Friday, February 11, 2011

Civil Religion In The Church?

It happens every year. Come May 31st, July 4th or November 11th, and suddenly on the closest Sunday we have a strange sight confronting us as we reverently prepare to worship- the state?
As I study sociology, a new name emerges for a phenomenon I have long noticed and wondered at: the practice of bringing civil religion into our churches on state or national holidays.
Our church is suddenly full of fervor for the nation as the flag is brought forward, songs sung about America and even the alter decorated with red, white and blue flowers to further bring the civic religion to mind as we replace our weekly Christian resurrection celebrations with a sentimental and worshipful service for our nation.

According to my textbook, a civil religion is a quasi-religious loyalty binding individuals in a secular state. Citizen's loyalties are to the state rather than to a specific religion.

Then I checked the infamous Wikipedia to see what others have to say about civil religion.
And I quote:
 This assertive civil religion of the United States is an occasional cause of political friction between the U.S. and its allies in Europe, where (the literally religious form of) civil religion is less extreme. In the United States, civil religion is often invoked under the name of "Judeo-Christian tradition", a phrase originally intended to be maximally inclusive of the several monotheisms practiced in the United States, assuming that these faiths all worship the same God and share the same values. This assumption tends to dilute the essence of both Judaism and Christianity; recognition of this fact, and the increasing religious diversity of the United States, make this phrase less heard now than it once was, though it is far from extinct. Some scholars have argued that the American flag can be seen as a main totem of a national cult. Arguing against mob violence and lynching, Abraham Lincoln declared in his 1838 Lyceum speech that the Constitution and the laws of the United States ought to become the ‘political religion’ of each American.

From the encyclopedia of Religion and Society:
The concept refers to a "transcendent universal religion of the nation".

When I read that I confess that I immediately thought back to all the years of saluting the flag in church, to singing the national anthem and other patriotic songs, to taking time to memorialize those who had served our country, to generally waving our national flag and taking pride in America. All things that are well and good....but the thing that causes question is the fact that all this takes the place of our regular worship toward God. And now is being termed a separate religious activity.

I recall one patriotic holiday in particular. We were visiting a small church out in a remote area. This particular holiday they had set up a separate "altar" almost, complete with pictures, medals, flags, and other American memorabilia and symbols. Instead of singing hymns, all the patriotic songs were sung. When it was time for the message, the Scripture was skimmed over and plenty of time spent discussing America and how wonderful the nation is. Somehow, I did not feel like I had come in contact with the Most High God. The time spent at church was not spent thinking about our Christian walk or our relationship with Christ. And this was disturbing.

I've heard the stories of people in other countries who are hiding in order to have church. Bibles are confiscated, and lives endangered just by gathering together. I do not think they are wasting time being patriotic or indulging in civil religion. They found something so important that they are risking their lives to continue to worship God. There are no red, white and blue carnations here.

Yet many Americans are outraged if we choose to worship in the usual manner on patriotic holidays, or relegate it all to a small mention at the beginning of service. Their family members were not mentioned, their flowers not noticed, their favorite song not sung. America was not held up as the shining epitome of freedom and happiness.

And I am left wondering if all this is really pleasing, or really worthwhile. I choose to think Christ is the epitome of freedom and happiness.

And then the thought crosses my mind, "What would Jesus think of all this?"

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Mark 12:16-18

Jesus came to earth to reunite us with God. He was sacrificed for our sins when he stretched his arms on the hard wood of the cross. His was the ultimate symbol of love, of freedom, of yes, even happiness. Not for just Americans. We take away from this sacrifice and the Holiness of Christ when we push Him out of the way to the strains of God Bless America and when civil religion replaces our Christianity.

Only this: Be vigilant in keeping the Commandment and The Revelation that Moses the servant of God laid on you: Love God, your God, walk in all his ways, do what he's commanded, embrace him, serve him with everything you are and have." Joshua 22:5


  1. Interesting. So, what you're describing is more of an intentional morphing of the Christian tradition into an unapologetic and exclusive worship of state on civic holidays, as opposed to, say, people simply getting lost on their way to the end of the thought process while hopped up on patriotic endorphin rushes?

  2. Great thoughts, Katie. It's a difficult conversation to have with WW2 vets. We talked it over, and decided that if the Christian flag was in the position of highest honor that the US flag could stay in the sanctuary. Not my preference, but a pastoral care decision. I was proud of them for entering the conversation with me.