A Response to Daniel Meeter
As I said in the Comments on the day you posted it, I really appreciate your “Cleansing the Temple” contribution to “The Twelve” on January 25. Its analytical clarity, theological intelligence, and Christian (as opposed to civil religious) priorities are dead on.
You catch American Civil Religion precisely and succinctly, and your postulation that a schism has emerged within it, along with the salient details you present from either side, shed real light on our current moment. Every sentence in what, to me, is your best paragraph deserves meditation: “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 its defining sins. . .while the gun is sacramental.” “It celebrates redemptive violence, the birth-myth of the American Revolution.”
Like any good piece, yours gives rise to further reflection and questions. Some of what follows, no doubt, rates as material covered in Christian Political Theory 101, but events seem to require a refresher course…
Yes but… Yes and…
1.) I agree fully that “Reformed Christians should stop saying ‘I believe in America’” and reserve “public institutional” expressions of fealty to the creeds of the church. Yet we inhabit the public square, and in the USA that has indeed been “defined from the start [as] an experiment that requires commitment and investment.” If we as Christians are going to participate in American public life, we’re going to have to interface with American Civil Religion. To that end we have to do a better job at differentiating between Christ/gospel as our first-order priority and the nation — along with family and other tempting idols — as second-order. A very tough row to hoe, especially in the USA and most especially in our post-modern media environment. Also, a wearying work. I’ve been at it for my entire 50-year professional life, during which a proper ordering of loyalties has gotten worse among American Christians, not better. As you and I both know, persistence wears you out, even if it recalls you to your original commitment.
2.) As President Biden said in his inaugural paraphrase of Augustine, any polity needs a shared sense of common goods — I would put it, a common ethos, some shared framework of values, aspirations, and ground rules. This is what Biden hammered at all campaign long in saying that the 2020 election was a matter of saving “the soul of America.” As Christians we flinch at soul-salvation being invoked this way, but there’s something to it, isn’t there? Whatever remains of American culture’s sense of decency, honesty, and respect was at stake last November and barely survived. This is a matter of some import to Christians in the USA, no? A matter of prayer and thanksgiving. So how do we offer those prayers, publicly, without going over the line into civil-religious idolatry? More broadly, how do we as Christians confess a universal (“catholic”) creed, yet necessarily share in the “soul” dimension of this country, or that of whichever country we live in, without confusing that soul with the church’s?
Oh democracy! Oh Canada!
3.) Democracy is a secondary good and not — contra a lot of American Protestant proclamations, from the Revolution to the Cold War — God’s normative way of having us do political business. (BTW, this was true not only of evangelicals but also of progressives: see, for example, Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, 1907.) Yet, in the context of the USA, democracy is a precious good — the attempted coup at the Capitol brought that out vividly. How do we give thanks without going overboard? January 6 was not the Battle of Armageddon, but it was important, yes?
4.) Generally speaking, doesn’t what you identify as the “mainline” American civil religion offer a fair bit of Christian-compatible material and the “Christian nationalist” version much less, if any at all? Compare, specifically, Joe Biden’s Christian-informed inaugural address with Donald Trump’s pagan-nationalist screed. Ok, I/we don’t “believe in America” the way Biden does but we must surely prefer his vision to Trumpian bile. Some of those symbols and tokens, the canonical lines from Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and King, inspire affection and action. Does such devotion corrupt true religion? Must it?
5.) You as a sojourner in Canada for some years and Laura de Jong as a native daughter of that land bear affection for the True North Strong and Free. Any thoughts on what is the “soul” of that nation? Or, if that language just doesn’t play there, what might be its bonds of affection and terms of public engagement? I can’t help but think that the odds for a real Gospel are better in a country whose core myth involves the Mountie instead of the Cowboy, the benign presence of law rather than the perpetual half-outlaw whose rosary is the revolver and who has to head out town once civilization arrives in the figures of church, school — and schoolmarm. Is the project that has marked the USA from the start always, if sometimes covertly, protesting too much about the justice of its primal overthrow of the Lord’s anointed, good King George? Your line again: “The gun is sacramental” because it “celebrates redemptive violence, the birth-myth of the American Revolution.” Has the project been terminally fated from the start? If, qua Chairman Mao, American history comes out of the mouth of the gun, is the price of admission too high for a genuine Christian to pay? Is Biden’s benign civil religion necessarily an adjunct to the January 6 mob’s genuine article, a hopeful dream plausible only for times that are good and for people who are prospering, but fated to fail when, and for whom, the chips are down?
Father Abraham redux
6.) Finally, Kuyper. We agree that “every square inch” has overstayed its welcome. You cringe at its openness to Christianist imperialism; I, back in the day, faulted its strategic flabbiness, its invitation to rubberstamp our wants as God’s. But as someone who has personally worked through Kuyper’s teaching, you know its tradition far better than those who invoke this or that piece of it for support, like Josh Hawley, or those who critique Hawley. The culprit here is not Kuyper but, I suspect, one of his American acolytes, Cornelius Van Til, as appropriated by the truly execrable Rousas Rushdoony. Via that channel Kuyper has come into American evangelicalism without 95% of Kuyperianism — without “sphere sovereignty, common grace, Reformed hermeneutics and ecclesiology, Kuyper’s views on the role of the state, and his principled acceptance of pluralism.” Oh, just that.
7.) But let me reply for Kuyper on one point you raise against him. “We can’t be confident,” you say, “that the Lord Jesus actually would cry ‘Mine’” as in the famous “square inch” assertion. “It is not his way. He never did it once in the Gospels.” I love your next turn: “If anything, he’d cry ‘Thine!’” Except, in leaving the scene, Jesus does announce to the disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). This is the verse that Kuyper was invoking in his (in)famous statement. Perhaps an instance of the theology of glory that is not for us this side of paradise? Certainly, as you remarked to me once, a claim that Christ was making for himself, not for Christians.
Still, the verse is there, provoking us as so many of Jesus’ sayings do. Thanks for helping us parse them, also in counterpoint to appealing — or appalling — alternate faiths like American civil religion.