There’s been a torrent of debate in the evangelical blogosphere regarding Glenn Beck’s 8/28 “Restoring Honor Rally.” Dividing lines, more or less, have been drawn; allegations of evangelical elitism by Beck’s defenders and accustations of naive, nationalism by his critics.

For the moment, however, Beck’s moment in the spotlight and the tumult that followed highlights two weaknesses within American Religion: (1) Those crying wolf over the apparent rise of “civil religion;” (2) the outright desire, an altruistic desire I believe, to revitalize the American tradition along the lines of faith, hope, and charity—however nebulous such terms are. And absent Christ, they are nebulous.

Enter Civic Religion. The evangelical left, such as Greg Boyd, assail Civil Religion as the chief culprit in the absolute failure known as Christendom. Yet, I’m not inclined to write off Civil Religion. In fact, there’s an element that is not only inevitable, but necessary given America’s constitutional commitment to religious liberty. Civil Religion, for all its failure, must occur. It’s the void produced by secularism.

I’m assuming, of course, that moral understanding is largely impossible apart from religious grounding. This is not a new argument. Francis Schaeffer articulated this long ago. Along with C.S. Lewis, the ability to decide an act as bad or another good assumes some transcendent factor that provides the ability to separate the bad from the good. History, mostly until the 18th century, saw religion provide the basis for morality and of course, law. Religion, even at this time, provided an instrumental good.

Extreme forms of religious liberty (more likely, strict separationism), like secularism, undermine a nation’s commitment to morality. As Western nations adopted forms of religious liberty, religious heritage waned. Religious commitment on the part of individuals did not lessen, but national religiosity did. This project is not entirely tragic. Less state-sponsored religion allowed true adherents to grow in their faith opposite coercion.

Am I saying that I agree with Civil Religion? No. Am I saying that I put a lot of stock in what it provides? No. Is Civil Religion the hope of a nation? Tragically, it probably is. But what else would you expect? I long for America to be a nation of regenerate Christians. The last time I checked, though, this hasn’t happened.

To those harboring contempt for Civil Religion, I ask you, what else fosters at least a minimalist understanding of public morality? What else under girds a nation’s charter?

I’ll leave you with this: The opposite of Civil Religion isn’t a nation bowing its knee to Christ. That won’t happen until Christ establishes his reign over all the nations. This side of the Kingdom,  the opposite of Civil Religion is nihilism.

As I see it, Civil Religion isn’t harmful, but it also isn’t sufficient. It anchors a people in their historical and moral traditions. It provides the basis for recovery. It gives people, not anchored in Christ, a sense of collective meaning and vision. Until the Kingdom comes, Civil Religion will reign.

Insofar as Civil Religion does not claim to be redemptive and said Civil Religion convinces people that nascent, unborn life should not be killed in the womb, I’ll take it. I’m not looking for Civil Religion to be Christian or Mormon; I’m simply looking for a Civil Religion that commends the good and punishes the bad.

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Posted by Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

4 Comments

  1. A truly great article Andrew. Very nice.

    >> This side of the Kingdom, the opposite of Civil Religion is nihilism.

    True enough. I think when Christians reject Civil Religion they may have a couple of motivations. There is the lure of the antinomian route, though that may amount to the same thing since I remember reading where a well-regarded historian called the antinomians of the Puritan era “17th century nihilists”.

    Christians can also be motivated by the idealistic route and from the Platonists inherit the “impatience with the messiness and complexity of the real world, a desire for all form or order to be simple and evident enough to be accessible from the armchair.” The quote is from Feser – http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/09/pop-culture-and-lure-of-platonism.html

    Christ is order -Glen Beck is messy. Conscience is order -laws are messy. Platonists are all about trancendence. Aristotelians (and thus Thomists) get immanence as well.

    In other words, I think when Christians reject Civil Religion it is often not fully a conscious action, but rather mostly an implicit rejection forced by the acceptance of the powerful lure of a radical idealism, either religious or philosophical.

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  2. There’s a significant difference between thinking “civil religion” is inevitable and thinking it is good. To the latter question, I have to insist on an answer to the question, “Good for what?” And I guess that’s where I think that this discussion would profit from a definition of “civil religion” for this debate. Are you talking prescriptively, descriptively, or both?

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  3. Well if it’s inevitable and bad, then I guess that is a darkly pessimistic view of earthly life, which includes politics since God made man a political (social) creature.

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  4. Good work. You’ve not only failed to advance the discussion, you’ve put words in my mouth.

    Reply

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