Civil religion: the union of church and state

There’s an interesting discussion that I saw today about the influence that a religious culture has on diminishing the power of the church. When the church is ever present within the secular society, when people then start to feel the need to pay it lip-service not out of reverence, but out of obligatory duty to something they think someone else believes in, that’s when the church begins to lose its importance to that society. It’s a matter of church becoming normalized by culture. Jesus called us to make the opposite happen– we need to be a part of a culture that is becoming radicalized by the church, by the far-from-normal commands to love and serve that Jesus gave us.

I’ve come across this situation more frequently since moving to the South. It was far from easy being a Christian in New York, but because the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy exclusively covered Sunday mornings and all things related thereto, you could at least be sure that if people were actually talking about their faith, it was because they meant it.

For example, I jokingly refer to “forgiveness” as the “f” word, because to this Yankee, who had never heard that word outside of church before moving south, that word has every implication of abject humbling that Jesus meant it to have. Asking someone for forgiveness is an admission of serious fault, because by admitting your shortcomings, you’ve given a measure of power to that other person to forgive you, or not. Meanwhile in Nashville and other areas of the South, “forgive” is the word someone uses to apologize to you for bumping into you in the grocery store.

This is a perfect example not just of civil religion but also how civil religion harms the church. Civil religion is that folk religion that serves to further advance the cause of the state. Civil religion can include invocations of a generic God at inaugurations and other key events (lately these invocations also acknowledge, showing the power of civil religion, the absence of trust in God as well), oblique or overt religious references by political leaders, exaggerated stories about great leaders, interfaith worship events at times of national crisis (e.g., when Oprah Winfrey led a massive interfaith worship service at Yankee Stadium in the aftermath of 9/11), and so on and so forth.

Civil religion can be a unifying force for political power but it manages to unify, typically, at the expense of orthodox belief.

What she’s saying is that civil religion is not the real religion for which so many of us go to church, or study the Bible, or by which we try to shape our lives. Civil religion is the sham of looking good in exchange for political power, and it dilutes the power of the church by trying to convince people that this diet, decaf, low-fat, low-sodium version is the real deal. And sadly, like so many diet foods, you don’t find out that it’s as unfulfilling as a pile of cardboard until you buy the whole box of it. But here we have a pile of cardboard diet-religion masquerading as Christianity, and it’s put on by people on tv, and it’s convincing people that this is the real, rich, delicious, full-fat Christianity, and it’s eroding the significance of what the church stands for.

It happens across party lines too, though one party tends to be more consistent with it while the other just plays the religion card to pander to certain audiences. And I think it’s one of the reasons that so many young people find themselves disillusioned with the Christian church. Christ calls us to radical actions. He calls us to act like the Pope does, kissing the face of the horribly disfigured man, eschewing his royal apartment and his gild and glitz for a humble abode, personally calling a woman who was the victim of rape and comforting her, and sneaking out of the Vatican at night in disguise to go feed the homeless.

These are the things that inspire people, young and old, to be a part of the church, to do radical, good things in their communities and in the world, and to spread the love of Christ. These things are what every Christian ought to be doing… except they’re harder than glibly apologizing to someone with a “oh, please forgive me!” when you accidentally bump into them in a coffee shop. They’re harder than saying a prayer at a political convention filled with other Christians. They’re harder than hanging a cross on your rearview mirror or having a fish sticker on your bumper.

And you know what’s awesome– Steven Curtis Chapman wrote a jam about this I used to rock out to, back in the 90s…. gosh I’m old. But it’s a good song nonetheless 🙂


This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do any of the above things, but we really ought to keep them in perspective. Just like attending an anti-Bush rally in the liberal collegetown of Ithaca, NY in 2005 was the absolute opposite of a courageous action, likewise it’s not at all courageous or radical to profess your faith in these superficial ways when you’re living in the middle of the Bible belt. So don’t be superficial– instead, be a radical Christian in your community.

That something radical could mean standing up to the oppressive anti-Christian government in Syria or China and risking your life, or it could mean paying for lunch for the person behind you at the drive-thru, or giving up your Saturdays to help battered women or homeless men, or just to go and sit with someone in the cafeteria who doesn’t have any friends. That’s the opposite of civil religion. It’s being a Christian when you’re risking or sacrificing something for it, when people might judge you and you might lose your reputation, or your friends, or your job, or even your life. It’s publicly attesting to your views when you have something at stake.

But you know what? Jesus wants us to claim him especially when we have something at stake. And isn’t he worth it?


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