Academic journal article Humanitas

The Protestant Roots of American Civil Religion

Academic journal article Humanitas

The Protestant Roots of American Civil Religion

Article excerpt

Not all civil religion is a threat to civil society, nor should civil religion be discouraged in all circumstances. But when civil religion invites a sense of national exceptionalism that undermines prudent Augustinian limits on state power, it threatens civil society and ordered liberty. This article presents historical and theological background of Reformed Protestantism or "Calvinism" in America and evaluates its virtues and vices in the development of Anglo-American political theology and civil religion. The great challenge of America can be summarized in terms of the covenant theology of Reformed Protestantism. Does America enjoy the same covenant relationship as the church, an everlasting and unconditional covenant? Or is America in a relationship with God governed only by general providence and a conditional covenant? These were theological questions that eventually came to form the dilemma of American civil religion and its growing sense of divine mission.

Introduction: Christian America?

Is America a "Christian nation"? Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the role of Christianity in America's dominant ethos and argued that it is the faithful spirit of Americans that keeps us from democratic despotism, withdrawn individualism, and materialism. G. K. Chesterton called America a nation with the soul of a church. (1) These kinds of observations reinforce what Henry Van Til (2) or Russell Kirk (3) argued concerning the close relationship of religion, culture, and political institutions. Indeed, one is hard pressed to deny that Christian character and thinking has had a salutary effect on the Anglo-American legacy of institutions and habits supporting ordered liberty.

But the insights of cultural observers and historians are not the same as the assertion that America is a "Christian nation." When one moves from merely descriptive observations of history and culture to something that sounds more exclusive and prescriptive--something that asserts America to be essentially Christian--embarrassing ideological arguments multiply. Proponents and opponents of "Christian America" trade salvos of cherry-picked quotations, statistics, and anecdotes. Partisans cite everything from polling numbers counting persons who "believe in God" (something that hardly can be called the equivalent of rich Christian orthodoxy) to disputes over the contents of eighteenth-century commonplace books owned by America's constitutional framers. Perhaps these debates about America's status as a "Christian nation" are providentially intended to reinforce Solomon's warning that "of the making of many books there is no end." (4)

Whatever the merit of the claim that America can be called a Christian nation, this much is for sure: Americans are fish swimming in a civil religion that is not the same as Christianity. (5) And most of the fish don't know they're wet. Given the prevalence of civil religion in America, it is worth inquiring into its origins and its potential to do good or ill to America, to the church, and to the church's partners in civil society.

Defining Civil Religion

I do not use this term coined by Robert Bellah, "civil religion," to mean simply that religious ideas and political ideas intersect in America, or to say that American political rhetoric is religious. That would be stating the obvious. Theological or ecclesiastical support has traditionally been used to preserve public order or meet similar needs of the res publica, but the kind of civil religion of which I am speaking deviates in two important ways. First, it risks advancing political goals imprudent for a sound commonwealth by discarding traditional Augustinian pessimism and thereby enabling limitless civil power. (6) Second, it suggests delegating to the state work previously delegated to the church and to other institutions of civil society. (7) These institutions are the "little platoons" of society that Edmund Burke praised as the root of our public affection--the kind of affection that effects the greatest public good. …

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