume Christians have an obligation to support the state where it promotes equality and nondiscrimination. Anything less would be uncivil. Yet, did Jesus hold his tongue with the Unclean, just because they’d had a hard life? No. He emphasized the hardness of the life he offered, he told them to count the cost, he scared many away. Jesus said what needed to be said even when it alienated him from the masses. Like him, we need to stand for something.
The problem with both forms of civil religion is, they assume the church has an obligation to the state. Uncivil religion rejects such assumptions. The church has an obligation to Christ alone. Where it gives to the state, it gives as a gift, not as a repayment. Where the state mirrors the church, this is good. But the church has no obligation to mirror in return.
So, this has certain implications in my view. We should not pursue our freedoms through forcing them onto others, and we should not pursue equality by lowering our standards to the lowest common denominator. Our task is not to fight or take flight, it’s to endure and invite.
Thanks Matt, much clearer.
Years ago I remember reading an essay by Krishnamurti criticizing the various types of pious egotism, including pious religionists who presumed that there was something special about what they were doing, as compared to everyone else.
Meanwhile I much prefer this assessment of the dreadful politics dramatized by all egos, including pious religionists who pretend that they are committed to a “superior” principle.
Plus further elaborations at: