The Blessing of Barack
Might Barak Obama help deliver Evangelicals from a tendency toward
The greatest blessing of the
Barak Obama Presidency may be delivering Evangelicals from a tendency toward
civil religion. 94% of white Evangelicals
voted against Obama so it might be easier to find deliverance under a President
evangelicals didn’t elect.
By civil religion I mean a
kind of nationalism that poses a universal god-above-all-gods whose name is
“god” or “the Almighty” or Providence” who has a special relationship with our
nation and has given us a special calling to spread freedom, democracy and our
way of life across the world with missionary zeal. Civil
religion is "an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs
about the American nation" which uses symbols and language of religion to
persuade citizens to support and sacrifice for national policy.
In civil religion the state
is sanctified by quasi-religious symbols and language. It offers sacred symbols
(flag) sacred text (Constitution), sacred places (Gettysburg,
Potomac River, Arlington)
temples (‘hallowed halls’ of congress), and sacred rituals (the inauguration).
It integrates real religious symbols and rituals too (Bible, prayer) and
presents nationalism in such a way that a nation’s citizens believe in the
national god that is above and beyond their own religion’s gods. It is all done
in a way that when a President mentions “Providence”
leading our nation we think he really means Yahweh or the Holy Trinity but he
doesn’t. In its worst form civil religion presents the god-of-America as the
god-above-all-gods, the sort of commander-in-chief of all religions who
presides over all religions and has a special calling to America.
Some Evangelicals consider
civil religion as innocuous as Israel
did its Baal worship—“just something you do here in this land.” It is the
Anabaptists like the Mennonites who have been the noisiest at scolding us for
civil religion. They label it outright idolatry—a temptation to give fidelity
to another god besides the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I think the coming years
might be a good time for a discussion about civil religion among evangelicals.
I think this because Obama is probably the most skilled priest of civil
religion in my entire lifetime. Since most Evangelicals already distrust Obama
maybe we’ll be more careful about swallowing this “god” who is not really the
One True God but a competitor for our faith and fidelity—the god of civil
religion is a nationalized totem-god designed to unite citizens. He is a god
who never has any judgment or condemnation for us but faithfully sanctifies the
actions of the state and calls for a loyalty that places “no other god before
Maybe the coming years could
turn out to be a blessing for Evangelicals—we might rethink our tendency toward
to civil religion and thus cast off this competing god?
So what do you think?
the first few weeks, click here to comment or read comments
January 20, 2009, the day of the inauguration of Barak Obama
as 44th President of the USA
This is the
definition of Robert Bellah. The term “Civil Religion” originates in the work
of Rousseau, with echoes in Tocqueville. Bellah’s essay titled "Civil Religion
was published in Daedalus in 1967.
The phrase "civil religion" is Rousseau's (Ch 8, book 4 of The Social Contract). The dogmas of
“Civil Religion” are: 1)
There is a God; 2) God rewards virtue and punishes vice; and, 3) The chief sin is
religious intolerance. This, of course is the trinity of doctrines governing America’s Civil Religion that we saw at its height in Colin Powel’s
endorsement of Obama claiming we are Americans first and our commitment to
Islam or Christianity is second to our commitment to our nation. Bellah
saw these articles of faith expressed in America's founding documents and
presidential inaugural addresses. They include a belief in the existence of a
transcendent being called "God," the American nation is subject to
God's laws, and that God will guide and protect the United States which is
“special” in God’s plan for the world.
In long conversations with the late David Smith,
former professor of Theology at Indiana
he cited numerous examples of the mirroring of real religion in civil religion.
Here are my notes from those conversations: “Civil
religion offers a common three-fold doctrine,
a "salvation history" telling how God saved us from our
enemies, a series of hallowed
rituals like the state of the
union address, the national funeral of a President or inauguration. Civil religion finds its saints in the national heroes like
Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and others. We even carve their images in giant mountains and make national parks
out of the space. There are more images of our past heroes in Washington D.C. than St. Peter's has in Rome. We have enshrined the sacred
text of the constitution and
line up to glance at the original autograph housed in a sacred shrine under
thick glass. The
Civil War to us was our great sacrifice, and the death of Lincoln is our own story of giving one’s life so that others may
live—the substitutionary death in our own country. Arlington cemetery is just one of a dozen sacred places for us, complete with its
"eternal flame." Our
flag is such a sacred object to us that we urge our congress to
pass a law nobody may "desecrate" it—one can only desecrate what is
sacred. We often merge our
piety with our patriotism. Freedom
is the ultimate value and we are willing to die for it—even kill for it.