Joe Biden, Josh Hawley, and the Schism in American Civil Religion

Joe Biden, Josh Hawley, and the Schism in American Civil Religion January 26, 2021

Today we welcome Daniel Meeter to the Anxious Bench. Rev. Meeter has retired from nineteen years as the pastor and teacher of the “Old First” Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn, New York.

During this month of January the world watched two remarkable expressions of American Civil Religion, two weeks apart, at the same location – the US Capitol. I don’t remember newscasters ever calling the Capitol “the temple of American democracy” before, but they certainly began to do so on January 6, and they kept it up two weeks later. After the riot the temple had to be cleansed, and so it was for the Inauguration, although it was the rioters who unfortunately evoked the Lord Jesus turning over tables.

If the Inauguration of Joe Biden was not a church service, it was certainly an outdoor revival. It opened with an invocation and closed with a benediction. J.Lo’s solo asked God to shed his grace on America, and we all sang a hymn stanza with Garth Brooks, which he sang like a prayer. The sermon was Biden’s speech, which did not set out policies or a political program so much as appeal to the “soul” of America. If this isn’t religion I don’t know what is.

To be fair to Joe Biden, he knows what a proper religious service is, and earlier that morning he attended Mass, with other officials, at the Roman Catholic cathedral. His Christian faith is genuine devotion, seriously expressed in faithful public worship and regular private prayer. He is a man who is used to spirituality, charity, and good works. I was happy to vote for him, but though I was moved and even inspired by the Inauguration, I would have been more comfortable at the cathedral than at the temple, because I don’t share Biden’s apparent belief in American Civil Religion.

Neither did the rioters two weeks before, but for different reasons than me. They certainly believe in American Civil Religion, but in a version that is radically and even violently different. There was powerful evidence of this on January 6, from the Jesus flags to the crosses to the prayer to “Our Father,” hands uplifted, in the Senate chamber. That it was violent makes it no less religious, for violence and religion are old friends. So the more accurate Biblical parallel to the January 6 insurrection would be the cleansing of the Temple by the Maccabees, or any of the Jewish and Galilean risings against Rome. The Inauguration had its own expression of violence in the form of 25,000 National Guard troops — potential violence, uniformed, disciplined, held in reserve, but a great show of force nonetheless. Think of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, against the Protestants.

American Civil Religion is in schism, with the two sides anathematizing each other. Both sides claim a common temple and want to get the other side out, by violence if necessary. That it’s a single religion in schism, each side regarding the other as heretical, accounts for level of the vitriol. It wasn’t always this way. I suspect it’s going to get worse, even with the departure of Donald Trump. There may be a purging of leadership, like with the early Anabaptists after the violence at Munster, but I think we’re looking at a religious struggle for the soul of America for a long time to come.

President Biden, for example, holds to what I will call the “mainline” version of American Civil Religion, which, if never uniform, has been dominant, at least nationally. There’s lots of scholarship available on how this evolved: Enlightenment ideas, aversion to the Religious Wars of Europe, the simultaneous immigration of various denominational groups, and eventually the First Amendment’s separation of Church and State. Officially, we separated the sacred and the secular, but experientially, Americans who remained religious tended unconsciously to believe in and practice two religions at the same time, with a soft and undulating boundary between them. The one religion is for the private sphere, whatever their personal religion in the familiar sense might be (Protestant, Catholic, Jew), and the other religion is for the public sphere — the mainline American Civil Religion, a sort of optimistic, pragmatic unitarian universalism, in which we all share the same God (“Father”) whose will is to unite us all (think Biden’s speech) and whose main job is to “bless America.” Americans are peculiar (and certainly different from Canadians) in how much we expect to “believe” in America, and how we are “indivisible under God.” The flag is treated as a sacred symbol that, no wonder, belongs in church, illustrating how the private religion accom­mo­dates the public one. (For an example of a people that practice two religions at the same time, consider the Japanese, who historically have practiced both Buddhism and Shinto simultaneously.)

The problem, of course, is that the Gospel resists such privatization. Just the phrase “the Kingdom of God” denies the separation of sacred and secular and forces the issues of church and state. One thinks of candidate John F. Kennedy contracting his Catholicism before the Southern preachers, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expanding his ministry into the Civil Rights movement. When I came to Calvin College fifty years ago I was thrilled by the vision of Abraham Kuyper that lifted me out of privatized religion and the personalized gospel. I learned that “all of life is religion,” and some of us dreamed of a Christian political party and Christian labour unions. I rejoiced at the thought of bringing my faith fully into the public sphere. But, of course, this is contrary to the deal that mainline American Civil Religion had made with personal religion.

It can be argued that much of American Funda­mentalism and Evangelicalism (not excusing mainline Protestantism nor Roman Catholicism) reduced the Power of Our Lord’s Resurrection narrowly to personal salvation, and the claims of his Lordship could also narrowly be focused on personal morality. This being so, pragmatic optimistic unitarian universalism was tolerable publically for the sake of American unity and prosperity. But once Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism learned not to separate Christ and culture, or faith and politics (which mainline Protestantism still prefers to separate), the schism was inevitable. The new schismatic version of American Civil Religion no longer believes in two religions at the same time (and thus cannot welcome in Muslims), but now only a single one, which people are calling “Christian Nationalism.” Rather narrow, perhaps, especially as the schismatic version of American Civil Religion remains amorphous and a very big tent, and it’s not what most pious Christians who supported Trump would call themselves, but I don’t know what better denotes the new schismatic American Civil Religion.

One of the early indicators of the schism was Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. He derived his critique of “secular humanism” indirectly from Kuyperians, via Ed Dobson and Francis Schaeffer. Certainly Falwell’s version of Christian politics was hardly Kuyper’s, lacking Sphere Sovereignty, Common Grace, Reformed hermeneutics and ecclesiology, Kuyper’s views on the role of the state, and his principled acceptance of pluralism. But it had cultural power nonetheless, enough for Falwell, not unlike Kuyper, to start a mass political movement and found a university.

It had happened before elsewhere, notably in South Africa, among the Dutch Reformed, which brings it close to home. Apartheid had already existed as a practice in the churches, but then elements of Kuyperianism were mixed in to create the grand cultural ideology of Apartheid, which the National Party used to reorganize the whole country as an avowedly Christian nation. No wonder that Apartheid had ultimately to be opposed as heretical by the Belhar Confession.

Christian nationalism in America, with its generally shrunken Christology, is functionally unitarian but not universalist. It grants infallibility to the US Constitution and elevates the 2nd Amendment to a dogma. Abortion and homosexuality are the defining sins (in the way that drug use and divorce and remarriage used to be). The gun is sacramental. It celebrates redemptive violence, the birth-myth of the American Revolution. I could multiply examples. Of course we’d have to say that there are varieties and disparities within the schism, and lots of real tension with true and valid Christian belief among its adherents. And of course the picture I’ve drawn is rough and extreme and over-simplified, and worthy of correction, but I think it generally holds. And it makes me pessimistic about President Biden’s appeal for unity.

Two final points. First, one of the new leaders in Christian nationalism is Senator Josh Hawley. He knows more about Kuyper than Falwell did, and, as Janet Kragt Bakker wrote here last week, he paraphrased Kuyper’s famous “square inch” line in a speech that he gave. Of course, Kuyper did not actually say “square inch” but “thumb-breadth” (duimbreed). The original bears repeating: “En geen duimbreed is er op heel ’t erf van ons menschelijk leven, waarvan de Christus, die aller Souverein is, niet roept: ‘Mijn’.” (And there is no thumb-breath/square inch of the inheritance of our human life of which the Christ, who is Sovereign of all, does not cry, “Mine”.)

Well, abusus non tollit usus, (the abuse does not negate the use), but I think it’s time to put the “square inch” slogan to bed. (Sorry, Calvin University.) It’s a slogan, not a Biblical doctrine, and is easily misused. And while the Sovereignty of Christ is certainly true, and even central, we can’t be confident that the Lord Jesus actually would cry “Mine.” It is not his way. He never did it once in the Gospels. I would argue that, if anything, he’d cry “Thine!” In this case I think the dramatic (and brilliant) Abraham Kuyper was putting words in Our Lord’s mouth. Let’s stop using the “square inch” line now that these words are so easily misused.

Second, I suggest that we Christians should stop saying “I believe in America.” It can be meant well, and I suppose harmlessly, and it makes sense when you consider that the USA has been from the start an experiment that requires commitment and investment, but the strong and dangerous development of American Civil Religion, whether old mainline or new Christian nationalist, is cause enough for us to discipline our speech for mission and witness purposes. Apart from appropriately believing in our spouses, children, and friends, let’s limit our public institutional “I believe in” to (in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism) “everything that God promises us in the Gospel, which promises are summarized for us in the Articles of our Christian Faith, a Creed beyond doubt, and confessed throughout the world.”

An earlier version of this post appeared yesterday on The Reformed Journal blog.

About Daniel Meeter
Daniel Meeter has retired from nineteen years as the pastor and teacher of the “Old First” Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn, New York. You can read more about the author here.
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