Presidential election years in the U.S. provide Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all.
I’d like to take Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these. To prompt my own thinking and to give us material for these conversations, I’ve chosen three books to work through this year. These were recommended by Harold K. Bush in a book review at Christianity Today about John D. Wilsey’s book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. Here is what Bush said:
For Christian readers wishing to engage these issues, among the most helpful recent resources are Richard Hughes’s Christian America and the Kingdom of God (2009) and John Fea’s outstanding Was America Founded As a Christian Nation? (2011). Hughes gives voice to some of the fear and trembling about America’s legacy that inspires leftist critique, within and beyond the church. In some respects, Fea strikes an important balance to this more critical and disapproving account. His study is well-balanced, well-documented, and impressive in its willingness to give both sides a hearing.
American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion builds effectively on these previous works.
We begin today with a quote from Richard Hughes’s introduction to Christian America and the Kingdom of God. I do so to set in place the term “civil religion,” which I’m using as the theme of this series.
The term goes back to an influential essay in 1967 by sociologist Robert Bellah in which he distinguished American cultural “Christianity” from biblical Christianity. Hughes agrees with Bellah that the idea of America as a “Christian Nation” is accurate in some respects but most certainly not in others.
It is not outlined as such in our Constitution, so it is not a legal designation. However, it does describe an unofficial ethos that is pervasive in the cultural and ceremonial experience of the United States. This civil “Christian” culture is not specifically “Christian” in the biblical sense, as Hughes notes:
…it can speak of God, but it may or may not speak of Christ. It can speak of morality, but it may or may not speak of divine revelation. It can speak of endurance, but it may or may not speak of resurrection or eternal life. And it can speak of community, but it may or may not speak of the community of saints.
Many do not see or appreciate the differences.
Hughes gives several examples of how various individuals, groups, and state and local governments have tried to enshrine the idea of America as a “Christian Nation” into law and into our cultural and ceremonial observances and notes that the Civil War was an important time in which Christianity became thoroughly infused with cultural presuppositions. Historian Mark Noll has written a book describing the Civil War as a “theological crisis” in the country, a major turning point in American religious thought. Richard Hughes gives one example for us from that period to consider today:
What is crucial to emphasize is this: America’s civic faith draws on Christianity at many points. Indeed, it overlaps with the Christian tradition in so many ways that many Christians fail to distinguish the one from the other. A single example of this profound overlapping will suffice: Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862.
The first stanza of that majestic hymn that celebrates America’s civic faith equated “the glory of the coming of the Lord” with the cause of the republic in America’s Civil War. It then suggested that in the guns of the Union Army, God himself “hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” Indeed, Howe concluded, in the midst of that war, “His truth is marching on.”
The second stanza suggested that God was to be found “in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps” as the army of the republic retired for the night. And there, in those camps, Howe affirmed, Americans could “read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps,” for “His day is marching on.”
The third stanza spoke of a “fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel,” thereby suggesting some connection between the gospel of Christ and the nation’s military agenda. The fourth stanza suggested that it was God who had sounded the trumpet summoning Americans to war, and then confused that war with the final judgment described in the Bible. Thus, through the power of the war, “He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat.”
But the fifth stanza did the most to confuse America’s civic faith with the Christian religion, for it directly linked the work of Christ with the work of the Union army, and the cross of Christ with the cause of temporal freedom.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea;
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
Over the years, millions of Christians have sung that song, fully convinced that they were singing a Christian hymn, or at least a hymn that was in keeping with the central themes of the Christian gospel. And to the extent that America is a Christian nation both culturally and ceremonially, they were right. But as we shall see in chapter three, the sentiments of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are altogether foreign to the message of the Christian faith if we measure those sentiments against the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.
Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” clearly celebrated certain aspects of America’s civil religion. But to the extent that it confused America’s civic faith with the Christian message, it also celebrated what I describe in this book as the ceremonial and cultural establishment of the Christian religion.