A Follow-up to Yesterday’s Civil Religion Post

There was something about yesterday’s post that felt unfinished. It’s bugged me ever since I hit the “publish” button. So I thought it was worth exploring a little more about what I’m thinking (besides, I have papers to grade and this is more fun).

There were two concepts in the post that I used and didn’t quite do justice to either. I began talking about civil religion in the way that Robert Bellah used it in the 1960s and others have used it since. It specifically deals with quasi-religious beliefs about the nation. There are ideas that God is on our side, that there’s some kind of divine destiny for the country, and so on. This is part of our nationalist celebrations at baseball games — “God Bless America/Land that I Love/Stand Beside Her and Guide Her/Thru the Night with the Light From Above” (written by the Christian Patriot, Irving Berlin!). It’s a vague sense of Exceptionalism with religious overtones.

I think some of the nostalgia imbedded in today’s political and religious rhetoric is an attempt to harken back to a time when Irving Berlin’s words were shared by all in the society. But that time never existed. Besides I have no idea what the lyric is supposed to mean! Does God Stand Beside America in ways different than he stands beside Canada? (Erik Parker, that was for you!)

So what I’m picking up with the slightly-incorrect usage of civil religion is the way in which our social assumptions about the world get “sacralized”. They take on religious tones and let us believe that we are acting for God because he would certainly support our values. This is Emile Durkheim’s take on religion in modern form.

It’s also what’s happening when we overlay religious imagery on top of existing social patterns. That’s the definition of my other concept: syncretism. Syncretism is well known to church historians and missionaries. We celebrate certain holidays when we do because the early church repurposed pagan holidays. Some aspects of Christianity in non-Western lands intermingle Christian faith with indigenous traditions.

This is what happens when we assume America is a Christian nation. We take existing patterns of behavior and bless them with the light from above. It brings me back to the polling data I mentioned. For decades, large majorities of the American public have reported a belief in God. But that belief is very diffuse, even more than Christian Smith’s Moral Therapeutic Deism. I’d argue that it’s much closer to the Alcoholics Anonymous 2nd step (“believing in a higher power however you define it”).

Whether we’re talking about church as a central community institution or fighting about the latest Christian outrage on Facebook, we’re dealing with one of these two concepts. We are either celebrating free-floating definitions of what it means to be Christian or we’re Christianizing secular patterns.

The Now-and-Not-Yet Kingdom of God requires that we get much better at distinguishing between God’s Story and the revisions we keep writing. Our version may make us far more comfortable and provide justification in light of changing social conditions, but it’s an exercise in either civil religion or syncretism. We have to do better if we are going to be the witnesses we are called to be.

 

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