Civil Religion: Thinking With Robert Benne

[1] Robert Benne believes that we need “a more positive, yet critical, appropriation of the [American] civil religion” than has been offered us by most Lutherans in this country. Some Lutherans have drawn back because our country’s civil religion seems insufficiently religious, others because it seems too religious (and insufficiently secular). Neither of these strikes me as a very nuanced approach, and that fact inclines me to be sympathetic to Benne’s case.

[2] I am also sympathetic for another reason: namely, because those who criticize some manifestations of civil religion so often seem tone deaf to its language. Thus, for example, in an essay in the Chicago Tribune (Feb. 1, 2005), David Domke and Kevin Coe (professor and graduate student, respectively, in departments of communication) criticize the use of religious language by our current president in his public speeches. When President Bush says, “the liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity,” they read language clearly designed to subvert self-congratulatory or imperialistic impulses as an arrogant “declaration of divine wishes” rather than “a request for divine favor.” Likewise, when the President says, “history has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty,” they make a similar charge–that he positions himself “as a prophetic spokesman for God rather than as a petitioning supplicant.” If so, he is in what we might regard as rather good company–though, evidently, Domke and Coe are ignorant of the famous passage near the end of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, in which he suggests that the growth of equality in the world, even if painful in some respects for one of aristocratic upbringing, “is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men.” Ignorant also of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion–on which the President’s sentence surely seems to draw–that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In such circumstances, when political disagreement is dressed up as criticism of civil religion, Benne’s concern does not seem misplaced.

[3] Finally, one point in particular that Benne makes is important and also moves me to take seriously his concern. Thinking specifically of language such as “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, Benne notes that our continued willingness to speak those words should remind us “that the nation is beholden to something beyond itself,” and that this “can serve as a workable reminder to the nation that finally it is not its own law and judge.” Critics of civil religion might do well to recall that the colony which produced a Cotton Mather capable of asserting that “New England has an Advocate in Heaven,” was also able to interpret its tribulations as the chastisement of God upon it for “provoking evils” by breach of its covenant with that God. It may not be easy to have one of these sentiments without the other. Patriotic feeling is a fundamental–and praiseworthy–human impulse, but it is safe only within a context that opens it, as Benne says, “to divine transcendence.”

[4] Despite all the good will I have toward Benne’s concern, however, I am not drawn to the form of the argument he makes in support of that concern. Rather than civil religion, what we need, I think, is Christian faith as an assertive and formative force in our public life. Civil religion is, Benne writes, “a religion of the First Article.” And that is precisely its problem. It’s a religion; it’s not the true religion (which could hardly bracket entirely “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”); and hence it must be a false and potentially idolatrous religion. Let me see if I can unpack this claim just a bit.

[5] There are Lutherans who will be drawn to a religion that sharply separates first from second article of the creed, but, as the twentieth century definitively demonstrated, that is, I fear, the dark underside of Lutheranism. They will be drawn to it because it stakes out what they will think of as a purely “secular” realm where Christians and others can meet, free of any (disruptive) religious claims. As soon as I put the matter that way, of course, the problem becomes apparent. We do not, these Lutherans will immediately add, recalling recent history, mean that this “secular” realm is entirely autonomous. It is still subject to the judgment and the law of God.

[6] What God? The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or some other? To be sure, Christians do believe with the psalmist (19:1) that the heavens declare the glory of God. They believe, as St. Paul says in Romans (1:20) that God’s “eternal power and deity” can be and have been discerned in the things he has made. No one can live entirely out of touch with God. But this God whom we can never escape is the only God there is–the Father of Jesus Christ, through whom, St. John says, all things were made, and who is both the life and the light of the world. Whether the world knows it or not. The heavens declare the glory not of some generic god whom all experience in their different ways. No, they declare the glory of the one God who is known only as he makes himself known–in his dealings with Israel, and in Jesus of Nazareth.

[7] Through the prophet Amos (3:2) the Lord says to Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” Yet, says Amos, other peoples may also have their own calling from this God, who not only brought up Israel from Egypt, but also brought “the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir” (9:7). These peoples too have a story of their dealings with the one God, even if that story is not known to us in the way Israel’s is.

[8] So there is not some other god, a god of the first article, a god of civil religion–whom we all share despite the fact that some of us worship the Father of Jesus Christ while others bend the knee elsewhere. Or, if there is such another god, it is the work of our own hands, and cannot then really provide the “divine judgment” Benne rightly seeks from civil religion. This is god put in service of national cohesion or purpose, and Benne himself falls into this just a bit. For example: “Without the minimal consensus provided by the civil religion, the nation may lose a sense of identity and mission.” The true God is not, I think, quite so readily available for our purposes. “Only today,” Screwtape writes to Wormwood in one of his letters, “I have found a passage in a Christian writer [Reinhold Niebuhr, as it happens] where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations.’ You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game.”

[9] By now I can sense Benne’s frustration with me beginning to build. What exactly do I want? I’m clearly sympathetic to his concerns, and I certainly am not drawn to either the political dismissal of patriotism or the (by my lights) confused theology that many of his critics will display. “Ah” Benne might say, “you can take the boy out of Concordia, but you can’t take Missouri out of the man. Must we really get all this sorted out before we can have a little religion in public?”

[10] Guilty, I guess. To some degree, at least. The only God whose blessing I’d want for America–because there is none other who can bless–is the God who even now rules the world through the risen Christ. It’s that God–not the “transcendent” generally–whose providential care we ought to seek and whose judgment we ought to take seriously. And precisely that has been true of our history. The long march of Christian thought and institutions in the history of the West produced what Oliver O’Donovan (for reasons somewhat different from Benne’s) terms “the humble state.” A state which knows that its days are numbered. A state which knows that its work is neither redemptive nor salvific, but that it exists to serve the church’s mission by preserving the world toward the day when Christ’s rule will be completed and political rule will be obsolete. But also–and here is the point at which, from my own rather different angle, I join Benne’s concern–a state which knows that it is “secular” not in the sense that it is irreligious but in the sense that its work is confined to the saeculum, to this present but passing age. And if not irreligious, then open to religious language and belief in the public sphere. It may be, in fact, that many of our fellow citizens, speaking not from some generic religious perspective but from within their own faith, can affirm that ours is and must be a nation “under God”–and a nation limited in its claims precisely because it is under God.

[11] How exactly that talk should take place in a society as pluralistic as ours is, of course, a hard question, well beyond my capacity to address here–though I think our current President has done it reasonably well. It is no easy task for us to be fellow citizens with pagans–nor, we must in all honesty add, for them to be fellow citizens with us. We will best approach this task not with the aid of some third language–that of civil religion–but by a conversation in which we speak in ways that reveal who we truly are and what we truly believe. What we need is not civil religion but citizens who are civil and a civitas that is humble enough to hear them and determined enough to defend the common life they seek to share.

Gilbert Meilaender

Gilbert Meilaender is Professor of Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana.