One of the more interesting facts about the United States of America is also one of the more counterintuitive ones. Unlike all of the other nations at the time of its founding, the United States did not have an official religion. In contrast to the United Kingdom, there was no established church in America. Even in the colonial period this had been true, the Church of England had been called the Church of England, not the Church of America. And after independence, it was simply called the Episcopal Church.
Part of that was that given the diversity of religious voices in America even before the Revolution, it would have been hard to have established which church should have been the official one. There were Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Brethren in Christ, Quakers, Shakers, Catholics, a few Jews, and even a handful of this upstart sect called “Methodists.” But the reality is that whether for reasons of pragmatism or political philosophy, the United States of America was left without an official church.
In spite of, or perhaps due to, the fact that we have never had an established church, religion has thrived in this country. Religiosity is at a much higher level here in the U.S. than it is in Europe, where most of those established churches could not hold a candle to American religious involvement. About 39% of Americans attend worship services weekly, compared with 12% in the UK and France. In countries with established churches, church attendance is by and large lower than in countries without such established churches.
The First Amendment prohibitions on an established church and the guarantees of free exercise of religion ensured that religious life would flourish in these United States. And all because we have no official church.
II. CIVIL RELIGION
Because while we do not have an established religion, we most certainly have an official one. One that is so deeply embedded in the culture that we are barely aware that it exists.
In 1967, a sociologist by the name of Robert Bellah wrote an article that delivered a shock in its very first sentence:
“There actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.”
Bellah went on to describe an invisible civil religion that arose from certain primordial national events such as the Declaration of Independence and what he called the “words and acts” of the Founding Fathers.
Bellah argued that this religion was based on a Christian framework but was itself not Christian. It borrowed some of the values of Christianity—what he called “Secular Puritanism” or “General Protestantism”— Individual freedom, Personal independence, human dignity, community responsibility, social and political democracy, sincerity, restraint in outward conduct (that one went out the window with daytime talk shows and YouTube), and thrift (that one is also likewise gone almost altogether). And our civil religion borrowed some of the language and even some of the framework but in a distinctly American way.
Bellah noted that Americans even divided their history into two periods that were like our “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” The Old Testament part of American history centered around the American Revolution and our Independence. Bellah said that the language we used around the origin myths of the United States had the same tone and almost the same language as the Old Testament, and that it has a “vaguely Hebraic feel.”
Our national story gets started with “Pilgrims” who were not only not the first people here, they weren’t even the first English people here (they were in Jamestown) or even the first Europeans. When you stop to consider that we refer to the founders of the Republic as the “Founding Fathers” it is hard not to admit that we are essentially calling them Patriarchs. And Washington, as Father of the Nation, is our Abraham.
Of course we have an Abraham, too, but he shows up in the “New Testament” part of our history. The Civil War presents a more “Christian-themed” story in which Lincoln is a Christ-figure who for the salvation of the nation, and the nation itself atones for the sins of slavery in the blood of its sons. Even at the time, there were those who saw it this way. Lincoln referred to the “new birth of freedom” that the nation would have, echoing evangelical language of being born again.
And we certainly have our share of those things that religions have in plentiful supply: sacred places, sacred times, sacred objects. Places like Gettysburg and Lexington and Concord are hold a special place in the American religious consciousness. Lincoln even referred to Gettysburg has having been “consecrated” by the sacrifice of those who’d died there. We have our temples: two of them in D.C. actually at either end of the Mall. There’s the temple of Lincoln were Lincoln sits enthroned like Zeus at Ephesus. Ever read the inscription over his head? It says, “In this temple as in the hearts of his countrymen for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” At the other end of the Mall is the Temple of Democracy that sits on its own temple mount like the temple in Jerusalem and in whose rotunda dome is a painting of George Washington sitting in heaven surrounded by the angels. Nothing religious about that.
We have our places of pilgrimage; I live in one of them and every year the escalators of the Smithsonian metro are choked with pilgrims coming to see the sacred shrines of our nation’s history and to read the sacred texts. By the way, if you doubt that the Constitution is sacred in American thinking, listen to the way that people talk about it in our national discourse. They talk about it as an abstraction, talking about “Constitutional” principles the way that Christians talk about “Biblical” values. And in each occasion I am reminded of a quote I once read that the Bible is a book millions of people live their lives by and hundreds have actually read. The same frequently goes for the Constitution.
And we have sacred objects. In fact, one of them is so sacred, our national anthem is all about it. The country—“the land of the free and the home of the brave”—isn’t even mentioned until the last line. And lest you doubt the sacredness of the flag consider this: the laws that are designed to prevent flag burning and defacing are called “flag anti-desecration laws.” How can you desecrate something that is not already sacred? You can desecrate a church, a temple, or a mosque, but you can’t desecrate a strip club, a bowling alley, or a tattoo parlor. But you can desecrate the American flag. That says something.
And of course, all religions have a mission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19–20 NRSV) And American Civil Religion is no exception. We have a mission to champion liberty and bring democracy to the world. The shining beacon of freedom to the world. We are a “citty upon a hill,” as John Winthrop said in his sermon aboard the Arabella as it arrived in the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630. (I know, everyone thinks Reagan coined that phrase—it’s a good deal older.)
So, Bellah was right. Right under our noses is a-whole-nother religion that we unwittingly all belong to without realizing it.
III. THE PROBLEM OF CONFLATION
Now, there’s nothing necessarily sinister about this. Most nations have a version of this phenomenon. The problem with a civil religion is that we’re unaware that it exists. And that’s where the trouble begins.
Because we can assume that those values of personal liberty, independence, social and political democracy, and so on are not simply values that we have, but are normative for the entire human race. We make assumptions that everyone wants a republican system of governance with universal suffrage and freedom of speech as their foremost goal and then are confused when that turns out not to be the case. When people instead place loyalty to community group, clan, tribe, or religion at a higher premium than individual liberty, it outright confuses us. And explains a lot about most of our foreign policy missteps.
But for me, the greater problem is not that we will uncritically adopt the values of American Civil Religion in our foreign policy misadventures, the greater problem is that we will conflate American Civil Religion with our own Christian faith. And therein lies the real danger.
Because I will admit that I am a practitioner both of Christianity and American Civil Religion. My mother’s family has been in this country since the Mayflower. One of my relatives signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. My father’s family is the classic German/Italian immigrant story, coming at the turn of the century to working class Buffalo and working to provide a better future for their children and grandchildren. When I was a student abroad in the USSR in the late 1980’s, my heart skipped a beat when I rounded the corner one day and there I saw Old Glory hanging from the front of the American Embassy. I’ve got one of those thirteen-stars-in-a-circle American flags hanging from my balcony right now. So, yes, I am a member of American Civil Religion and of Christianity.
The important part is to know the difference. Because Christianity never fares well when it is conflated with or allows itself to be coopted by political belief systems. And I’m convinced that because we are unaware that this civil religion exists this is happening all the time. I think that when most people claim the United States is a “Christian country” they’re not actually thinking of Christianity; it’s our civil religion they’re really thinking about.
Because we do define some things very differently.
One of the many things we celebrate on the Fourth of July is our freedom. And freedom is at the heart of American understandings of rights. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. Freedom is all the things I can do without interference from anyone. I can say and do as I like and you can’t stop me. So long as I don’t hurt anyone else, I can do whatever I like.
It’s curious that the word “freedom” doesn’t show up that much in the Bible. It seems like it should. It only shows up once in the Old Testament. And there it is talking about freedom from servitude. The word “free” shows up a fair amount, but again, generally in the context of slavery.
Now, we do certainly get some strong language about freedom in the scriptures. In the scripture lessons for this morning, we get strong declarations of God who “sets the prisoners free” and Jesus describes his own mission as one to “let the oppressed go free.”
But our American concept of “freedom”—the ability to do whatever I want—is not really the emphasis in this declaration. Freedom from oppression and bondage aren’t quite the same thing as freedom to publish offensive opinions or the freedom to burn a flag or to protest the government. And this is made especially clear in the New Testament when the concept is discussed as it is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. … (Galatians 5:1)
Now Paul here is talking about being enslaved to the provisions of the law like getting circumcised, keeping Kosher, and observing the Sabbath. You know, really tyrannical things like that. Paul is convinced that only one thing saves us: Jesus. If his congregants are being told that they have to keep Kosher on top of that, then they are back under the oppression of the law, and not free in Christ.
But the point is made later in his letter:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. (Galatians 5:13)
Now, Paul has just told his congregants that to be under the law is tantamount to being in slavery. And then tells them not to use their freedom for self-indulgence, but “through love become slaves to one another.” Paul who just told them to avoid bondage now tells them to become slaves to one another.
Paul’s point is this: your freedom is not for you alone. It is for one another. We are free in order to serve. What sounds like a paradox is really the heart of what Christian freedom is. Martin Luther understood this when he said a Christian was “a perfectly free lord of all subject to none—and a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all subject to all.” Nothing can compel us toward obedience, but in our freedom, we are expected to choose to serve one another.
That’s not quite the same freedom that our civil religion talks about.
More to the point, our civil religion cherishes our independence. Yesterday was Independence Day, after all. We prize our independence to be able to do as we will. We value individualism and our independence from one another. We are atomistic and individualistic. Nothing more American than our rugged, pick-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps individualism. We don’t need anybody and no one can obligate me do to anything for anyone else.
But Christianity is a communal faith. A faith that calls us to be in relationship with one another. One that places expectations on its members for the welfare of other people. In the letter of James, the author mocks those who greet the poor and needy with words of encouragement but don’t actually give them food or clothing. “What is the good of that?” he asks incredulously. In Christ, we are beholden to one another. And as the parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear, it’s not just our co-religionists.
But our American sense of independence and individualism often interfere with this. Reading a recent internet comment on an article about California removing the “personal belief” exemption to vaccinations in that state (religious belief exemption still remains), I was reminded of two things. First, I shouldn’t read internet comments; they’re not good for me. Second, our definition of freedom is entirely individualistic. Someone remarked that it was an “attack on personal freedom to require vaccination.” You know what? They’re right. But it’s not an unwarranted one. It is one that takes the needs of the community into consideration. In Christian faith, it’s not about you; it’s about us. Together. Free but bound to one another.
The independence we have in Christ is not an independence from one another. It is an independence from sin and structures of power and injustice and oppression; an independence from the principalities and powers of this world. Having been freed by Christ we are no longer beholden to the tired old racist, classist, sexist, heteronormative structures in which society longs to trap us. We are independent from the structures that would divide us one from another, that lie to us and tell us that some are more deserving than others of God’s love or of our love. The Christ who comes to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor does not free us from those structures in order that we can imprison others in them. No, through Christ we declare our independence from the structures of the world and pledge allegiance to the gospel of love.
That’s not the same independence that our civil religion talks about.
IV. THE RADICAL SUBVERSIVE GOSPEL
Christianity has long had a problem with entanglement and blurred lines between the church and the state. Because here’s the thing: in its truest form, Christianity is always a little subversive; Christianity doesn’t get along well with the state. That’s a point that should be obvious given that our founder was executed by the state. Our faith is one that proclaims, as the Psalm we read earlier does:
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
We do not put our trust in princes, in leaders, in the State, but in God. Our first loyalty is to God and the Kingdom of God. Our freedom comes from God to be used for the purposes of God: justice, peace, liberation, comfort, hope.
But we do have to live in the world; we can’t set up residence in the Kingdom of God just yet. So we have to figure out ways of navigating divided loyalties. We have to figure out how we can love both God and country—hopefully in that order.
The renowned preacher William Sloane Coffin said,
There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.
The Christian is neither one who subsumes their Christianity into a civil religion nor one who lives outside the community altogether. A Christian is one who carries on a “lover’s quarrel” with their country. Dissenting out of love for what one’s country can be.
Where our civil religion gets us into trouble is that it tricks us into equating being a good, orderly, obedient citizen with being a good follower of Christ. And sometimes, being a good Christian requires us to be troublemakers. To truly be free, to truly be independent of the structures of the world, sometimes we have to challenge the very country that we love. Sometimes we have to go to those sacred temples on the Mall and to give speeches before thousands and proclaim dreams of racial equality. Sometimes we have to stand speak truth to power, even when it costs us. To call for inclusion for those on the margins as an affirmation of their being made in the image of God. To climb flagpoles while reciting the Psalms.
This weekend as a nation we celebrate our freedom and our independence. And as a nation we have much cause to celebrate. The democratic legacy established by that founding generation of this nation has had a profound influence on the entire world.
But today is a Sunday, the perpetual feast of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is always a day on which we celebrate our freedom and independence. Our freedom from fear and guilt, our freedom from the bondage of sin and oppression. Our freedom to serve one another in love and charity. Our independence from the oppressive structures of the world that would divide us one from another and oppress some in order to advantage others.
Christ has given us a more wonderful freedom and independence than any group of eighteenth century men could ever hope to. Our task is to use that freedom and that independence to witness to justice and peace, in our nation and in all the nations of the earth.
Psalms 146:1–10 • Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long. Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!
Luke 4:16–21 • When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”