I’ve written and thought on American civil religion for some time now. Inevitably, our American presidential politics lifts up one form of civil religion or another. Politics and religion, as I always say to my students, are inevitably twinned. Religion partners, serves and/or resists power. It is always in relationship to power; it always wants more power. In fact I’ve defined religion as the social desire for the ultimate. And this definition can easily be transferred into the political realm. Politics is about desire and power. And whether we are on the right or the left, there is a deep desire for power; if one or the other side can get a god to be on their side, they will do it.
In American political religion, broadly understood, we’ve had a general consensus through much of the twentieth century. God, as understood through our Judeo-Christian heritage, was both the guarantor and the goal of righteousness and justice in the US but also for the world. Indeed, the Cold War was a battle for many in the West between godless communism and a Judeo-Christian form of secularism by which and in which freedom could be sought and sustained. In this sense American presidents from Kennedy to Reagan, and from Bush to Obama, have lived out and embodied a social gospel to the world, seeking the expansion of rights and freedoms, not only for the American people but for the world.
Needless to say, the strategies for these goals have been compromised by major missteps—from Vietnam to the Contra Wars, to the debacle in Iraq. In many ways, the efforts to practice this social gospel have tested the very idea of this gospel. And that is my point. The Baptists, long a strong backer of American exceptionalism and the American civic gospel are now asking hard questions about its viability and indeed, the very nature of its vision.
Russell Moore, who serves now as the eight president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has become a powerful anti-civil religion voice within his Baptist Convention. And this is no small affair; the Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the US. Moore has become a fierce critic of Protestant civil religion. Moore is critical of those who have hooked their wagons to political parties. In a recent blog he argues, “2 Chronicles 7:14 Isn’t About American Politics.” As Moore explains, it is commonplace, particularly in American conservative communities to have gatherings around “God and Country.” The verses 2 Chronicles 7:14 are often quoted as a process by which if a nation confesses and returns to the Lord, it is promised that God will restore the nation to prosperity. This is frequently centered on patriotism, anti-abortion movements and the vitality of the American family.
Moore will have none of this. For him, this essentializing of the nation as God’s vehicle for salvation misses the point of the scripture. Second Chronicles 7:14 is not about America, not about one nation or another, but about God’s people returning to a covenant that God has made with God’s people. And furthermore, it is covenant that is only fully realized in life and work of Jesus Christ, that is his life, death and resurrection. As Moore writes with verve and gutsiness: “ … [L]et’s crucify our generic civil religions and our discount-rate prosperity gospels and hear behind all of them the gentle lowing of golden calves, and let’s instead define ourselves not by the generic god of American values. We do not serve that god. We serve the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God and Father of Jesus Christ. The promises that he has made will outlast Mount Rushmore. He is the one who tells us who we are and tells us where we are going, because he’s promised us, in the short term, a cross on our backs, and in the long term, a crown of life.”This is certainly not the typical voice of American conservative Christianity that we have become familiar with—Moore is no Franklin Graham, calling America to become a Christian nation—challenging them to walk in righteousness. No, Moore is prophetically attacking what he sees as the twin heresies of American Christianity: American civil Christianity and the American prosperity gospel, in each of these we hear the siren voices to the American Christian church—holding out promises of political power or financial gain.
Neither is Moore calling America back to its mid-twentieth century American civil religion, which Robert Bellah made famous and which Barack Obama has also evoked, particularly in his Nobel Prize speech.
I would argue that Moore is right in criticizing an American-centric civil gospel, and also accurate in his critique of the prosperity gospel, but I think he gives up too quickly on the rather august vision that Bellah wrote about and that Obama articulated in his Nobel speech:
But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. . . . As Dr. King said at this occasion so many years ago, “I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”
Let us reach for the world that ought to be—that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. . . . We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace (Obama 2009).
That is, we don’t have to be sold out to America or faithful to President Obama, to believe that a country might have a higher and broader calling beyond its own survival. Martin Luther King, Jr. appealed directly to these “higher angels” in the American spirit, which he thought were there, though often in hibernation. But to call them to awaken seems to me a noble calling.
Moore’s Baptist anti-American civil religion may be one form of Christian politics, but its seems to me, a rather hollow and narrow hope, in which a few Christians escape to heaven and leave the rest of us scoundrels to cook in our own juices. Isn’t Moore giving up a bit too easily?