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9 Observations about Danger of Civil Religion

Worship is a political act. But whose politics?
America’s national story and societal landscape are politically vibrant and interlaced with religious and, at times, biblical themes.

The messages and symbols of nationalism have frequently incorporated various religious themes in ways that create confusion about everything from the role of church in society to the very identity of God.

In the U.S., the separation of church and state is celebrated as the standard for the relationship between nation and faith. That is not the same, however, as the separation of religion and politics, which tend to have a vigorous relationship in many quarters of American society.

While defending the former, the church may easily become ensnared by the temptations of the latter. In this environment, civil religion is practiced as one way of managing these influences.

Civil religion develops as a nation-state seeks validation from the church or prevailing religious order for its establishment, protection, sustenance and ambitions.

It propagates itself through a cross-pollination of the stories, symbols and celebrations of the church and nation-state.

This cross-pollination exerts an arguably dubious influence on the church and results in the conception of an ongoing history of the nation-state with the character of sacrosanct myth. In order for civil religion to flourish, the willing participation of the church or prevailing religious order is necessary at some level.

The following observations delineate some characteristics of encounters between a nation-state and the church and its gospel under the influence of civil religion:

â—     The nation-state will generally act in ways that presume that the goals and agendas of the nation-state and the church are, at least to some extent, equivalent.

â—     The church will generally act in ways that acknowledge that the goals and agendas of the church and nation-state are not equivalent, but deem the perceived advantages to the church’s opportunity to present the gospel as worth the risk of entanglement.

â—     The nation-state will exercise its authority so that its agenda will trump the agenda of the gospel and the gospel will be subordinated to the nation-state’s agenda.

â—     The nation-state will seek to define transcendence and ultimacy in a way that, while integrating themes that appear consistent with the gospel, is bent toward the health, sustenance and ambitions of the nation-state.

â—     The nation-state will always co-opt and even abuse the gospel to support its own ends.

â—     The nation-state will encourage the existence and even freedom of the church to the extent that the church complies with the means and ends of the nation-state.

â—     The nation-state will presume that the church’s complicity implies support for its policies, including whatever coercive means the nation-state determines are necessary to maintain its security and future.

â—     Any complicity on the part of the church with the nation-state will generate dissonance between the church and the gospel. While this may begin subtly, this dissonance will intensify, eroding the church’s concept of its core identity and mission.

â—     The church that is faithful to the gospel will generally represent a dissenting voice to the demands of the nation-state. The gospel’s intent will, therefore, be perceived as a threat to the nation-state.

Civil religion should not be confused with biblical Christianity, nor should civil religious celebrations be confused with the church’s worship of God.

Clarity about who the followers of Christ are to worship and revere as sovereign is essential in navigating life in the atmosphere described above.

Worshiping the triune God encountered in the biblical narrative requires Christians to be on guard, repelling nationalistic tendencies to leverage the church’s influence and message for the nation’s agenda.

Worship should do more to shape Christians for citizenship in the kingdom of God than it does for worldly citizenship.

It is certainly right to obey the laws of the land, pray for a nation and its leaders and pay appropriate taxes. Yet, in order for the church to remain faithful to God in Christ, the church’s worship should be safeguarded from any syncretistic practices that would dilute that worship.

By faithfulness in worship, Christ’s followers proclaim their allegiance to the reign of God. They also put into practice the very politics of God’s kingdom in the present day as a witness to the coming of the fullness of that kingdom.

Faithful worship resists the aims and claims of Caesar and disciplines Christ’s followers for participation in the politics of God’s kingdom.

Rob Hewell is director of the worship studies program at Ouachita Baptist University and a resident fellow at B.H. Carroll Theological Institute. This article contains excerpts from his book, “Worship Beyond Nationalism: Practicing the Reign of God” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).