Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Does Christianity make a good civil religion?

One of my last days in D.C. I spent touring the National Cathedral with a friend. A rare building for American soil, this cathedral is not as ancient as it's counterparts in Europe and the message of civil religion that emanates from the internal decorations and literature is a distinct characteristic of this national cathedral. The stain class windows portray brave American soldiers who fought valiantly in battle, while statues of famous presidents like Lincoln adorn the corner niches. The cathedral serves as an intersection of religion and the state, symbolizing the synthesis of Christianity and Americanism.

Now, the question of how religion relates to society is as old as the Greeks, but the answer and resulting social practices have changed over the centuries. More than any other nation previously, America seems most ardent in it's attempt to conflate identity as a Christian and identity as an American. Without answering whether or not this is a good thing, it is helpful to consider if Christianity really can be a good civil religion.

In the most recent issue of The American Conservative, Dr. Richard Gamble--a professor at Hillsdale College--begins his review of The American Patriot's Bible by asking, "Does Christianity make a good civil religion?" Simply put, his answer is no, it never has and it never will. To the dismay of many who believe that Christianity will revive the morally corrupt culture and imbue politics with truth Gamble asserts that, "There is no golden age of Christian America waiting to be rediscovered and reclaimed." Gamble handily deconstructs the modern evangelical attempt to synthesize Americanism with Christianity. He exposes the unfounded historical perspective that "imagines an ideal American founding on Christian principles" and "blames the nation's demise on secularist." Yet, the secularist who desires non-faith and unbelief at the center of the public square, and probably sighs with relief after such a statement, might be surprised by Gamble's analysis. Both secularist and evangelical should be asking why Christianity would be unfit as a civil religion.

The most helpful explanation of why Christianity won't redeem America, and more importantly why it should not try to, is provided by Augustine. Gamble explains,

"An Augustinian perspective may help frame that conversation. In Book XIX of The City of God, the Bishop of Hippo explained in which areas there can be peace and in which there must be conflict between the earthly and the heavenly cities. Christian and non-Christian have a common interest in earthly peace, good order, and the “necessaries of life.” But in matters of worship, Augustine wrote, the Christian was forced to “dissent” from the earthly city. The limits of the common life had been reached. The Christian was forced “to become obnoxious to those who think differently, and to stand the brunt of their anger and hatred and persecutions…” Praising piety and faith in general alongside remnants of the historic Christian faith, The American Patriot’s Bible combines the things of God and the things of Caesar at the very point where they most vigilantly need to be kept apart. When the City of Man sets up Americanism as its faith, the Christian is forced to dissent."

Christ did not intend for Christians to establish a perfect society here on earth and his call to the church is far more radical than to build a civilization on Christianity. Jesus calls Christians to be citizens of the City of God while living, serving, and participating in the City of Man. Yet, how do Christians do that in the City of Man? And what is their status in the City of Man? Are they citizens?

Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, describes Christians as "unalienated aliens." This phrase recognizes the tension in a Christian's call to be in the world but not of the world. The apostle Peter in his first letter to early Christians calls them "aliens and strangers." Would a mainstream, culturally reflective, distinctively Americanized church classify themselves as aliens to their country? How would you reconcile civil religion to this description? You can't. It is important to realize that the opposite extreme of fundamentalist lambasting non-Christians and pushing a narrow political agenda is also wrong. Christians are neither mainstream chaplains or seclusive sectarians. You ask, than what does it look like to live as an unalienated alien? Peter answers this in his letter (2:12),

"Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation."

Christians should be vilified for their unwillingness to conform to culture and admired for their love and service. And this is what it means to be in the City of Man but a citizen of the City of God. Therefore, promoting a "Christian America" (aka civil religion), and hoping that we can return to an idyllic past, is not just bad history it is contrary to Christian principles


  1. Zach, I really enjoy your reflections. This particular topic has been something I've been thinking about a lot this summer because many argue that we must return to being a Christian nation. You and the sources you used put it just right; we cannot put City of God and City of Man into one entity. Doing so would tear apart the structures of each establishment. Now for the hard part- how do we act accordingly? :P

  2. Well said, Zach. Heaven and earth may touch in a few points, but ultimately the head to very different places.

  3. What adam said. It's hard to go wrong quoting gamble and augustine...oh and Peter too.

  4. Thanks for the comments guys.

    Gwen you are correct -- the hardest part is knowing how to live in light of the fact that we are citizens of the City of God but called to serve in the city of Man. That will take a lifetime to really know, but we can begin by serving. Especially now when many even in America are struggling, Christians should step out and serve.

  5. Gamble's argument suggests that it is the failure of the church to protect what belongs to the City of God that has started these problems. Good thoughts but I would just remind you that Gamble is not suggesting that simply serving God in the City of Man is enough to restore the division between the two cities. The church must do what it has been called to do first- to worship Christ and protect what belongs to us. Not what the world tries to take away from us.

  6. Matt, thanks for the note of caution. You probably know better than I do what Gamble's point in his article was just because you know him & his thoughts better. But from what I understand, Gamble takes issue with Christians applying biblical metaphors to society (civil religion) or society hijacking Christian metaphors. The most obvious example being America thinking of itself as the "city upon a hill" or a "redeemer nation." While I think this is wrong, I do not believe it is Christian's primary responsibility to "protect what belongs to us." The world is going to distort any truth that Christians teach. We are suppose to speak and teach the truth, but more importantly to live it. Jesus says in the Gospel of John that, "They will know you are my disciples by your love for one another." Similarly, Christ said to love your neighbor as yourself. Love requires an act of service. We should consider that first before worrying about "protecting what belongs to us" (which I'm not even sure I know what you mean by that). So, while Gamble is dead on in his analysis of Christianity as a civil religion, I think Christians should acknowledge that but not focus on reclaiming metaphors, but on doing what we've been called to do, love God and one another.

  7. I'm plowing through Augustine's "City of God" right now. Tough sledding, but I assume it will bear luscious fruit.

  8. Charge on, Michael. You are a braver man than I am. I have only read selections, and those were brief.