Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
According to Pew Research Center, 70% of Americans identify as Christian. This includes evangelical Protestants, who make up the largest bloc in American Christendom, along with Catholics, mainline Protestants, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The next-largest religious bloc in Pew’s study is Judaism, which comprises a little less than 2% of the population. Then Islam, which makes up less than 1%. Some have argued that the second-largest bloc, dwarfing both Judaism and Islam, are those who identify as “nothing in particular.” They come in at about 16% of the total population.
It is, however, debatable that the “nothing in particular” folks form a religious bloc. It’s like giving an empty space on my bookshelf a catalog number. However, there is another religious group that is much larger and more influential than all those listed above, with the possible exception of Christianity.
Unlike the “nothing in particular” group, this bloc clearly meets the criteria to be considered a religious group, though it is entirely overlooked by Pew and by most sociologists. This group has no official structure or hierarchy, but it invokes a god, possesses a historical narrative (or mythology, as some deem it), and reverences its saints.
This religion has received various labels over the years, but the one that has been around longest, given to it by Rousseau before the American Revolution, is “Civil Religion.” According to the sociologist Robert Bellah, Rousseau outlined the simple dogma of Civil Religion as: “the existence of God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance.”
Isn’t this Civil Religion simply Christianity by another name? Not at all. While Civil Religion recognizes a sovereign God who operates in the affairs of nations, it does not acknowledge him to be the Father of Jesus. Neither does it confess Jesus as Lord, which is the fundamental requirement of biblical Christianity. Interestingly, every American president in history has mentioned God in an inaugural speech. Not one has mentioned Jesus Christ.
This does not mean that none of our presidents have been Christians but it does suggest that they have seen Civil Religion as publicly acceptable but Christianity as a private affair. They freely speak of God and ask his blessing at the end of their speeches, but is it the God of Jesus they invoke?
The American version of Civil Religion (there are others) borrows freely from Judaism and Christianity. Its metanarrative draws on the biblical story. It features an oppressed people, like Abraham’s descendants in Egypt (think Europe), who are liberated and make their way to the Promised Land (America), which becomes “a city set on a hill” and a light shining in darkness, revealing a better way to the world.
This idea led Ben Franklin to propose that the seal of the United States feature Moses lifting his rod and parting the Red Sea. Thomas Jefferson wanted it to display the children of Israel, led by the cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. This is telling, given that Franklin was no orthodox Christian and Jefferson was no Christian at all. They believed in God, but they didn’t confess Jesus as Lord.
Civil Religion’s appropriation of Christian themes has led to great confusion for many Americans, who assume they are Christians because they believe in “God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice.” But Ben Franklin’s creed does not make a person a Christian. Faith in Jesus does.
Civil Religion has often legitimized expansionism. Its providential god – the one Bob Dylan called the “God on our side” – has declared a “manifest destiny” that sanctions the removal of all obstructions, including indigenous peoples, and permits preemptive action against all threats, including people of other religions. At present, this includes Muslims. In the future, it could conceivably include Christians.
Faith in Jesus and belief in the God of Civil Religion produce different results. Faith in Jesus leads to an all-encompassing spiritual formation that brings with it a way of life – a Jesus way of life. Civil Religion lacks this coherency. Incapable of bringing a way of life, it offers only a tenuous hold on power.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog, “The Way Home,” is at shaynelooper.com.