During this month of January the world watched two remarkable expressions of American Civil Religion, two weeks apart, at the same location – the US Capitol.

I don’t remember newscasters having called the Capitol “the temple of American democracy” heretofore. They certainly began to do so on January 6. They kept it up two weeks later. After the riot the temple had to be cleansed, and so it was for the Inauguration. Unfortunately, it was the rioters who evoked the Lord Jesus turning over tables.

If the Inauguration of Joe Biden was not a church service, it was certainly an outdoor revival. It opened with an invocation and closed with a benediction. J.Lo’s solo asked God to shed his grace on America, and we all sang a hymn stanza with Garth Brooks, which he sang like a prayer. The sermon was Biden’s speech (see Laura de Jong’s essay from last week: The Day After). The speech did not set out policies or a political program (as Canadians are used to in a “Throne Speech”) so much as an appeal to the “soul” of America. If this isn’t religion I don’t know what is.

To be fair to Joe Biden, he knows what a proper religious service is. Earlier that morning he attended Mass, with other officials, at the Roman Catholic cathedral. His Christian faith is genuine devotion, seriously expressed in faithful public worship and regular private prayer. He is a man who is used to spirituality, charity, and good works. I was happy to vote for him. And though I was moved, even inspired by the Inauguration, I would have been more comfortable at the cathedral than at the temple, because I don’t share Biden’s evident belief in American Civil Religion.

Neither did the rioters two weeks before, but for different reasons than me. They certainly believe in American Civil Religion, but in a version that is radically and even violently different. There was powerful evidence of this on January 6, from the Jesus flags to the crosses to the prayer to the “Father,” hands uplifted, in the Senate chamber. That it was violent makes it no less religious, for violence and religion are old friends.

In this case probably the more accurate biblical example would be the Maccabees cleansing the Temple, or any of the Jewish and Galilean risings against Rome. The Inauguration had its own expression of violence in the form of 25,000 National Guard troops — potential violence, uniformed, disciplined, held in reserve, but a great show of force nonetheless. Think of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, against the Protestants.

** Schism **

American Civil Religion is in schism, with the two sides anathematizing each other. That it’s a single religion in schism, each side regarding the other as heretical, might account for level of the vitriol. It wasn’t always this way. I suspect it’s going to get worse, even with the departure of Donald Trump (if it is unknowable whether he really believes in it, he was perversely brilliant in his use of it). There may be a purging of leadership, like with the early Anabaptists after the violence at Munster, but I think we’re looking at a religious struggle for the soul of America for a long time to come.

President Biden, for example, holds to what I will call the “mainline” version of American Civil Religion, which, if never uniform, has been dominant, at least nationally. There’s lots of scholarship available on how this evolved: Enlightenment ideas, aversion to the Religious Wars of Europe, the simultaneous immigration of various denominational groups, and eventually the First Amendment’s separation of Church and State.

Officially, we separated the sacred and the secular, but experientially, Americans tended unconsciously to believe in two religions at the same time, with a soft and undulating boundary between them. The one religion is for the private sphere, whatever their personal religion in the familiar sense might be (Protestant, Catholic, Jew). The other religion is for the public sphere — the mainline American Civil Religion, a sort of optimistic, pragmatic unitarian universalism, in which we all share the same God (“Father”) whose will is to unite us all (think Biden’s speech) and whose only job is to “bless America.”

Americans are peculiar (and certainly different from Canadians) in how much we expect to “believe” in America, and how we are “indivisible under God.” The flag is treated as a sacred symbol that, no wonder, belongs in church, illustrating how the private religion accommodates the public one. And if you don’t think that a whole people can have two religions at the same time, let me remind you of the Japanese, who historically have practiced both Buddhism and Shinto simultaneously.

The problem, as of course you already know, is that the Gospel resists such privatization. Just the phrase “the Kingdom of God” denies the separation of sacred and secular and forces the issues of church and state. One thinks of candidate John F. Kennedy contracting his Catholicism before the Southern preachers, or, in the same era, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expanding his ministry into the Civil Rights movement.

** Father Abraham **

When I came to Calvin College fifty years ago I was thrilled by the vision of Abraham Kuyper that lifted me out of privatized religion and the personalized gospel. I learned that “all of life is religion,” and some of us began to dream of a Christian political party and Christian labor unions. I rejoiced at the thought of bringing my faith fully into the public sphere. But, of course, this is contrary to the deal that mainline American Civil Religion had made with personal religion.

I think it can be argued that much of American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (not excusing mainline Protestantism nor Roman Catholicism) reduced the Power of Our Lord’s Resurrection narrowly to personal salvation, and the claims of his Lordship could also narrowly be focused on personal morality. Then the pragmatic optimistic unitarian universalism was tolerable publicly for the sake of American unity and prosperity.

When Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism learned not to separate Christ and culture, or faith and politics (which mainline Protestantism still prefers to separate), the schism was inevitable.

This new schismatic version of American Civil Religion no longer believes in two religions at the same time (and thus cannot welcome in Muslims). Now there can be only a single religion, which people are calling “Christian Nationalism.” It’s perhaps a rather narrow label, especially as the schismatic version of American Civil Religion remains amorphous and a very big tent. It’s not what most pious Christians who supported Trump would call themselves, but I don’t know what better denotes the new schismatic American Civil Religion.

One of the early indicators of the schism was Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. He derived his critique of “secular humanism” indirectly from Kuyperians, via Ed Dobson and Francis Schaeffer. Certainly Falwell’s version of Christian politics was hardly Kuyper’s — lacking Sphere Sovereignty, Common Grace, Reformed hermeneutics and ecclesiology, Kuyper’s views on the role of the state, and his principled acceptance of pluralism. It had cultural power nonetheless, enough for Falwell, not unlike Kuyper, to start a mass political movement and found a university.

This had happened before elsewhere, notably in South Africa, among the Dutch Reformed, which brings it close to home. Apartheid had already existed as a practice in the churches, but then elements of Kuyperianism were mixed in to create the grand cultural ideology of Apartheid, which the National Party used to reorganize the whole country as an avowedly Christian nation. No wonder that Apartheid had ultimately to be opposed as heretical by the Belhar Confession.

Christian nationalism in America, with its generally shrunken Christology, is functionally unitarian but not universalist. It grants infallibility to the US Constitution and elevates the Second Amendment to a dogma. Abortion and homosexuality are the defining sins (in the way that drug use and divorce and remarriage used to be). The gun is sacramental. It celebrates redemptive violence, the birth-myth of the American Revolution. I could multiply examples.

Of course we’d have to say that there are varieties and disparities within the schism, and lots of real tension with true and valid Christian belief among its adherents. And the picture I’ve drawn is rough, over-simplified, and worthy of correction, but I think it generally holds. And it makes me pessimistic about President Biden’s appeal for unity.

** Two Final Points **

First, one of the new leaders in Christian nationalism is Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. He knows more about Kuyper than Falwell did. As Jason Lief noted here last week, Hawley paraphrased Kuyper’s famous “square inch” line in a speech that he gave.

Kuyper did not actually say “square inch” but “thumb-breadth” (duimbreed). The original bears repeating: “En geen duimbreed is er op heel ’t erf van ons menschelijk leven, waarvan de Christus, die aller Souverein is, niet roept: ‘Mijn’.” Well, abusus non tollit usus/the abuse doesn’t take away from the use.

Still, if Kuyper scholar James Bratt (on these pages) was done with the “square inch” slogan eight years ago, we have even more cause to stop making so much use of it now. (Sorry, Calvin University.)

It’s a slogan, not a biblical doctrine, and is easily misused. And while the Sovereignty of Christ is certainly true, and even central, we can’t be confident that the Lord Jesus actually would cry “Mine.” It is not his way. He never did it once in the Gospels. I would argue that, if anything, he’d cry “Thine!” In this case I think the dramatic (and brilliant) Abraham Kuyper was putting words in Our Lord’s mouth. So let’s stop using the “square inch” line now that these words are so easily misused.

Second, I suggest that we Christians, at least Reformed Christians, should stop saying “I believe in America.” It can be meant well, and I suppose harmlessly, and it makes sense when you consider that the USA has been from the start an experiment that requires commitment and investment. However, the strong and dangerous development of American Civil Religion, whether old mainline or new Christian nationalist, is cause enough for us to discipline our speech for mission and witness purposes. Apart from appropriately believing in our spouses, children, and friends, let’s limit our public institutional “I believe in” to everything that God promises us in the Gospel, which promises are summarized for us in the Articles of our Christian Faith, a Creed beyond doubt, and confessed throughout the world.

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is a retired pastor in Reformed Church in America, now residing in New York's Hudson Valley.

11 Comments

  • Laura de Jong says:

    Wow. Thank you. This helps me put into words muddled thoughts and impressions I’ve been sitting with these last few weeks – the articulation of America’s civil religion experiencing a schism is so, so helpful. While Trump trumpeted “America first,” any Obama SotU speech was much the same thing, but in more eloquent, feel-good language. I’ve no doubt Biden will follow suit… and because it’s all cloaked in religiosity, any chance at calm, level-headed dialogue becomes much more difficult. A long road ahead indeed…

  • Dr. Jim Payton says:

    I join Laura in thanking you, Dan, for articulating so clearly how what we are seeing is a schism within American civil religion … and for defining the difference as each seeing the other side as heretics, to be overcome (all “to the glory of God,” of course). I had not thought of it that way at all … but as a church historian, I have to say, that’s a chilling, even frightening, assessment.

  • Jim says:

    Top notch, Daniel! I couldn’t have said it better–or nearly as well–myself, being too enmeshed with both your lead question and Father Abraham for too long to achieve your analytic clarity. Hope to have more to say later, but many thanks right now.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Thank you Daniel for a very interesting and informative article. The political embrace of religious symbols and language has been increasing during my entire lifetime. I think it was fueled initially in the ’50s by the cold war and “Godless communism”. As recent books by Du Mez and Stewart point out, this comingling of religion and politics has been seized upon largely by the right as a litmus test of the rightness (pun intended) of their politics and that the right is the only truly “patriotic” party. I am more ambivalent about Biden’s embrace of religious symbolism at the inauguration. I think he is a man of genuine faith who is attacked from the right, even by his own church, as not being sufficiently “religious”. It is highly ironic that Trump, a man with no religious faith, never had to face these attacks. I see the Democrats embracing these religious totems in part because they are forced to by the relentless drumbeat of the right.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Very helpful analysis, Dan. Thank you. Much to ponder here.

  • Roy Clouser says:

    Hey, Dan. Good to see you’re still alive and writing! Good piece.

    Roy Clouser

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    We need to learn how to be broadly political but not narrowly partisan. We need to be Christians first, Americans second. God does not bless American any more or less than God blesses any other nation. If we insist on putting an American flag in our churches, let’s add all the others to make it a model UN. If we are blessed it is only to be a blessing to others. What is un-Christian is all the selfishness on display: from not wearing masks, to carrying guns, to killing police to overturn a free and fair election they lost. The test of one’s faith is not what you would kill others for, but whether you are willing to die for others. We need to follow Christ in the way of the cross, and the way of the towel, not the way of guns & power.

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you, Daniel. Good to hear your voice in this space.

  • I recommend “Jesus and John Wayne. How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation” by Kristin Kobes DuMez for a comprehensive history of white evangelical political machinations dating back 75 years.

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