Civil religion vs. true religion

An atheist friend of mine is fond of reminding me that “Christians are in the majority” in America. He likes to punctuate his assertion with references to statistical data and charts like this one (courtesy of lolgod):

The problem I note with such thinking is that if it were true that America were 80% Christian, then we ought to expect to see a country that resembles Oliver Cromwell‘s Puritan England more than ancient Rome with it’s hedonistic pleasures and excess.

I think the heart of the problem here is a fundamental misunderstanding between a state’s civil religion and true adherents of a religion.

Per Greg Boyd’s assertion in his book, Myth of a Christian Nation, I would argue that all nations posses what I will hence forth term a “civil religion”.¬† Now this civil religion may take the form of an established religious system such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. or it may take the form of an ideology elevated to the level of religious devotion like Hitler’s particular brand of socialism or Stalin’s implementation of communism.

Whatever the state decides to use, however, the end result is something that fills a particular and needed niche required to, among other things, draw citizens together under a shared cultural system and provide the motivation required to risk life and limb in support of the state and it’s ends.

In many cases this has been achieved (sadly, even in so-called Christian nation-states such as medieval England, France, Italy, Spain, etc.) through the notion that the state (or representative thereof) itself somehow possesses divine attributes. Either it’s leaders themselves are seen as divine or various aspects of the state (most notably the military).

While the existence of a civil religion is nothing historically new nor in itself cause for alarm. It is certainly necessary for a state to have something to draw its citizens together and inspire to perform acts that are potentially very costly. Civil religions can and do pose a problem when it comes to a discussion about what a religion that has been co-opted as the civil religion actually teaches.

To be more specific, Christianity is currently the civil religion of the United States of America. While this does come with some fringe benefits (such as a long legacy of laws historically based on Judeo-Christian values) it poses some severe problems  when talking with someone, such as my friend I mentioned earlier, who is understandably easily distracted by the plethora of additional and ancillary encrustations that have grown up around Christianity in order to make it fit the bill as the civil religion of our nation.

Things like viewing our nation’s military as “saviours” often on par with Christ himself, or so the hoopla would lead you to believe in some cases.

Or viewing our man-made governmental system as if it were akin to the “divine right of kings” so that we assume that our method of governance is easily reproducible and ought to be applied everywhere in every culture. Because freedom is a right, right? And the highest good is liberty (which we’ve come to define is being able to do whatever the heck we want).

In a couple of days most churches across our land will put on a production wherein our nation’s independence will once again take center stage.

Now don’t misunderstand me, I love America and think this country is indeed exceptional. I will celebrate our nation’s achievements along with most of my fellow citizen. However I will not be celebrating my nation’s independance in the context of worshipping a God who transcends nations.

I often wonder this time of year how many churches refuse to get caught up in civilian affairs.

If yours is one, or if you know of one, let me know in the comments below. I want to know there is hope out there that some are not contributing to the confusion caused by melding Christianity with the state. I want to know there are people interested in seeing Christianity become something far more than merely just another civil religion.

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One response to “Civil religion vs. true religion

  1. According to me that Islam is right religion.

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