Responses to Bob Benne on Civil Religion

[1] Bob Benne’s questions, whether American civil religion offers more than meets the critical neo-orthodox eyes, whether its nationalistic affections may be transformed by the universal perspectives of Abrahamic religions, expresses a magnanimous and inclusive spirit. His essay brings to mind Paul’s generous approach to the Athenians. Paul acknowledges their religiosity (without a word about their rampant idolatry) and seeks to relate it constructively to the Gospel: “What… you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). Benne’s thesis also reminds me of the pervasive openness one finds in Roman Catholic traditions where fundamental human needs and aspirations, reason, culture, communal structures, all have their honored place and legitimacy. The church of course witnesses and invites to more and better. But nothing natural is bad as such.

[2] Theologically, too, Benne’s thesis resonates with God’s care for us all – inside or outside the church. For if humans are created for God and for each other, then that hard-wired inclination may well surface in an irrepressible civic religiosity that can be construed and redirected redemptively by God’s grace. If only we, the insiders, had the good grace to see an opportunity rather than to condemn civil religion on obvious grounds. Benne’s thesis seems sound as well in that it refuses to privatize faith or to accede to the liberal separation of religion and politics. In Abrahamic religions everything is religious. For God is Lord of everything.

[3] Such open-mindedness to religion-lite would come so much easier if it were not for its horrendous manifestations. “May God bless America” sanctifies presidential ambitions of empire, invasion and war. What will never be heard in such forum is the plea, “May God have mercy on America.” “In God we trust” reassures us as citizens. Except, of course, when it comes down to it, we trust in nuclear deterrence and preventive war. When it comes to shaping actual military or foreign policy, appeals to God would be seen as expressions of desperation.

[4] Citing Lincoln and M.L. King, Jr., Benne hopes that civil religion can be bent toward a sense of national self-criticism and justice. But these were Christian voices from a time in which secularism had less standing. More importantly, their prophetic calls for national reform were not expressions of civil religion. For a defining feature of civil religion – omitted by Benne – is that it invokes God only for us, never against us. Perhaps one of the reasons for omitting “God Bless America” from our ELCA hymnals is that it was not written for worship and lacks even the cautionary note found in the second stanza of “America the Beautiful”: “God mend thine every flaw.”

[5] The heart of civil religion does not lie in its range and variety – whether invoked in business, politics, foreign policy, the military, sports, or civic and ceremonial occasions. Its key feature lies in its use to bless. It is good news without the Gospel. And it seems never to be linked to the law. Here God is for us. Period. It is never followed by a biblical, “therefore….” Civil religion serves national communities by reassuring all that God is with us. The God of Abraham calls nations to serve and be accountable to God and to each other. Thus the “under God” addition to the Pledge distinguished the USA from its godless Communist nemesis. The words did not and do not impose any actual or potential responsibilities on Americans, collectively or individually. Even if the words were more aspirational than descriptive, “under God” may take God’s name in vain.

[6] The phenomenon of civil religion is ancient and in that sense seems irrepressible. The label is new. What kings asked of Israel’s prophets was a smooth word. But taking God seriously exacted its price, both then and now. From a biblical perspective one suspects that what is needed is not redirection of civil religion but repentance and conversion.

[7] All this is not to reject Benne’s questions. A God who can use Cyrus of Persia for redemptive purposes surely can make a silk purse out of civil religion. And if that is not beyond God’s providence, it behooves us to consider seriously what new things might come to be. Christians and Jews have already adopted the liberal concepts of rights in their quest for social justice. They can support rights with a religious rationale that is made of sterner stuff than that “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Civil religion might become amenable to baptism and may also turn into a form of common grace.