Church and Pop Culture, Lecture 4 American Civil Religion
Developing a Christian Worldview in a Pagan Nation
Ethics 111 – 3 Credit Hours
1994, Jefferis Kent Peterson
The Rev. Jefferis Kent Peterson
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American Civil Religion
A civil religion is a set of beliefs about the world that is held by the majority of the people in a society. When people share a view of what is right and wrong in the world, they share a set of beliefs about the way the world ought to be. These beliefs are the basis of a "civil religion." For example, most people believe that communism, drugs, and prostitution are evils that threaten our society; while most believe that free enterprise, competition, and marriage are good for society. Since these beliefs are shared by most the members of our society, regardless of their religion, race, or class, we could call these beliefs part of our civil religion.
As proof of how common these beliefs are; let me ask you a question:
How many of you believe that someone who kidnaps and abuses a child should be put to death?
How many of you believe that capitalism is the best system of economics?
And how many believe that democracy is the best form of government?
But are any of these beliefs specifically Christian? Punishing the kidnapper sure seems just to me, at least emotionally – an eye for an eye, etc.; but does it follow the teaching of Jesus? (Matt. 5:38-44). And there are many Christians living in socialist and communist societies who deeply believe that their form of government and their system of economics are the most fair and compassionate systems in the world. So the beliefs we hold may or may not be Christian, but they certainly are part of our civil religion.
Elements of the American World View
1] Belief in the American Way
Not only do we believe that there is an American Way, but we believe that is the best way for us and for the world: if everyone were like us there would be no more wars and the world would know prosperity and happiness.
Elements of the American way of life are:
i) we believe that the proof is in the pudding: if it works, that proves that it is true. The proof that the American way is the best way is the fact that we are #1. We have the best way of life and the highest standard of living. So our value system is based upon what is practical, what works best is best, and not necessarily upon the ideal of what ought to be. Democracy works better than dictatorships, science works better than religion and magic (you get immediate and visible results) so it is better; capitalism works better than communism: therefore it is the best and most compassionate and most fair.
ii) we believe that democracy is the best form of government, and we believe that democracy is actually functioning in America: i.e., we don't believe that big business or lobbyists or some shadow government made up of the Trilateralists really runs our nation; but we believe that the common people through their votes really decide the course of the nation.
iii) we believe in freedom and that freedom is not only essential by necessary to a well run government: we deeply believe that we have the right and the liberty to think, say, associate, and believe as we wish (religious and political pluralism – we allow others to be wrong!) And we believe that making room for such differences is necessary to the democratic process. We believe in a two party system of government, although neither the Democrat or Republican Party is part of the Constitution)
iv) we believe in opportunity and that our opportunities are unlimited in the United States: a) we believe that opportunity for individual fulfillment (monetary or spiritual/ psychological) is a good thing and b) that it is available to all: we believe in the "rags to riches" story, like Reagan's – that through hard work and honest labor all things are possible.
v) we believe in the basic goodness of the common man and woman, the U.S. citizen: that people can make sound decisions and informed choices and that they will sacrifice self-interest for the good of the whole. We believe that evil is not internal (sin) but external to us. This belief is essential to our faith in the democratic process.
2] Belief in Scientific Humanism.
We believe that, in principle, the world and the forces in it can be understood and controlled (i.e., gravity, electromagnetism, energy, weather, etc.). In fact, we trust our science so much ( because it works so well for us) we are skeptical of religion and of the claims of faith.
i) Our age, in particular, believes that the truths of science are far more reliable than the truths of religion, just as materialism is so much more practical than mysticism: "you can hold gold in your hand, but the spirit you cannot see, and you can't ever be sure it really exists!" So for scientific materialism, "Nature" with all its mysterious, threatening, and uncontrollable forces, is its god; and the scientist is "the priest" who knows how to control these forces. So we give them our awe and respect. (When you get sick, do you go to your minister first or to a doctor? In the days of Israel and the early church you would have gone to the priests or the elders first.)
ii) Since the truths of science are so important to us, we place a high premium on knowledge and education (especially college and graduate school); for knowledge can be used in the service of the religion of science. And this knowledge can be used for the welfare of the whole.
iii) so we indoctrinate our youth through school and early training in the "truth" of science and materialism, while we make them skeptical of anything which cannot be proved.
3] Belief in Individualism.
We believe that the good of the individual is more important than the good of the group.
i) we believe that happiness is the ultimate goal of every individual and that it is the right of every individual to pursue that happiness ("we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.")*
ii) we believe that happiness comes to individuals first, and then to society as a whole. And since we believe that the happiness of the individual is good for society as a whole, we have enshrined the rights of the individual in our sacred documents to ensure that we each may be allowed to pursue happiness.
iii) because of our belief in individualism; our society is built on a social contract between individuals – the State is a secondary reality. In ancient times (including biblical times) this was reversed: human beings were seen primarily as social beings; and the good of the whole was more important than the happiness of the one. China and the Soviet Union base their civilizations on this understanding of society today.
iv) We hate any infringements on our freedom either by the State (Taxes) or society (obligations to church, grange, etc.); we also hate commitments (of marriage, for example) for that same reason, because they restrict our freedom and inhibit our pursuit of individual fulfillment and happiness.
4] Belief in the Value of Hard Work
We believe in the the perfectibility of men and women thorough disciplined, productive activities; especially in a regular occupation. (No one wants to hear how someone made a million on their first try writing a novel or on their first piece of art – we feel they only really deserve it if they have spent years of hard labor fighting rejection notice after rejection notice – we approve of starving artists.
5] Belief in the Family
We believe that the family is fundamental to the American Way. The family and its health is necessary to the survival of America; when family values erode, the whole community is threatened. This belief in family comes in conflict with our belief in individual freedom; and because we value individual "happiness" so highly we have accepted divorce in our society. These two fundamental American values are held in tension.
The Tenets of American Civil Religion
We all believe in the American Way, and we have embodied these beliefs in our Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, our laws, and in other associations of our culture. We hold these truths religiously and subconsciously. We have grown up with them and accepted them without thinking. The values of American Civil Religion (hereafter: ACR) are not necessarily bad, but they are certainly not always Christian ideals. And we, as the church, must be on our guard that we do not accept certain aspects of our culture and its beliefs without thinking, lest we adopt some attitudes that are contrary to the gospel.
There exists alongside the church an elaborate and well institutionalized civil religion in America. This civil (secular) religion comes to expression in certain rituals of American public life; for example:
a) Presidential inaugural address and State of the Union Message.
b) The 4th of July
c) Washington's Birthday
d) Memorial, Labor, & Veterans' Day
These events celebrate our national identity and reaffirm our shared values. For example, most presidential addresses and political speeches make some reference to God (but not to Jesus) at least once. Both parties not only attempt to interpret political truth but religious truth. And the majority of people expect it, because we believe our rights are from God and to serve God in our political system is part of our destiny on earth.
The Teachings of American Civil Religion:
From our Declaration of Independence, we can gather some of the basic teachings of ACR:
1) "to assume . . . a separate and equal station to which the Law of Nature and Nature's God entitles them. . ." the religion of the Declaration is as strongly influenced by Enlightenment thinking and the Deism of the age as it is by Christianity. Deism is belief in a God who is not personally involved with the world, but who made it like a clock and set it in motion, and who now sits back and watches. Thomas Jefferson, who penned a large part of the Declaration was a Deist.
2) The Creator has endowed each of us with certain unalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
3) that God can be appealed to as the Supreme Judge as to the righteousness of America's intention.
4) America stands under the protection of God's promise: America has a special mission from God for the world. He has a providential purpose for us; a Manifest Destiny.
And from the Civil War, a new dimension was added to our self-understanding, the belief in self-sacrifice:
5) Sacrifice. We came to feel that we might have to lose our lives to preserve our freedoms or sacrifice ourselves for the freedom of others (altruism). And that the true life of our cherished dreams and ideals might only be preserved through our willingness to die for others.
Critique of ACR:
There are some connections to specific institutional religion, especially to the Protestant faith – including Presbyterianism. And because there is so much resemblance, we often think of our nation as a Christian nation, founded upon Christian ideals and principles. However, as we can see from the Declaration, the teachings of ACR:
1) are not specifically Christian: there is no mention of Jesus Christ in the Declaration. Christ in not the center, but "God" is the Center. God is seen as the supreme being, the Creator, but not as God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Today, ACR is purposely a secular religion, which shuns commitment to any one particular religion.
2) the religion is not one which acknowledges our need for salvation from sin by forgiveness: but one based upon the law. Law, order, and rights are the primary instruments of government; love and mercy are secondary. Also, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we are not given "individual rights," by God, but we are given life as a gift, which God can take away at any time.
3) ACR sees a special concern for America as God's chosen instrument to do his will upon the earth and her people as a chosen people. We see ourselves in this way because of our Pilgrim heritage ( as Israel seeking the promised land) and because of our escape from foreign domination in the Revolution (the Red Sea image). We believe we have been called to a special destiny. (Thanksgiving and the 4th of July are the holy days for this aspect of ACR – they correspond to Passover. George Washington we see as our Moses; Lincoln our Christ – who was martyred for us.)
4) After the Civil War, we came to see the necessity of sacrifice and adopted it as part of ACR, and it is perhaps this one element of ACR that causes us to feel it to be Christian, but it is not. (Veteran's day and Memorial day are high Holy days for this aspect of ACR. They affirm the value of sacrifice.)
At its best:
ACR has a genuine grasp of universal religious truth:
i) God uses nations as well as individuals for providential purposes.
ii) It preserves us from anti-clericalism and militant secularism, because all – believers and non-believers – are allowed freedom of personal faith.
At its worst:
ACR has not always been invoked for worthy causes or even Christian ends. We have disguised our land expansions and our persecution of the Indians ( for example) as part of our Manifest Destiny – ordained and ordered by God. We have invoked "moral principles" to secure purely secular business interests: the overthrow of the legitimate and democratic Chilean government to preserve American business investments. And because we have considered ourselves good (our Declaration has no concept of sin, individual or national) we are often blind to the injustices we commit, and we find it impossible as a nation to repent or admit that we do wrong.
And because our Constitution is based upon law, we have assumed that violence is a necessary means to establish order and justice in the community. The basic means by which we secure our freedom, liberty, and property, is through the use of force, armies, police, etc. Violence is inbred in us and is seen as the way we reestablish order in a troubled and threatening world.
Because of the nature of scientific materialism and humanism which pervades our current culture; the pursuit of happiness has been defined in practice as the accumulation of material wealth. No other aspect of ACR is more antithetical to the gospel than this consumerism and materialism that has dominated our concept of "happiness." The genius of our society is that it has made a virtue of what has always been considered a vice: by institutionalizing the pursuit of selfishness and self-interest, we have made vice a legitimate instrument of government.
While our society sees the chief end of men and women as the "pursuit of happiness," this is definitely not the teaching of Christ. Jesus taught that "The end of life is not to be happy nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may." – Martin Luther King, Jr. The inevitable result of this concentration on self-interest, as our society moves away from being a morally informed and religiously inclined populace, is to define "happiness" entirely in terms of material prosperity: as we come to deny that men and women have a spiritual nature, we have to seek our fulfillment in things material and physical. And this materialistic ethic has degenerated into the crass, American definition of success:
Bigger is always better. Numbers are a sign of success. Quantity is more important than quality. See if this same notion of "success" has not pervaded your church. Is the success of the minister gauged on how many new members are added to the role each year? Does his salary depend upon it?
As a result of this concern for materials – our advertising industry feeds us on a daily diet of "success" defined solely in terms of owning the right things (Cadillacs and Mercedes and a mansion and a beach cottage), and our "worth" defined solely in terms of our appearance: are we slender enough, beautiful enough, do we use the right shampoo and the right deodorant soap?
Liturgical year of ACR:
Sales seasons: Christmas, Valentines Day, Easter, Memorial Day, 4th of July. Every holiday, whether secular or religious, is "celebrated" through the use of sales! Further evidence of Consumeristic values of our culture.
Assignment: 5 page paper on some aspect of American Pop Culture analyzed from the perspective of ACR. Use the tenets and beliefs of ACR in your analysis.
Hauerwas: pp. 72-86 (chp. 4).
TV: pp. 125-144.