This weekend, churches across the United States set aside their usual time devoted to worshiping Jesus in order to celebrate our nation.
On most Sundays Jesus is the center of the worship service. But on Sunday before Independence Day, Jesus often take a backseat to the flag. In one prominent megachurch, members of the congregation waved small U.S. flags, while the choir sang about pledging allegiance to the flag. A few minutes later, the flag was brought by an honor guard (complete with rifles) to stand before the pulpit so the people in the pews could genuflect before their nation’s symbol.
I understand the motive behind such “Freedom Sunday” services. I consider myself to be as patriotic (rightly understood) as anyone else. I spent one-third of my life serving my country, and would still lay down my life in her defense. I love my country. I love the American flag. I love the Fourth of July. I even still love that cheesy Lee Greenwood song “God Bless the USA.”
I just don’t think the symbols of the American nation have a place in the embassy of the kingdom of God.
My main objection is that such veneration for our country within our churches detracts from the glory of the gospel. Admittedly, it’s rather naïve of me to assume the gospel is preached in every evangelical church every Sunday morning. But if a gospel is going to be preached in our churches, then it should be the gospel of Jesus, not the gospel of Rousseau.
French Father of Civil Religion
It was Jean Jacques Rousseau who coined the phrase “civil religion” in his 1762 treatise On the Social Contract. The French philosopher observed that in ancient times all governments were a form of theocracy, with each nation serving their own god. States, therefore, never had religious wars, since the governments “made no distinction between its gods and its laws.” Rousseau found that the genius of the Roman Empire was its ability to absorb both the nations and also their gods and transform them into one pagan religion. This changed, he claims, with the appearance of Christ:
It was in these circumstances that Jesus came to set up on earth a spiritual kingdom, which, by separating the theological from the political system, made the State no longer one, and brought about the internal divisions which have never ceased to trouble Christian peoples. As the new idea of a kingdom of the other world could never have occurred to pagans, they always looked on the Christians as really rebels, who, while feigning to submit, were only waiting for the chance to make themselves independent and their masters, and to usurp by guile the authority they pretended in their weakness to respect. This was the cause of the persecutions.
Rousseau claims this division between religion and the state “made all good polity impossible in Christian states; and men have never succeeded in finding out whether they were bound to obey the master or the priest.” He believed political leaders tried to restore this lost ideal but have been unsuccessful because of the influence of Christianity, which puts devotion to God above that of the state. Since religious devotion is not only useful to the state but can become a hindrance to the state’s authority, a third way was needed—civil religion:
There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the state whoever does not believe them—it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If any one, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.
The dogmas of civil religion ought to be few, simple, and exactly worded, without explanation or commentary. The existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas. Its negative dogmas I confine to one, intolerance, which is a part of the cults we have rejected.
Dogmas of Our Civil Religion
America has done a fine job of incorporating Rousseau’s “dogmas of civil religion,” keeping them “few, simple, and exactly worded.” We have restricted such sentiments to the most unobtrusive areas, allowing “In God We Trust” to be printed on our coins, and the phrase “under God” to slip in our Pledge of Allegiance (which, curiously, isn’t a pledge of “allegiance” to God but to a flag). We allow recognition for a “Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence,” but what we don’t allow is the recognition of Jesus as God.
And that is what should give Christians pause.
There is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between America’s civil religion and Christianity. If we claim “under God” refers only to the Christian, trinitarian conception of God, we are either being unduly intolerant or, more likely, simply fooling ourselves.
There is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between America’s civil religion and Christianity. . . . The god of America’s civil religion is not the God who died on the cross.
Do we truly think the Hindu, Wiccan, or Buddhist is claiming to be under the same deity as we are? We can’t claim, as Paul did on Mars Hill, that the “unknown god” they’re worshiping is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They have heard of Jesus—and reject him as God.
The Pledge of Allegience is a secular document, and the “under God” is referring to the Divinity of our country’s civil religion. Just as the pagan religion of the Roman Empire was able to incorporate other gods and give them familiar names, civil religion provides an umbrella for all beliefs to submit under one nondescript, fill-in-the-blank term.
No Other Gods
Don’t get me wrong: I think we need to stand firm on allowing religion into the “naked public square.” But we should do so defending our real religious beliefs rather than a toothless imitation. If we pray in the public square, we should have no qualms about using the true name of the God to whom we are praying. And if we pledge allegiance to a flag in the house of God, we should question whether we aren’t skirting the edges of idolatry.
Our God is a jealous God and is unlikely to look favorably on idolatry even when it’s put to good service. While we should be as tolerant of civil religion as we are of other beliefs, we should be cautious about submitting to it ourselves. That is not to say that we can’t say the Pledge or sing “God Bless the USA” and think of the one true God. But we should keep in mind that this fight over ceremonial deism isn’t our fight, and the god of America’s civil religion is not the God who died on the cross.
When we bring civil religion into our worship services, we are confusing our patriotic duty to the temporal country God gave us with the allegiance we owe to the kingdom in which we will be citizens forever.