American civil religion on steroids

Jan 30, 2017 by

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“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” — 2 Chronicles 7:14 (KJV)

The United States, like many nations, interpret passages like these as personally addressed to them, as the “my people, called by God’s name” referred to in the text, set apart as unique and exceptional.

According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this form of “civil religion” is a means of unifying a nation by giving it sacred legitimacy and authority. In fact, all nations seem to develop some form of ideology for this purpose. For example, during World War II, Nazi soldiers wore belt buckles with the words “Gott Mitt Uns” (“God with us”) engraved on them, suggesting that God was clearly on their side.

The Reverend Franklin Graham has emerged as one of many apostles of this nationalist religion, recently noting: “Hundreds of thousands of Christians from across the United States have been praying. This year they came out to every state capitol to pray for this election and for the future of America. Prayer groups were started. Families prayed. Churches prayed. Then Christians went to the polls, and God showed up. While the media scratches their heads and tries to understand how this happened, I believe that God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country … My prayer is that God bless America again!”

The implication is that all things wicked and godless are on one side of the political debate and that God will bless only one party’s vision of liberty and justice for all. The truth is that God stands in judgment of all of the world’s temporary principalities and powers, and that God’s real mission is to save and reconcile all peoples on earth, and to engage each one of us in that mission.

At January 20 inauguration Graham made the following remarks: “Mr. President, in the Bible, rain is a sign of God’s blessing. And it started to rain, Mr. President, when you came to the platform. And it’s my prayer that God will bless you, your family, your administration, and may He bless America.”

Graham then read from 1 Tim. 2:1-6, a beautiful text which exhorts believers to pray for their leaders, including notoriously godless ones like Nero, and concluded with 1 Tim. 1:17 (see above), which reads, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Trust me, I am a wholehearted believer in this prayer and benediction, and I want nothing but God’s equal blessing for everyone in the whole world. But used in this context we imply that God’s relationship to one nation, representing some 5 percent of the world’s population, is a special one, quite the opposite of what the New Testament (and the 1 Timothy text) actually teach. For example:

1. The apostle Paul, in this first-century church letter, is clearly not endorsing the Roman empire or any other nation as being God’s special people, and it would be hard to imagine him offering a prayer at an emperor’s coronation. Rather, he taught that God’s people are all those from every nation who pledge allegiance to Jesus as Lord and are committed to him as their supreme authority. Meanwhile they live as “resident aliens” in the God-ordained but secular nations they inhabit.

2. In this text Paul is clearly urging us to first pray for all people everywhere, and then for all kings (plural), emperors, rulers, presidents and prime ministers elsewhere in the world.

3. The purpose of this prayer is that all believers everywhere may live in contexts of peace and stability, allowing for God’s saving and reconciling message to be freely lived and proclaimed.

Marcus Miller, a teacher at Iowa Mennonite School, recently quoted Mike Pence on Facebook regarding the passage Pence chose to place his fingers on when he taking the vice-presidential oath of office, 2 Chronicles 7:14. Conflating Scripture with the American Pledge of Allegiance, Pence stated, “… if His people who are called by His name will humble themselves and pray, He will hear from heaven, and He — as He’s always done before — He will heal our land. One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

Miller comments, “Pence’s quote represents the worst combination of bad theology, bad history and American exceptionalism. What we end up with is a patriotism mashed together with religion and this thing referred to as ‘American Christianity’ that often contradicts the values taught by Jesus and scriptures.”

Ironies abound in this kind of wedding of church and state, such as the use of a Bible that forbids the swearing of oaths as a part of the swearing in ritual, Pence’s laying his hand on the Bible Ronald Reagan used at his inauguration (casting the former president as an idealized model of a godly leader), and the elevation of a twice divorced billionaire into that same sacred place of honor.

This is not to denigrate the preciousness and worth of every human being involved in our national civil rituals, and I want to join all of you in praying for them, and for the wellbeing of the nation, every day. Only to say that in any marriage of the Christian church and the nation state it is the latter that will always play the dominant role.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.

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