Friday, March 17, 2006

Civil Religion

Kent’s post today about Christian America reminded me of some of the work I’m doing recently about civil religion in America.  Kent points to some rhetorical patterns in American Evangelicalism of talking about America as God’s Chosen people, a Christian nation that has been blessed because of our adherence to Christian moral principles etc, etc.  He rightly observes that saying America is “founded on Christian principles” is misleading.  However, there is a historical tradition of drawing on that idea rhetorically which makes many people continue to think that way.

American Rhetorical tradition, and American Civil religion, begins with the Puritans.  On the boat on the way to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop delivered his famous sermon “A model of Christian charity.”  In that sermon he talks about the new world and their new settlement as a City upon a Hill.  That was in 1630 and this kind of language continues in American oratory, in presidential address (all through history, and certainly in recent years) and patriotic sermons.  The idea of America as the chosen people and light to the world certainly lead to the idea that we must evangelize democracy, and to the idea that we could, like the ancient Israelites, exterminate the Native American people.  Kent is right in saying that this twisting of biblical allusion is not consonant with the real message of the Bible, or a gospel for all nations.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I’m writing about a Martin Luther King Jr Speech – “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”  King’s rhetoric uses that same language of God’s chosen people and biblical allusion, but he casts African Americans as Israel escaping slavery, and himself and other activists as prophets like Amos, calling out for justice.  My argument is that his interaction with the biblical and American epic traditions is why he is so well respected and effective as a speaker.

All of this leads me to a few questions.  What do we do, as Christians and Americans, in this centuries old rhetorical tradition?  This centuries-old myth is not going to disappear.  I think that Dr King had the right idea, to twist the chosen people myth toward social justice.  But there is only so much we can accomplish in light of American arrogance.  Another, related problem, is differentiating Religion from Patriotism and Christianity from the agenda of the religious right.  These things seem even more complex.  Jim Wallis tends to call upon the prophetic tradition and the person of Jesus to get at this idea.  As does John Howard Yoder in the The Politics of Jesus (summary of our discussion then here).  How can we use our language in church and activism to change the harmful attitudes civil religion has left us with?

1 comment:

jimmy said...

I think we can look at the history of Israel and the Jewish people for inspiration.

The fact is that Israel was never really much of a powerhouse among the nations, despite being "God's chosen people" - at their most powerful they were still dwarfed by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and their most powerful didn't last too long. For most of their history, being "God's chosen people" has meant that they have suffered and strained and wrestled with God (the meaning of the word "Israel") and God, while allowing them to undergo terrible tragedy, has kept them going.

The struggle for God's chosen people, in other words, is not to dominate, control, or rule as God's right hand on Earth, but to hold to their ideals at all costs and depend on God for survival. We can learn from that.

What would it look like, for example, if instead of deciding that secret prisons, torture techniques, removal of civil liberties, domestic spying, criminalization of political opposition, and preemptive war were "necessary" to stop terrorism (putting aside the question of whether they actually are necessary or effective), we were to say "these things are a moral offense, we're not going to do them even if it means that we don't catch all the bad guys"? What would it look like if we were to say we're going to make sure we provide for the poor and economically oppressed within our borders, we're going to make sure every American man, woman, and child has health care, three hot meals, and shelter at night, and damn the cost? What would it look like if we were to say we aren't going to deal with nations who abuse their citizens' human rights, we aren't going to consort with oppressors or dictators, we aren't going to turn a blind eye to the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world no matter the cost to our economy or way of life?

That's what I think being a city on a hill means... being a moral beacon for the world and demonstrating that right is right and wrong is wrong. It would have real costs, and would likely mean that we'd lose our preeminent place as history's most powerful nation - but what we would be gaining for our national soul, and for the human race as a whole, would be much greater.