American Civil Religion

When I was in college, I took a course on American Civil Religion. The course was taught by a sociology professor and a religious studies professor, and students majoring in both departments participated. I earned an A in the class, in spite of the fact that I disagreed with both professors about the definition of Civil Religion, stating my case in classroom discussions, in my major paper for the class, and on the final exam.

Civil Religion is a blend of religious beliefs and favoritism for one’s nation. The nineteenth-century concept of Manifest Destiny is an example of American Civil Religion. Manifest Destiny was the conviction of white Americans that the entire continent, “from sea to shining sea,” should be dominated by the United States of America, even at the expense of Native American tribes and the country of Mexico. Treating the blood of soldiers shed in warfare as a sacrifice to God for the nation (as is done, for example, in the Battle Hymn of the Republic) is an example of American Civil Religion. The idea that the United States is a city on a hill, shining its light to the rest of the world so the other nations can follow our example of “liberty and justice for all,” is an example of American Civil Religion. This is especially true when that idea is combined with the belief that God intended the United States to be that beacon to the nations and that he will bless us so long as we continue shining our virtues into every dark corner of the world.

Singing “God Bless America,” not as a humble prayer but as a demand, is an example of American Civil Religion. Saying during the Cold War that we were battling “godless Communism” is an example of American Civil Religion. Singing patriotic songs that are not Christ-centered or Biblically based during a church service is an example of American Civil Religion.

In class I argued that faith and patriotism can exist in the same mind without being Civil Religion. Pledging allegiance to “one nation, under God,” combats American Civil Religion by stating that God comes first before the nation. Praying humbly to God for blessings for the nation is a blend of faith and patriotism which is not Civil Religion. The Bible tells Christians to pray for kings and those in authority. Jesus allows us to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s,” and in Romans 13 Paul includes honor and respect, along with taxes and fees, as things we are required to give to our civil leaders.

Some practices of religion are on the border between faith combined with patriotism and the American Civil Religion. Having the American flag in the church building, especially in the central worship space, is ambiguous. (Europeans, especially Germans, are astounded that Americans bring the national flag into the church building.) Prayers before sessions of Congress or of a state legislature are ambiguous. In fact, the more ambiguous and inoffensive the prayer, the more likely it is an example of American Civil Religion. Glorifying our national leaders and attempting to prove that they practiced a conservative Christian faith can be American Civil Religion at work, rather than a genuine inquiry of faith or of history. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln—all of our great leaders can be quoted in favor of Biblical Christianity and opposed to Biblical Christianity, depending upon who is doing the research into their lives.

I still believe that I can be a faithful Christian and a patriotic American at the same time. I do not believe that every expression of love for my country is part of the American Civil Religion. In fact, Civil Religion is idolatry that opposes true Christianity. Not every leader who says, “God bless the United States and God bless you” is speaking of the God who is known only through Jesus Christ. Discerning minds will detect the difference. Christians are to be active in the public square, sharing the hope that is ours through Jesus Christ. Our presence in the public square entitles us to love our country, even as we call it away from idolatry and invite its people to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. With that in mind, I can pray, “God Bless America.” J.