The pastor of my local church caused no small stir several years ago when he removed the American flag from its perch just behind the pulpit. Indeed, he removed it from the sanctuary entirely. As you might imagine, this provoked some consternation among at least a few members, who no doubt wondered if this brash new pastor, late of graduate school and ministry in England, might have acquired some suspect loyalties during his years abroad. It was not anti-Americanism or any other lack of patriotism that animated his decision, however. Reared in a small town in the verdant rolling hills of the Bluegrass State, he is as red-blooded an American as you will find, possessed of a deep and abiding love for his country. He will with gratitude and pride salute the flag when given occasion to do so. So why remove it from the sanctuary? Most simply, he wanted to brook no confusion that the church offers its worship only to Christ-and not to America. More deeply, he saw the flag's prominence in the pulpit, even its very presence in the sanctuary, as potentially obscuring the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. He sought to make sure that there was no confusion over his primary calling and our primary identity. As a minister of Christ's church, he is charged with preaching the Word of God to our congregation, holding our consciences captive to God's revelation as our ultimate authority and to God's name as our ultimate loyalty, no matter our earthly citizenship or nationality. The mere presence of an American flag does not necessarily defy this distinction, of course. But it may confuse or undermine it.
This is not to say that the virtually ubiquitous American flags in sanctuaries across the United States necessarily indicate some sort of latter-day "Babylonian captivity of the church"-in this case a "captivity" to jingoistic nationalism. No doubt some, perhaps even many, congregations keep a flag in their church while also keeping a clear understanding of the distinction between the church and the world. Nevertheless, the pervasiveness of pulpit flags should give us pause. Especially because they serve as just one visible manifestation of a deeper problem: the frequent confusion of civil religion with biblical Christianity.
What is civil religion? According to historian (and Christian) Wilfred McClay, civil religion is "that strain of American piety that bestows many of the elements of religious sentiment and faith upon the political and social institutions of the United States." More problematically, civil religion is the misidentification of the nation of the United States with the covenant people of God. It is the casual assumption that America enjoys a special role in redemptive history. It is the confusion of the office of the political leader with the office of the spiritual leader. It is the frequent presumption of divine blessings without submission to divine judgment. It is the sublimation of Christian distinctives to a generic amalgam that conflates many faiths into a common national identity. It is as old as America itself. And it is not biblical Christianity.
This is the first and by far most vital distinction to keep in mind. Though civil religion may at times draw on biblical resources, though it may on occasion employ Christian imagery, though it may appeal to many professing Christians, it differs from biblical Christianity in fundamental ways. Christianity holds that the people of God are all those who, irrespective of tribe or tongue, have repented of their sins, trusted wholly in Christ's substitutionary death for their forgiveness, been reconciled to God through his redeeming grace, and joined in the life of the church. Civil religion instead often holds that God's people are those who dwell in a particular nation-state and faithfully uphold their civic duties. Christianity holds that man's chief end is, in the words of the Westminster Confession, to "glorify God and enjoy him forever." Civil religion, at its worst, holds that God's chief end is to preserve and bless the nation-state. Christianity is worship of the one true God. Civil religion, at its most pernicious, is idolatry.
It must quickly be said, however, that civil religion is not always this problematic, or even this objectionable. When the distinction between civil religion and biblical Christianity is kept clear, the former can at times serve as a helpful and even necessary source of civic virtue. In other words, civil religion at its best functions as a sort of natural theology affirming certain truths that God has revealed in creation. These might include that God is above governments and ordains their authority, that he has bestowed on man certain rights, freedoms, and responsibilities, that he is the source of all material goods and blessings, and that all people and nations are subject to his judgment, both here and in the hereafter. It is good and right for governments and peoples to acknowledge a sovereign divine lawgiver, provider, and judge. Civil religion at its best affirms these truths. In doing so, it can help produce good citizens and even a good society. But it cannot save sinners.
Civil Religion in History
Civil religion is nothing new. In some ways it is as old as both church and state. What the eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon famously observed about ancient Rome might well be true in some circles today: "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful." His wry observation, which could be said of many other nations and cultures besides ancient Rome, should caution political leaders against manipulating religious faith, and religious leaders against placing their faith in the service of the state. Winston Churchill, for one, took a more humble and more honest perspective. Asked if he considered himself to be, like his devout Anglican colleague Lord Halifax, a "pillar of the church," Churchill replied that he was not, but rather was a "flying buttress." While professing support for the presence of the church in his country, Churchill recognized that he was neither a part of the church nor in control of it.
Civil religion is inseparable from history, particularly because it often bases itself on a distinctive view of the past. Rather than attempt a comprehensive survey of civil religion throughout American history, this essay will focus on just two periods in our nation's past, the founding and the early Cold War years, to illustrate how civil religion originated and to show how this view of the past informs the present. Indeed, some of today's most contested political debates often appeal to the question of just how religious-or irreligious-were America's founders. How often, after all, does one hear calls for the United States to return to its "biblical roots," its "Christian heritage"? Such theological irredentism is correct in at least one respect. Many of the early English settlers did come with the goal of building a distinctively Christian community. Many others did not, of course; they came for political liberty or often just to make money. But even the first Massachusetts Puritans did not see themselves as founding a new nation-state, and certainly not a Christian nation-state. Rather, they only sought to establish a new Christian community, while still retaining their English citizenship.
Out of this context came one of the most famous yet least understood sermons in American history. John Winthrop, the hardy leader of one of the earliest groups of Puritans, in 1630 preached a message to his companions while they sailed onboard their ship, the Arbella, to America. Winthrop described himself and his people as "a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ." And while he believed that "the Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways," Winthrop also invoked divine judgment on himself and his fellow Christians should they break their covenant with God.
[W]e shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
The "city upon a hill," self-consciously echoing Christ's words in Matthew, referred not to a new nation-state but to a new church community. It would serve as a gospel model first to their fellow Englishmen and then to the rest of the world. Note also that Winthrop warned his people that if they were unfaithful to God, he would remove his blessing and cause their errand to fail. The whole world would still be watching the "city upon a hill," but all the world would see would be the city collapsing miserably under wrathful divine judgment. Such were the promises and peril that attended the first Puritan settlements in Massachusetts. It was not civil religion, but a distinctive brand of Christianity that animated these Puritans.
The many glories of colonial New England notwithstanding, the Puritans' original mission ended in abject failure. Not only did the English Church eventually stop paying attention to the efforts of their brethren to establish a model Christian society in the new world, but the American Puritans themselves over time lost much of their Christian devotion and doctrine, until Puritanism as a distinctive religious movement had largely disappeared. Their descendants still had their new land, however, and decided to make it a new nation. As the late Perry Miller famously described the Puritan legacy, "having failed to rivet the eyes of the world upon their city on a hill, they were left alone with America."
In other words, rather than being founded as a distinctively Christian nation-state, the birth of the United States came as almost an accidental by-product of a failed Christian community. This is not at all to say that Christianity was completely absent from the American founding itself. In the revolutionary era, the Founding Fathers drew on three principal sources in conceiving the ideals and institutions of the United States: classical Greco-Roman thought, Enlightenment rationalism, and Christianity. From this intellectual ferment came the founding principles of the new nation, and not coincidentally, the birth of the American civil religion. In turn, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the American Revolution would not have happened without the support offered by this new civil religion.
Consider the following examples. Most obviously, Thomas Jefferson's affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal . . . [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" reiterates the conviction that our rights came ultimately from God, not government or man. Less well-known are the resolutions adopted by the Continental Congress throughout the Revolutionary War, setting aside particular days for "Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer." One such resolution, issued in 1777 and distributed throughout the churches of the land, called on all Americans to "join the penitent confession of their manifold sins … and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance." Several themes emerge here: awareness of sin, dependence on God's providence, the urge to stay faithful, the belief that God had a special relationship with America, and even the explicit invocation of Christ. And the first Congress seems to have practiced what it preached. After convening in 1774, the Continental Congress immediately selected a chaplain to open its sessions in prayer. The Rev. Jacob Duche', an Anglican priest from Philadelphia, served as the first Congressional chaplain from 1774 until 1777. His term "ended" not because he retired but because he defected to the British-the Benedict Arnold of civil religion, perhaps. Finally, after declaring independence in 1776, Congress solicited ideas for a national seal. Both Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson suggested a depiction of God drowning Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea and rescuing the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt-showing what they regarded as the common theme of God's granting liberty to his chosen people, whether the Old Testament Israelites or the new world Americans.
These examples are just a few of many that well illustrate the emerging civil religion. Here it is crucial to remember that the American founders employed a natural theology rather than a revealed theology to establish the intellectual foundations of their new land. Just look again at the language of the Declaration of Independence: "we hold these truths to be self-evident." In short, the God that most of the founders believed in epitomized reason, virtue, order, and liberty-though not necessarily perfect holiness, wrath, love, and grace. As Mark Noll has observed, most of the founders (many of whom were not orthodox Christians) found in God what they most admired in humanity. It might also be said that they found in religion what they most admired in their nation.
Civil Religion in the Modern Era
On February 1, 1953, at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., the Rev. Edward Elson baptized the newest member of his congregation. Elson also made history, of a sort. The person baptized was Dwight D. Eisenhower, just inaugurated as president of the United States-and the only president to be baptized while in office. Besides its spiritual significance for Eisenhower's faith, his baptism also represented a new era of public religiosity in American life. From Eisenhower's unprecedented offering of his own prayer before his inaugural address, to his decision to have Cabinet meetings open with prayer, to the creation of the National Prayer Breakfast, to adopting "In God We Trust" as the United States' motto and printing it on the nation's paper currency, to adding "one nation, under God" to the pledge of allegiance, the Eisenhower administration oversaw the reinvigoration, even the reestablishment, of American civil religion.
It was such a creed that in part prompted Eisenhower's most infamous, yet revealing, comment on religion. On December 22, 1952, Eisenhower, then president-elect, met in New York with his old counterpart and friend from World War II days, Marshal Grigori Zhukov of the Soviet army. Describing their discussion at a press conference afterwards, Eisenhower delivered fodder for critics of civil religion-and of his own intellect-for generations since. After quoting the Declaration of Independence's recognition that "all men are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," Eisenhower offered this interpretation: "In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal. So what was the use of me talking to Zhukov about that? Religion, he had been taught, was the opiate of the people."
This quote by Eisenhower illustrates the worst and the best of civil religion. At its worst, doctrine and theological truth-claims are rendered largely irrelevant. Of particular concern to Christians, the redeeming work of Christ is wholly disregarded, replaced by moralism and a crude, nonredemptive natural theology. At its best, it unites a society around a few basic truths, including the distinction between creature and Creator, the supremacy of God over government, and the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings. If Irving Kristol could muster "two cheers for capitalism," in the same spirit we might say that civil religion merits just one cheer.
A contemporary observer in Eisenhower's day, the Jewish social scientist Will Herberg considered the nature and paradox of the altogether new faith that he saw emerging in America. Though written in 1955, his description of civil religion in his classic Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology, is no less applicable today. Herberg observed that the American people had become more religious than at any time in the nation's history. Yet this new level of religiosity was accompanied by a "new secularism," not defined by unbelief but by the diminished authority of religion over people's lives. "The religion which actually prevails among Americans today has lost much of its authentic Christian (or Jewish) content. Even when [Americans] are thinking, feeling, or acting religiously, their thinking, feeling, and acting do not bear an unequivocal relation to the faiths they profess." Instead, Herberg argued that while Americans at one level affirmed the theological distinctives of their respective faiths, these distinctives gave way to a more transcendent new faith that trumped all else: "The American Way of Life."
Herberg's "American Way of Life" was moralistic, idealistic yet pragmatic, fiercely democratic, and fervently anticommunist. This new faith genuinely valued traditional religion and sincerely believed in God. However, in a profound teleological shift, no longer was Jesus Christ (for Christians) or even God (for Christians and Jews) the final object of faith, but rather "religion" and "faith" were taken to be ends in themselves, as objects of devotion, as indispensable for society's foundations. No doubt this civil-religious "faith" played an indispensable role in bolstering American resolve against the unmitigated evil of Soviet communism during the Cold War. It also helped shape national cohesion and build social capital for a well-ordered society. Unfortunately it also further blurred the distinction between creation and redemption, between the world and the church, between the city of man and the City of God. What may have been good for the country was at the same time bad for the church. And in the long term, what is bad for the church is also bad for the country.
Civil Religion in the Balance
Surveying our present situation, Wilfred McClay describes civil religion's "inherently problematic relationship to the Christian faith or any other serious religious tradition. At best, it provides a secular grounding for that faith, one that makes political institutions more responsive to calls for self-examination and repentance, as well as exertion and sacrifice for the common good. At worst, it can provide divine warrant to unscrupulous acts, cheapen religious language, turn clergy into robed flunkies of the state and the culture, and bring the simulacrum of religious awe into places where it doesn't belong."
The civil religion of the Eisenhower era is essentially the version still with us today. Blandly patriotic, optimistic, therapeutic, more spiritual than confessional, it reinforces much of the pervasive "religiosity" in America that is as resilient as it is amorphous. As Herberg observed, "religion" and "faith" are often seen as ends in themselves, and doctrine is regarded as unnecessary and divisive rather than as essential to determining truth. Moreover, this civil religion too often reassures us of the favor we enjoy from God while eschewing any call to repentance from our sin. Hence Irving Kristol's acerbic insight that "when Americans sin, we quickly forgive ourselves."
Do these confusions mean that American Christians shouldn't be patriotic? Not in the least. Indeed, an honest assessment of the considerable abundance of common grace goods that the United States enjoys might appropriately inspire a robust love of our country. Not for nothing did Lincoln, recognizing the uniqueness of the American experiment, famously describe Americans as an "almost chosen people." Yet any biblical Christian will recognize that there is, quite literally, a world of difference between being "almost chosen" and being "chosen." The former may make good citizens on earth; only the latter will be citizens of heaven.
It is right for all Americans-Christian and non-Christian-to recognize the supremacy of God over the governing institutions that he ordains, the divine source of our rights and freedoms, and that all of us will be held to account for our actions. In this sense, being a "good American" may sometimes not conflict with being a "good Christian." But sometimes the two are wholly incommensurate. What must be guarded against is making our penultimate loyalty-to country-into our ultimate loyalty. Love of God and loyalty to his kingdom must always be ultimate; anything else is idolatry.
If Gibbon identified the cynicism of the Roman Empire toward revealed religion, it fell to Augustine to identify the fragility of the Roman Empire in worshiping itself. As his biographer Peter Brown notes, "committed to the fragile world [the Romans] had created, they were forced to idealize it; they had to deny any evil in its past, and the certainty of death in its future. Even the most ancient of their historians, Sallust, had lied in praising the ancient days of Rome. This was inevitable, 'for,' as Augustine said, poignantly, 'he had no other city to praise.'"
The observation from Mark Noll is taken from The History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), p. 136. The anecdote of Edward Elson's baptism of President Eisenhower is taken from Wide Was His Parish (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986), pp. 115-118. Eisenhower's comment on religion is found in Patrick Henry, "'And I Don't Care What It Is': The Tradition-History of a Civil Religion Proof-Text," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. XLIX, no. 1, pp. 35-49. The quotations from Will Herberg are from Herberg's Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1955), pp. 3, 77-84. Finally, the observations of Augustine were taken from Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), p. 307.