Christians who do not consider the distinction between the kingdom of Christ and the civil kingdom are especially vulnerable to crossing the line between patriotism and nationalism. Christians who see the United States as occupying a unique covenantal relationship with God (such as Israel possessed under the Sinai covenant) are especially susceptible to confusing Christian convictions with national purposes, because the latter have taken on an overtly religious meaning in the way they are understood and interpreted. Christians who seek “biblical” justification for political action are also vulnerable to embracing civil religion. The temptation to do so is great, especially in the American context.
One of the most subtle and dangerous temptations Christians face during their pilgrim journey is the allure of civil religion. James Davison Hunter defines civil religion as a “diffuse amalgamation of religious values that is synthesized with the civic creeds of the nation; in which the life and mission of the church is conflated with the life and mission of the country. American values are in substance, biblical, prophetic values; American identity is, thus, a vaguely Christian identity.” (1) Civil religion often functions as an alternative public religious framework for many professing Christians, especially those who accept the “Christian America” myth, or who find exclusive Christian truth claims too controversial to play any significant role in the public square.
In modern America, civil religion is the chief rival to biblical Christianity. If those Christians who are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the kingdom of Christ and the civil kingdom, and who willingly placing themselves under the authority of God’s word are considered too extreme to be fully welcomed in America’s public square, those who champion a generic “civil religion” are almost always welcome.
Civil religion is an especially tempting option for Christians who have been told that religion is a private matter which has no place in the public square. The basic tenants of civil religion are vague enough that it is hard to deny them. They are also deeply held by too many Americans to eliminate them altogether from American life. Rather than check their faith in Jesus at the door to the public square, Christians can embrace civil religion in the public arena and few will complain, since virtually all citizens embrace the key tenants: a belief in a Creator; the basic goodness of humanity; equality for all; a profound sense of national purpose; and the celebration of national holidays with an almost religious reverence, (i.e, Independence Day, Memorial Day, and the National Day of Thanksgiving). Yet, to confuse Christ’s kingdom with civil religion opens the door–however unintentionally–to exchange the truth of Christianity for what amounts to a false religion, one in which faith in the national interest eclipses the primary allegiance a Christian owes to Jesus Christ and his word.
The attraction to civil religion also arises from the fact that Christians often strive to be good citizens and apply their deeply-held Christian convictions to their actions in the civil kingdom. Even when motivated by the best of intentions, Christians can easily find themselves attributing normative moral authority to the state, especially when the state’s current values and purposes appear to coincide with the revealed will of God (the moral law). When national values resonate with the tenants of someone’s Christian faith, it is easy to take the next step and assume what the nation does (whether that be in matters of foreign or domestic policy) accomplishes the will of God. The nation is believed to be God’s righteous agent and avenger, exercising God’s will, with his full authority and blessing.
When current events are read through the lens of civil religion, the nation’s struggles can be vividly portrayed in biblical images of sacrifice and redemption, and framed as part of the larger cosmic struggle between good and evil. Our enemies are declared to be “evil” because they oppose the good–our nation and its current cause. Our national warriors are righteous redeemers, doing the Lord’s work, giving the full measure of their devotion to “save” others. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his famed Gettysburg Address, those buried in the national cemetery gave their lives so that the nation might live. Without question, our soldiers and statesmen have often been heroic and sacrificed much to secure our current freedom and way of life. But their shed blood saved a secular nation from temporal peril, not their sinful souls from eternal punishment.