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John Calvin puts forward a very simple reason why love is the greatest gift: “Because faith and hope are our own: love is diffused among others.” In other words, faith and hope benefit the possessor, but love always benefits another. In John 13:34–35 Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love always requires an “other” as an object; love cannot remain within itself, and that is part of what makes love the greatest gift.
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Civil Religion -- the Chief Rival to Biblical Christianity

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One of the most subtle and dangerous temptations Christians face during their pilgrim journey is the allure of civil religion. James Davison Hunter defines civil religion as a “diffuse amalgamation of religious values that is synthesized with the civic creeds of the nation; in which the life and mission of the church is conflated with the life and mission of the country. American values are in substance, biblical, prophetic values; American identity is, thus, a vaguely Christian identity.” (1) Civil religion often functions as an alternative public religious framework for many professing Christians, especially those who accept the “Christian America” myth, or who find exclusive Christian truth claims too controversial to play any significant role in the public square.




In modern America, civil religion is the chief rival to biblical Christianity. If those Christians who are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the kingdom of Christ and the civil kingdom, and who willingly placing themselves under the authority of God’s word are considered too extreme to be fully welcomed in America’s public square, those who champion a generic “civil religion” are almost always welcome.




Civil religion is an especially tempting option for Christians who have been told that religion is a private matter which has no place in the public square. The basic tenants of civil religion are vague enough that it is hard to deny them. They are also deeply held by too many Americans to eliminate them altogether from American life. Rather than check their faith in Jesus at the door to the public square, Christians can embrace civil religion in the public arena and few will complain, since virtually all citizens embrace the key tenants: a belief in a Creator; the basic goodness of humanity; equality for all; a profound sense of national purpose; and the celebration of national holidays with an almost religious reverence, (i.e, Independence Day, Memorial Day, and the National Day of Thanksgiving). Yet, to confuse Christ’s kingdom with civil religion opens the door–however unintentionally–to exchange the truth of Christianity for what amounts to a false religion, one in which faith in the national interest eclipses the primary allegiance a Christian owes to Jesus Christ and his word.




The attraction to civil religion also arises from the fact that Christians often strive to be good citizens and apply their deeply-held Christian convictions to their actions in the civil kingdom. Even when motivated by the best of intentions, Christians can easily find themselves attributing normative moral authority to the state, especially when the state’s current values and purposes appear to coincide with the revealed will of God (the moral law). When national values resonate with the tenants of someone’s Christian faith, it is easy to take the next step and assume what the nation does (whether that be in matters of foreign or domestic policy) accomplishes the will of God. The nation is believed to be God’s righteous agent and avenger, exercising God’s will, with his full authority and blessing.




When current events are read through the lens of civil religion, the nation’s struggles can be vividly portrayed in biblical images of sacrifice and redemption, and framed as part of the larger cosmic struggle between good and evil. Our enemies are declared to be “evil” because they oppose the good–our nation and its current cause. Our national warriors are righteous redeemers, doing the Lord’s work, giving the full measure of their devotion to “save” others. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his famed Gettysburg Address, those buried in the national cemetery gave their lives so that the nation might live. Without question, our soldiers and statesmen have often been heroic and sacrificed much to secure our current freedom and way of life. But their shed blood saved a secular nation from temporal peril, not their sinful souls from eternal punishment.




Under the umbrella of civil religion, a nation’s actions are understood independently of the biblical lens of mysterious working of God’s providence, wherein God’s purposes are often unknown to us until they unfold in history. Historical hindsight may reveal that God’s purpose for our nation includes humiliating military defeat or enduring great internal hardships. Whenever national purpose is interpreted through the lens of civil religion, the outcome depends upon the faithfulness of the people to do God’s will, which is to obey or embrace any cause the state undertakes. According to Robert Bellah, while “tension between the church and state lies deep in Christian history . . . through most of Western history some form of Christianity has been the established religion and has provided `religious legitimation’ to the state.” (2) Civil religion gives divine sanction to whatever the nation seeks to do, and gives the appearance that the state’s leaders are doing the will of God–so long as we happen to agree with them.




God’s mysterious purposes and his absolute sovereignty are such that even a terrible and horrific event such as the Holocaust accomplishes God’s greater purposes–however mysterious these events may be and difficult for us to understand. Christians make such a bold assertion because God incarnate was put to death and knew great suffering, before rising again from the dead, thereby winning salvation for all those who trust in him. Christians know that the agony and suffering of Christ’s cross precedes the glories of the empty tomb. Since civil religion throughly confuses God’s two kingdoms (that of Christ and the civil kingdom), civil religionists cannot tolerate the thought that our nation’s actions may be sinful at times, or that a “Christian” nation can commit terrible wrongs or injustice. The Reformed doctrine of God’s providence (3)–whatever happens in human history, whether good or evil, serves God’s greater purposes–undermines the civil religion’s creed that our nation serves only “good” or “righteous” ends. Furthermore, that Christ is Lord over both kingdoms should remind all civil authorities that on the day of judgment, they must give an account to God for all they have done. There is no such final judgment in civil religion, which is why, no doubt, so many find it attractive.




American Christians are especially vulnerable to such forms of civil religion, given the way in which “Americans have been habitually drawn to language that is redemptive, apocalyptic, and expansive.” Many of our contemporaries have indeed fallen into a “Manichean habit of dividing the world into light and dark, Evil and Good, past and future, Satan and Christ.” (4) When American Christians embrace this way of evaluating our nation’s actions, sadly, they cut themselves loose from sound biblical and theological categories (i.e., God’s providential purposes), and now cannot see God’s hand in disaster, nor find his blessings even in time of calamity.




This temptation to equate the national cause with the will of God becomes especially acute during times of war or national peril. Instances of appeals to various sorts civil religion are legion throughout the course of Western Civilization. But one historical period in which a pernicious form of civil religion was readily embraced by a number of “Christian nations”–ironically, while waging war upon each other–was the Great War of 1914-1918. Those Protestant nations which fought in World War One, were at one time seed-beds of the Protestant Reformation, but now found themselves under the extreme duress of a bloody war which escalated rapidly beyond anyone’s wildest expectation. These nations and their leaders, “especially looked to biblical doctrines of national chosenness, to promises that victory and prosperity awaited those peoples who faithfully followed their divine covenants.” (5)




Although combatants from all the nations of the Entente Powers (Great Britain, France, and Russia) invoked holy war to one degree or another, used overtly religious imagery to explain and justify their cause, and boldly claimed God’s favor in their war efforts against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Muslim Ottoman Empire), German Protestants were especially bold in their confusion of Christian faith with civil religion. Renowned German Protestant theologians, such as Reinold Seeberg, developed a theological justification for German imperialism. Ernst Troeltsch argued that the German army was the earthly means used by God to usher in the kingdom of Christ. Adolph Von Harnack aided the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, in drafting pre-war and mid-war speeches designed to rally the German people to take up arms against the tottering remnants of Christendom. (6) Historian Philip Jenkins quotes a noted German theologian affirming that “for Germans, Jesus was . . .`the born hero and standard-bearer of our time.’” (7)




These are especially egregious examples of civil religion undergirding extreme militarism, yet sadly, similar statements, proclaiming that America is central to God’s purposes, have been uttered by many American presidents in times of war, or when commemorating consequential national events. (8)




The vagaries of civil religion are often manifest in a number of national symbols and actions, which may take on religious tone and reverence. These include: the singing of the national anthem at public events; the display of the flag and other national symbols in parades and patriotic holidays; repeated oaths of allegiance to the state (i.e., the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America); ceremonies associated with the inauguration of the president or the coronation of a king; mythologized and exaggerated tales of a nation’s founding; monuments commemorating great events and historical figures; memorials to dead soldiers and events commemorating their sacrifice; expressions of reverence for king and country; public display of political figures at the time of their death, along with ceremonies in commemoration of them. (9).




Bellah adds that in the American context,


Behind the civil religion at every point lie biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations. (10)



Under most circumstances in the civil kingdom, the civil religion “identifiers” listed above are quite innocuous, and for many, such ceremonies have no innate religious significance, which is why Christians living in the civil kingdom should feel free to participate in such things as an expression of their patriotism. Christian citizens should love their country. There is, after all much in the civil kingdom worth commemorating. Celebrating the national Day of Independence, leaving flags on Memorial Day at graves of loved ones who served their country, walking through places such as Arlington National Cemetery or the touring great battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and appreciating the sacrifices and heroism represented by such places, are not necessarily manifestations of “civil religion.” Yet there is a huge difference–however subtle–between loving our nation, cherishing its history, and confusing these events and the sacrifices of our national heroes with the advance of the kingdom of Christ.




What makes civil religion such a dangerous temptation is that there is a very fine line between patriotism (love of country) and nationalism (the belief that a country’s national interests reflect the will and favor of God). The line can be very hard to find, and even easier to cross, especially without two-kingdom categories. As Bellah points out,


The American civil religion was never anticlerical or militantly secular. On the contrary, it borrowed selectively from the religious tradition in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two. In this way, the civil religion was able to build up without any bitter struggle with the church powerful symbols of national solidarity and to mobilize deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals. (11)



Christians who do not consider the distinction between the kingdom of Christ and the civil kingdom are especially vulnerable to crossing the line between patriotism and nationalism. Christians who see the United States as occupying a unique covenantal relationship with God (such as Israel possessed under the Sinai covenant) are especially susceptible to confusing Christian convictions with national purposes, because the latter have taken on an overtly religious meaning in the way they are understood and interpreted. Christians who seek “biblical” justification for political action are also vulnerable to embracing civil religion. The temptation to do so is great, especially in the American context.




For those professing Christians whose lives are driven by politics, it would be wise to consider the warning offered by James Davison Hunter. “The language of faith is not viewed by Party officials as the foundation for social justice or peace, but rather as a way to relate rhetorically to the electorate and mobilizing them to vote.” (12) Christians ought to be well-aware that love of country (a legitimate thing) can easily slip over into the realm of civil religion (a false religion). Christians should not be so naive as to believe that the two main American political parties whole-heartedly embrace Christian doctrine and ethics when they make their appeal to Christian voters on the basis of the tenants of civil religion.




Such political intentions are often of the “ends justify the means,” variety, and the bait is false religion which nevertheless tugs at the patriotic citizen’s heartstrings. Political parties, as they often function in America, should not be expected to consider the kingdom of Christ in their goals and frame of reference. What political parties want is a loyal voter and a devoted partisan. Party organizers know full-well civil religion motivates the political faithful and energizes voters. “This does not mean that Christians shouldn’t `vote their values’ or be active in political affairs. It is essential, however, to demythologize politics, to see politics for what it is and what it can and cannot do and not place on it unrealistic expectations.” (13) Caveat emptor applies to political parties every bit as much as it does to the sale of used cars.




There is one more danger here of which to be careful. Christians–whose tone of discourse should always be tempered by their love of their civil kingdom neighbor–can become prone to embrace the heated and shrill language of contemporary political discourse. Christians often find themselves enlisted as secular “culture warriors” fighting under the banner of civil religion. Serving as “soldiers” enrolled in one of the armies of the two main competing political parties, otherwise mild-mannered Christian people are uncharacteristically eager to wage verbal war and heap scorn upon those fellow citizens who dare see things differently.


Christians citizens must strive to be “civil” with others in the civil kingdom and yet not make the logical mistake made by so many of our contemporaries–to think that a personal opinion is a substitute for a well-crafted argument, and that “winner” is the one who succeeds in talking the loudest or dominating a conversation.


Source: http://kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/civil-religion/

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