Tag: Civil Religion

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.

 

Evangelicalism’s “Come to Jesus” Moment

Jesus and ChildrenI really didn’t think it was time to write this post. I’ve been working toward constructing my take on the future of evangelicalism in a postmodern society and am still reading material that frame those ideas. But after last week’s WorldVision announcement, conflict, and retraction set off  a raft of “end of evangelicalism” posts, I decided it was time to run with what I have and refine it later. As I was telling a friend today via e-mail, blogs aren’t good at nuance because they reflect one’s best thinking to date and there are space limitations. So we’ll consider this another run at the concept. I’ll keep unpacking in future posts, I’m sure.

For more background, I recommend this piece I wrote to summarize my presentation at the Wesley conference in Idaho four weeks ago. My basic argument is that evangelicalism, between 1990 and 2010, has been focused on boundary maintenance, the protection of position and power, and orthodoxy. That stance has created a backlash among the millennial generation that has caused many to question if they want anything to do with evangelicalism at all, if evangelicalism relates to anyone outside the church, and if we need new models from which to express religious life.

Much of the reasonable response from these millennial bloggers has been somewhat reactionary. They worry about guilt by association with many who pride themselves in the kinds of posturing they grew up with. It reminds me of a conversation I had about my Christian faith when I started graduate school. My fellow students weren’t troubled by my identity as a Christian sociologist. They just wanted an assurance that I wasn’t going to be like “that guy” who chased people around the drink table at parties telling them that they were sinners. In short, “if that’s what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.”

I’ve heard various versions of the “that guy” argument over the years. It happens in Sunday School where someone wants to articulate theological grounding but doesn’t want to sound like their dogmatic cousin. It happens in churches where leaders demand adherence to their positions as a condition of continued affiliation.  It’s not just the young who are having these identification issues.

But I’m not prepared to let the bad behavior of individuals or groups give them control over  the evangelical label. I think it has a unique meaning (albeit one that’s broader than conservative groups or the media seem to allow).

I consider evangelicals as people committed to God’s Story (read N.T. Wright’s When God Became King for an elaboration), who hold to the full expression of Jesus the Christ (incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, kingdom-builder, and Lord), and who believe that the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sinful ways, calls us to turn toward the Kingdom around us, and instructs us how to participate in the unfolding of that now-and-not-yet Kingdom.

But living as evangelicals in a complex, diverse, postmodern world calls for a very different stance that we’ve used in past decades. We’ve been enamored with Empire when we should be focused on simply sharing our stories. We have been focused on abstractions and arguments when we should pay attention to the people who cross our paths.

This is why testimony is important. We allow the story of our walk with God, however messy, to intersect with the story of another. This is why the harder stories like those in Jonathan Merritt’s recent book excerpt are so important. They don’t hide behind platitudes but show God at work in the real issues of life. This shouldn’t be news to us. The disciples on the road to Emmaus shared their pain and met Jesus. Philip shares his story with the Ethiopian Eunuch once he’s led by the spirit to one considered unclean. Peter tells the story of his vision and the apostles celebrate Cornelius as a full member of God’s family.

My title today has two meanings. First, it suggests that there are some things that evangelicalism needs to give up, to get straight, to reorient. I’ll make some general suggestions of these and unpack them in future posts. Second, it suggests that we should come as little children when we follow Jesus. Not just in simple faith when believing but in the trust and collaboration that characterizes healthy children at play.

“Coming to Jesus” will require some significant changes to evangelicalism as we’ve known it if it is to ever be true to its potential. We will need to begin with assumptions of diversity instead of unanimity.  I wrote in my last post that faithful religious groups can see things in different ways. We need an evangelicalism that affirms this reality, whether we’re talking to evangelical Episcopalians who have affirmed a gay bishop or talking to a writer who celebrates complementarity. We will have to live with the discomfort of knowing that we differ from our sisters and brothers in Christ. Jesus said that’s what the world would be looking at. We will need to affirm the questions that arise from the lived experience of everyday Christians instead of making our faith about which big pastor-author we follow. That may mean the end of “influential evangelical” lists which would a blessing. We will come to value the voice of an individual blogger as a personal search for authentic faith without looking for litmus tests that are the equivalent of Steven Colbert’s “dead to me” board.  We will need to be looking forward to the Kingdom Jesus is unfolding in our very midst and not looking backward at some glory day when we could assume everyone agreed with our position. I’m convinced that this look backward is really a type of Christian Civil Religion, where we simply assume people have faith because of where they grew up (I’ll unpack this on another day, but it speaks to the issues I raised in this post.) As David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw point out in Prodigal Christianity, we must begin by outlining our own position. We will need to practice sacrifice, beginning with our demand that we be proven right. This is a central issue of faith. Rather than demanding our way or the validation of our viewpoint, we will need to put ourselves in the place of the other. This will call us to a position of compassion for others, especially those we think are unlikely. As Matthew 25 reminds us, they might just be Jesus.

In short, we need to come to Jesus as children. Trusting, open, engaging, happy to play well with others. There is a reason that Jesus celebrates their faith. He was trying to teach the disciples an important lesson. They were fighting with themselves about issues of power and dominance (“who will be the greatest?”). Amazingly, one of the key instances of this happens right after they say the transfiguration! They’re believing correctly in terms of who Jesus was didn’t keep them from the power games that were essentially self-serving.

15 And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. 16 But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”

Notice that Jesus isn’t rebuking the pharisees here. It’s not the religious and political leaders who needed a “come to Jesus” moment. It was Christ’s followers. It took a long time for them to get it. But the Holy Spirit led them to deeper understandings so that they lived and died as representatives of Christ. By having the faith of a child.

 

 

No Doubt About It: The Problem with Civil Religion

I’ve been pondering the whole “War on Christmas” discussion for some time now. I haven’t been able to quite get my head around it. To my sociological brain, the whole idea of saying “Happy Holidays” came from two sources: 1) the mashing together of shopping seasons from September through February, and 2) a recognition that religious pluralism means that I can’t assume everybody is like me.

Holiday InnReason one reminded me of Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Fred Astaire owns an Inn that only opens for Holidays and does Broadway-type shows. It makes lousy business sense but it gave lots of excuses for song and dance numbers involving Fred, Bing, Marjorie Reynolds, and Virginia Dale. It predates White Christmas, but uses the same house and Bing sings The Song here first. (If you watch it, be forewarned, there’s a pretty offensive blackface number somehow celebrating Lincoln’s birthday).

But I still wonder why people would travel to this quaint Inn to see the song-and-dance. Why do we care so much about our holidays and what they’re called? Why do we privilege OUR holidays and minimize other people’s holidays? Why is Rosh Hashanah on my monthly calendar if it’s somebody else’s celebration?

See, a recognition of pluralism would mean that we’d acknowledge that there are other views alongside our own. We know that immigration from a variety of nations has increased our awareness of other celebrations. In fact, we can even interpret the rise in “religious nones” to be an expression of that very diversity.

Even before Megyn Kelley’s “terrible horrible no good very bad day” yesterday, there were forces pushing back against recognition of diversity. Monday, the Oklahoma legislature introduced a “Merry Christmas bill” that would allow schools to have Christmas parties and Christmas trees (as opposed to those dreaded Holiday events). They express the kind of sentiment Jon Stewart skewered last week: How can I enjoy my Christmas when I know that somewhere a little Jewish boy is not being forced to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?

There are plenty of similar stories. Also in Oklahoma, a private group paid to display the Ten Commandments in a public square. Looked like a neat end-run around establishment clause issues. Then a group of satanists said that they were going to have a private group put their own monument up. I learned last night that someone put up a Seinfeld Festivus pole in Florida (I guess that got Gretchen Carlson going). Today, a federal judge (who is a graduate of Pasadena Nazarene College and a conservative) ruled that the cross at the Mount Soledad cemetery has to come down. It’s bound to launch all kinds of rants about liberal justices destroying the Christian foundations of our society (which, according to James Dobson, is somehow related to Sandy Hook).

In the midst of my struggle to make sense of holidays and pluralism, a tweet by Rachel Held Evans gave me one of those “light bulb” moments of clarity. Responding to the whole “of course Santa and Jesus were white” discussion, Rachel’s tweet said that the critics were people “for whom civil religion has become an idol they force everyone to bow to.” It’s a great Daniel reference, but my realization was that all this stuff about “Merry Christmas” is less about “Keeping Christ in Christmas” as it is about protecting our national sterilized religion of exceptionalism, providence, and manifest destiny.

Robert Bellah introduced the idea of civil religion in the late 1960s, drawing attention to the ways in which national identity operated in ways similar to traditional religion but without much content. In fact, his original essay includes this famous quote by Eisenhower: Our nation makes no sense unless it’s based on a deeply held religious faith, and I don’t care what that is (emphasis mine). In that quote rests the heart of civil religion: a vague idea that cannot be examined because the minute we seriously interrogate it, it vanishes in a puff of smoke.

This is a major difference between Christian faith and civil religion. As we have proved in the church over and over and over again, we debate differences in theology, practice, polity, liturgy, baptism, creation, and biblical interpretation. We blog and write books and have conferences that support our position against the other guy (or girl). But on our best days, we are still aware of the concept of the Church as the Bride of Christ. We hold to our positions and the reasons for holding them but we operate from faith not from certainty.

That’s what allows me to have friends from a variety of theological traditions. We can see things differently and engage in our twitter fights and critique each other’s strategies or political positions, but at the end of the day we retain a commitment to the Invisible Church. Because we live by faith. As Frederick Buechner says, “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith”.

This comfort with doubt is what’s missing in civil religion. Because it exists at such a generalized level, it can’t be argued. We can’t find ways of parsing the different strands and still holding to commonality. The mythology of agreement (like a notion that Santa is white or that Jefferson was an evangelical) MUST be maintained because without the mythology we have nothing.

If we admit that these other holiday traditions are valuable or even that people can go through life and not celebrate ANY holidays, then what can we take for granted as a society? We’d be forced to confront our differences and learn from each other.

But those risks are too great, so the celebrants of civil religion (politicians, pundits, and some preachers) can’t allow anyone to stray from the party line. It’s not a belief system as such. Just an affirmation held together in brightly colored tissue paper.

When that paper tears, as it will like all the Christmas (or Hanukkah and Kwanza) wrapping, what then? Then, just maybe we in the Christian church can teach our  fellow citizens how to explore differences without abandoning faith. To show them that there is something deeper and richer and more real than what they’re trying to hold onto. That change isn’t scary when faith abides.

We don’t always get that right. But I think at the root of our faith, we understand that doubt isn’t a scary thing. It actually takes us to the places we needed to go.