Fred Thompson exemplifies civil religion–religion that honors the nonspecific idea of the little “g” God and requires nothing more than a nod in political speeches. Civil religion is the opposite of authentic religion.
Authentic religion has a sacred text, houses of worship, developed doctrinal beliefs, expectations for moral practices, requirements for membership and often ordained clergy. Prayer is to the transcendent, living and engaged God, beholding to no tribe, tongue or nation.
Civil religion’s sacred text is the American Constitution and writings of the founding fathers. Its place of worship is the public square. Its doctrine is a thin deistic belief in the Divine’s favor on the nation. Its only moral demand is national self-interest. Its clergy are public figures.
Within Christianity, thoughtful leaders have long warned their members that civil religion is a false faith and its advocates are inauthentic manipulators of people of faith.
Such discernment was not evident when Christian Right adherents jumped to their feet, whistled and applauded Thompson for 26 seconds after he told them that in the first hour of his presidency he would pray for wisdom.
Speaking at a gathering intended to rally evangelical Christians to vote Republican, Thompson said: “I don’t really know what I would do in my first hundred days, it would depend on the circumstances ¦. I know what I would do the first hour that I was president. I would go into the Oval Office and close the door and pray for the wisdom to know what was right.”
He added, “May God give us all that strength and wisdom to do what is right for our country.”
Thompson successfully pitched himself to the faithful as one of them without having to disclose his commitment to a civil religion.
His rhetoric was masterful and pure civil religion–a general reference to God and to the generic act of prayer.
It matched consistently his record of civil religion. Thompson has identified himself as a member of the Church of Christ but has admitted no meaningful record of church attendance in his own hometown in the Washington suburbs. He said earlier in the campaign that “I know that I’m right with God” and that he was “lucky,” a reference to fate instead of an acknowledgement of Providence’s blessing.
How could it be that prior to running for the presidency, Thompson did not have enough reverence for God to show devotion as basic as regular church attendance? Why would he pray in the Oval Office but refuse to talk substantively about faith on the campaign trial? Why would he not even cite a sacred text to a religious crowd that describes themselves as Bible believers?
The only answer is that his religion is a civil one.
That truth finds verification in one other hallmark of civil religion. Civil religionists always have advocates within authentic religion who promote them as men of God.
Such is the case for Thompson. His biggest cheerleader is an employee of the fundamentalist-controlled Southern Baptist Convention, who misstated the truth about Thompson being a regular church attendee and placed the divine blessing on Thompson when he claimed a groundswell of support for candidate within the largest Protestant denomination.
Being a civil religionist as president is constitutionally acceptable. Being a practicing Christian or Jew or Mormon is neither a guarantee of success nor a recipe for failure.
However, the pretense of piousness is always a bad sign. The Judeo-Christian tradition warns against both artificial piety and false prophets who deceive people of faith.
If candidates will mislead in matters of faith, which they increasingly appear to do, where else are they misinforming the public about their values and visions?
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.