Civil Religion Is Different from Christian Nationalism

Civil Religion Is Different from Christian Nationalism February 27, 2024

When Politico reporter Heidi Przybyla said on MSNBC last week that what “unites” all Christian nationalists is a belief that their rights “come from God” rather than from any “earthly authority” such as Congress or the Supreme Court, numerous Christians rightfully pushed back by pointing to the Declaration of Independence.

Surely all those who believe the Declaration’s statement that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” are not by default Christian nationalists, are they?

Przybyla’s comments accentuate a difficult conundrum for critics of Christian nationalism. The belief that America is a “nation under God” or that its laws are accountable to a higher authority than the government or the people is so deeply rooted in the nation’s history and founding documents that it’s impossible for any historically informed person to dismiss. The Declaration of Independence, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, and the proclamations of Martin Luther King Jr. – not to mention the national motto, the Pledge of Allegiance, and a long list of presidential inaugural addresses – give abundant evidence that references to God and even to God-given natural rights have always been a key component of political rhetoric in the United States.

Yet these frequent references to God in national life or even to a divine source of human rights are not necessarily the same thing as Christian nationalism. Ever since Robert Bellah’s landmark article of 1967, historians of American religion in politics have called most of these expressions “civil religion.” And, as I’ll argue, civil religion has a very different goal than Christian nationalism, despite the apparent similarities in content.

File:Invocation at 1981 Reagan inauguration.jpg
Reverend Donn Moomaw of Bel Air Presbyterian Church leading an invocation at Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration, January 20, 1981 (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library / Wikimedia Commons)

Defining Christian nationalism has proved enormously difficult, but here’s my best attempt: Christian nationalism is an effort to connect the United States with Christianity by arguing that America was founded as a Christian nation and that its future survival or prosperity depends on a return to the Christian principles that made the nation great.

On the surface, that may sound a lot like some of the things that President Dwight Eisenhower said in his first inaugural address, which scholars following Bellah’s lead have considered a classic example of civil religion. “At such a time in history, we who are free must proclaim anew our faith,” Eisenhower declared. “This faith is the abiding creed of our fathers. It is our faith in the deathless dignity of man, governed by eternal moral and natural laws. This faith defines our full view of life. It establishes, beyond debate, those gifts of the Creator that are man’s inalienable rights, and that make all men equal in His sight.”

File:Photograph of President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife Mamie leaving church in Washington on the morning of... - NARA - 200421.jpg
Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower leaving church in Washington, DC, on the morning of Eisenhower’s inauguration, January 20, 1953 (NARA / Wikimedia Commons)

For Eisenhower, the American founding “creed” was predicated on the idea of “eternal moral and natural laws” that were “gifts of the Creator.” He was so sure that this Creator was the Judeo-Christian God that he began his inaugural address by asking his listeners to bow their heads as he led a prayer addressed to “Almighty God.”

Surely any president today who began an inaugural address by asking people to join in prayer – and who then followed that prayer with a discussion of the “abiding creed of our fathers” and their belief in “eternal moral and natural laws” that were the gift of the “Creator” – would be immediately labeled a Christian nationalist.

That creates a dilemma for those who are discussing Christian nationalism today. Do we want to take the Christian nationalist approach of championing all the references to God that we can find in past presidential speeches and hold these up as proof that America has long been a Christian nation (and that it needs to continue being one)? This is what David Barton has long done and is what many other Christian nationalists are doing today.

Or do we instead want to take the approach of some contemporary secularists and downplay or ignore these references in order to suggest that Christian nationalism is a radical departure from America’s secular past – only to be shocked, as Heidi Przybyla appears to have been, when someone points out that the American past wasn’t quite so secular after all and that what we’re arguing against can be found in numerous presidential addresses and in the best known lines of the Declaration of Independence.

Maybe there’s another approach. Perhaps the main difference between civil religion and Christian nationalism consists not so much in the words that were said but in the intent. Civil religion was designed to unite the country around broadly shared principles, but Christian nationalism is designed to wrest control of the country from one group of people (secularists or non-Christians) whom Christian nationalists distrust and link the identity of the nation with the one group they do trust – namely, conservative Christians.

Because its intent was to unite Americans around shared beliefs, civil religion was always pluralistic and inclusive; the purpose was not to denounce any group of people as un-American but rather to remind all Americans of their common heritage.

As Robert Bellah noted, expressions of civil religion almost never mentioned Jesus Christ, because that might have been too divisive. From the days of the first presidents (several of whom were skeptical about Jesus’s divinity) to the chief executives in the early years of the Cold War (who didn’t want to forget the “Judeo” part of “Judeo-Christian), presidential speeches consistently referenced the “Almighty,” “Providence,” and, above all, “God,” but didn’t say anything about Jesus. Their goal was not to convert Americans to Christianity or protect the rights of American Christians, but instead to unit Americans around widely shared beliefs using a lowest-common-denominator expression of a generically theistic faith.

Nor did they call for a war against secularism. Eisenhower’s purpose in referencing God repeatedly in his first inaugural address was not to drive out the atheists or advocate for more overt displays of religiosity in public but rather to invoke a higher authority as a basis for his call for increased national sacrifices in the Cold War. If the goal of civil religion was to inspire an increased devotion to shared principles, perhaps it’s no surprise that presidential invocations of civil religious themes were especially prevalent in wartime. During times of peace and prosperity, calls for personal sacrifice may have seemed less necessary, but in times of war, reminders of the shared national faith of civil religion offered a useful way to unite the nation and evoke a greater devotion to the cause.

The last thing that presidents wanted to do in the midst of their civil religious evocations was to divide Americans by faith or alienate groups who did not share their particular view of God. That is why President Eisenhower included these lines in his inaugural prayer: “Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race or calling. May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concepts of our Constitution, hold to differing political faiths; so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and Thy glory.”

At the time, people who said they had “no religion” comprised only 2 percent of the American population and were not an especially vocal group. Eisenhower therefore didn’t see the need to mention atheists or the non-religious in his address. Later, he would become the first president to visit a mosque in the United States, but in his inaugural address, he wasn’t yet thinking about religions outside the Judeo-Christian orbit. But he was aware that people of a different “station, race or calling” might see the world differently and that the nation did include a spectrum of “political faiths,” so he called on God to unite all of these people under a common quest for God and country.

Despite Eisenhower’s attempt to appeal to Americans of different beliefs, his references to faith seem far more divisive today than he intended them to be. There are at least two reasons for that. One is the nation’s religious pluralism. Adherents of non-Christian religions are now far more numerous than they were in the 1950s, and the percentage of Americans who say they have no religion has increased to nearly 30 percent today. Even the most generic references to a monotheistic God are therefore likely to alienate more people than they did in the early years of the Cold War.

But the other reason is that Christianity itself has become more hardline and divisive. In the 1950s, the most influential expression of Christianity in the United States was mainline Protestantism, which at the time tried to be pretty inclusive and respectful of other faiths. But for the past fifty years, liberal expressions of the faith have been rapidly shrinking, and the most politically prominent form of Christianity is engaged in polarizing culture war fights. That is why Heidi Przybyla singled out Christian campaigns against abortion and same-sex marriage as worthy of special vilification, even as she explicitly exempted Martin Luther King Jr.’s invocation of natural law on behalf of civil rights from her critique. When she hears evocations of God-given natural rights today, she likely feels that her beliefs are under attack, which was not how she felt when she read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

In other words, Christian nationalism differs from traditional civil religion primarily in being anti-pluralist. Christian nationalists may be mostly correct about the historic prevalence of God in public life for much of the nation’s history. But their use of that history to try to reclaim the country from the secularists is at odds with the intention behind civil religion.

It was not until the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan used his speeches to evangelical audiences to draw a contrast between the Christian founding of the nation and his contemporary secular opponents who were undermining that framework that conservative presidential rhetoric shifted from civil religion to what could be labeled Christian nationalism.

Reagan could be an able practitioner of a broadly ecumenical civil religion when needed. In his first inaugural address, for instance, his vague references to God were thoroughly in keeping with the widely shared principles of civil religion. When he told Americans at his inaugural, “We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for us to be free,” he was using a stock civil religious phrase that few if any previous presidents would have disagreed with. Certainly Eisenhower (along with every other Cold War president) would have heartily applauded, since similar phrases had appeared in some of their own inaugural addresses.

But when Reagan spoke to evangelicals in particular, his rhetoric shifted toward a more divisive use of religion. He was now engaged not only in a fight for American freedom abroad, but a battle for the religious liberty of Christian conservatives at home. And in that fight, religious claims about America’s identity were no longer an ecumenical unifier but a weapon in their culture wars – an effort to recover America’s founding mythology and cast it in specifically Christian terms that would appeal to a segment of conservative Christianity.

File:President Ronald Reagan addresses the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida.jpg
President Ronald Reagan addressing the National Association of Evangelicals, March 8, 1983 (White House photo / Wikimedia Commons)

Reagan told the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983 that America was founded on a belief in God, and Americans who wanted to undermine that belief needed to be opposed in the political sphere. “Freedom prospers only where the blessings of God are avidly sought and humbly accepted,” Reagan declared. After approvingly quoting William Penn’s assertion, “If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants,” Reagan then said, “Now, I don’t have to tell you that this puts us in opposition to, or at least out of step with, a prevailing attitude of many who have turned to a modern-day secularism, discarding the tried and timetested values upon which our very civilization is based. No matter how well intentioned, their value system is radically different from that of most Americans. And while they proclaim that they’re freeing us from superstitions of the past, they’ve taken upon themselves the job of superintending us by government rule and regulation. Sometimes their voices are louder than ours, but they are not yet a majority.”

It was time, Reagan said, for Americans to reassert the right of religious people to bring their faith into the public sphere. “When our Founding Fathers passed the first amendment, they sought to protect churches from government interference,” he said. “They never intended to construct a wall of hostility between government and the concept of religious belief itself. The evidence of this permeates our history and our government. The Declaration of Independence mentions the Supreme Being no less than four times. ‘In God We Trust’ is engraved on our coinage. The Supreme Court opens its proceedings with a religious invocation. And the Members of Congress open their sessions with a prayer. I just happen to believe the schoolchildren of the United States are entitled to the same privileges as Supreme Court Justices and Congressmen. Last year, I sent the Congress a constitutional amendment to restore prayer to public schools. Already this session, there’s growing bipartisan support for the amendment, and I am calling on the Congress to act speedily to pass it and to let our children pray.”

Reagan may not have been fully conscious of it at that time, but at that point, he had crossed from the civil religion of President Eisenhower to the Christian nationalism of Jerry Falwell. The words were not radically different, but the intention was. The things that Reagan appealed to in his speech as evidence of America’s civil religious roots – things such as the national motto of “In God We Trust” or appeals to the Creator in the Declaration of Independence – had long been part of America’s ecumenical civil religious faith. But now, in Reagan’s speech, they were being recast as polarizing contributors to a Christian nationalist war against secularism.

Some of the advocates of secularism who were fighting against Christian nationalism eventually forgot that the national references to God and faith that seemed so objectionable when they were part of a Christian nationalist agenda were once part of a more ecumenical civil religion. And so, like Heidi Przybyla, they found themselves tongue-tied or caught up in self-contradictory assertions when they began arguing against phrases or ideas that came straight from the Declaration of Independence or other founding documents.

And some of the Christian nationalists who championed these phrases as evidence of the nation’s Christian founding seemed to forget that these phrases were not originally part of a Christian identity movement. Thomas Jefferson did not attribute human rights to the “Creator” because he wanted to found the nation on the principle of divine commands. And Eisenhower’s prayer to “Almighty God” at his own inauguration was not an attempt to make Buddhists and atheists squirm in their seats by asserting a triumphalist Christian nationalism.

At a time when phrases that were once benignly civil religious in nature have become caught up in polarizing culture wars, perhaps what is needed is not more Christian nationalism or more secularism but rather more humble expressions of religious reflection in public life.

As a Christian, I find both civil religion and Christian nationalism inadequate, because neither one comes anywhere close to capturing the message of Jesus. A vague, lowest-common-denominator appeal to a generic monotheistic deity is pretty far removed from the Christian gospel, but so is the triumphalist, nationalistic stridency of Christian nationalism. Yet at the same time, I don’t think that America would be better off if we scrubbed all references to God in public life and pretended as though the idea that human rights come from God is dangerous and contrary to our democratic tradition.

Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address may offer a model for a better alternative. The speech is clearly not secular in its assumptions, since it includes an extensive theological reflection on God’s purposes in the Civil War. Yet despite its strong theological themes, it does not neatly fit into the categories of either civil religion or Christian nationalism.

Abraham Lincoln. Photograph after Mathew B. Brady, 1864.
Abraham Lincoln

Unlike most expressions of civil religion, Lincoln’s speech suggested that America was guilty of a national sin – in this case, the sin of slavery – and that it had just experienced a bloody war as a penalty for that sin.

Unlike many Christian nationalists, Lincoln went to great lengths to avoid demonizing any one group for that sin. Americans in both North and South shared responsibility for that evil, he suggested, and had suffered the consequences for it. God’s purposes needed to be honored, but they could never be perfectly discerned. One could have “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” – but yet still recognize that our task was to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” not exacerbate them. Rather than invoke God’s aid for a partisan cause against one’s enemies, it was better to show “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

If all political invocations of God had followed Lincoln’s exhortations, perhaps we would not be having a polarizing debate about Christian nationalism today.

But in these divisive times, it’s still possible for us to practice humility and charity in our public rhetoric. It’s still possible for us to honor the long history of invoking God in national public life while nevertheless refraining from using that rhetoric for partisan purposes or for the sake of protecting the interests of our own religious groups. In other words, it’s possible to differentiate civil religion from Christian nationalism and to avoid the latter without completely forgetting the benefits of the former.

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