The Blessing of Barack

Might Barak Obama help deliver Evangelicals from a tendency toward civil religion?


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. [1]


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. [2]


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 me.”


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? 

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Keith Drury   January 20, 2009, the day of the inauguration of Barak Obama as 44th President of the USA




[1]  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 in America," 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.

[2] In long conversations with the late David Smith, former professor of Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University, 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.