As I have reflected on the matter, I have come to the conclusion that the underlying cause of many of the conflicts between different groups of Christians today in North America is a difference in the way we conceive of the proper relationship between civil religion and the practice of our Christian faith.
In order for all of us to follow my point in this discussion, we need to make sure first of all that we have a common understanding of what we mean when we say civil religion. Since this is not a formal scholarly article, I am going to take the liberty to cite Wikipedia in order to simplify the discussion a bit. The Wikipedia entry on civil religion defines it as “the implicit religious values of a nation, as expressed through public rituals, symbols (such as the national flag) and ceremonies on sacred days and at sacred places (such as monuments, battlefields or national cemeteries).” It also describes it as “the folk religion of a nation or a political culture.”
An influential article written by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967 entitled “Civil Religion in America” states the following:
“The words and acts of the founding fathers, especially the first few presidents, shaped the form and tone of the civil religion as it has been maintained ever since. Though much is selectively derived from Christianity, this religion is clearly not itself Christianity.”
“What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion—there seems no other word for it—while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) lays out the original thesis that the concepts embodied in civil religion really are a religion of sorts and that they are a necessary part of the moral and spiritual foundation of any modern society. There are many debates and discussions regarding the technical definition of civil religion and the exact content of American civil religion, on which further reading and reflection may prove fruitful. I do not propose to provide any definitive answers to those questions here, but rather to throw out some relevant points for discussion among us as conservative Evangelicals and/or Southern Baptists.
Though tracing its roots to the early days of our history as a nation, some elements of present-day American civil religion were not included in the original ideas of the founding fathers. I would argue that the content of American civil religion is continually evolving. A case in point during the holiday season is that, although there was widespread opposition to the celebration of Christmas in the early years of American life, many of our Christmas traditions, including Santa Claus, gift-giving, and caroling have little by little become embedded in the growing corpus of American civil religion orthodoxy. Other key tenets of current popularly accepted American civil religion include a tolerance of religious plurality and non-discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.
My thesis is that many of the ideas and practices associated with American civil religion are not bad in and of themselves. Indeed many traditions associated with civil religion add value to our lives and do not need to be rejected out of hand. The main problem for us as New Testament Christians, as I see it, is a failure to sometimes differentiate properly between civil religion and the practice of our Christian faith.
I have identified the following pitfalls resulting from an unhealthy tendency to conflate American civil religion and New Testament Christianity.
1. We may blur the lines of what the gospel really means. We communicate to not-yet-believers the false idea that such things as outward shows of patriotism, the defense of certain models of macroeconomics, and the keeping of certain sentimental traditions are part and parcel of what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus.
2. We may erect cultural barriers that unnecessarily inhibit people from cultural backgrounds different from our own from coming to Christ.
3. We may give people false assurance that if they are faithful practitioners of American civil religion, they are therefore good Christians and have no need of radical repentance and discipleship that may at times require going against the grain of accepted cultural traditions.
4. We may develop an inordinate fondness for cultural preferences and traditions that can end up competing with our total allegiance to Christ and becoming a de facto idol in our lives.
5. We may create unbiblical barriers to Christian unity, excluding people who have different beliefs than we do on non-essential items more related to civil religion than to the gospel itself from our circle of fellowship.
6. We may embrace certain people and organizations that share many of our cultural values but are not authentically Christian as de facto members of our family of faith.
7. We may come to expect secular institutions, including the various branches of civil government, to fulfill roles in our lives that ought to be reserved for the church. We may end up judging them with criteria that ought to be reserved for regenerate Christians alone.
8. We may raise the false expectation that God has called us to work toward transforming secular institutions in our society (including civil government) into religious institutions and to return America to its “Christian roots.”
While recognizing the dangers associated with a failure to correctly divide between American civil religion and New Testament Christianity, it is important to make clear once again that I do not consider all elements of American civil religion to be wrong or unhealthy in and of themselves.
It will be helpful to bear in mind that in a civil religion based to a large degree on Judeo-Christian heritage, such as American civil religion, there will be:
1. certain elements that are the direct legacy of biblical Christianity;
2. certain elements that are incompatible with biblical Christianity; and,
3. certain elements that are morally and spiritually neutral.
A correct biblical approach to American civil religion will lead us to unflinchingly cling to all those elements in category #1, to keep ourselves pure from all the elements in category #2, and to scrupulously avoid converting the acceptance and practice of elements in category #3 into a litmus test for fellowship in the Body of Christ. I would add that, although we are free in Christ to accept and practice (or not accept and practice) those elements in category #3, we must be careful to not treat them as if they are for us truly part of a religion—even though many of those around us, in effect, may well treat them as such.