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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.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Jim, thank you for extending the conversation. I want to say, Yes, Yes, That’s right-no, Yes, Good point, Good question, I don’t know how, Yes, that’s what we have to do.

    But let me limit this comment to your seventh point. When the Lord Jesus said, in Matthew 28:18, “All authority . . . has been given to me,” he did not say “all possession.” There is a difference. The State of New York has authority over me and my property, but it cannot say “Mine” of me or my property. I know that some governments do claim both (In Canada all private property was originally a “concession” from the Crown), but in Israel it was not to be so. Consider King Ahab and the case of Naboth’s vineyard. We could go into the question of how much real freedom of possession of the world the Lord Jesus gives us (our “inheritance”), not least in order for the Holy Spirit to do her full work, but let me stick to the relationship between the Father and the Son.

    When the Lord Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father . . . thy kingdom come,” the gospel writers did not alter that after his Ascension. From Jesus’ point of view, it remains the Father’s kingdom even though he has been given authority over it. If the Kingdom of God is also the Kingdom of Christ (which it is), that is because the Father has given it to him for particular purposes, and self-limiting purposes, until the Lord Jesus comes again.

    Ephesians 1:15-23 is important) The Father “has put all things under his feet and made him head over all things for the church.” And that “for the church” is important and needs to be recognized and understood. (Here is not the place.)

    Also important is 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, that at the End, the Lord Jesus will return the kingdom to his Father. So to your question, Jim, I doubt that even “in glory” the Lord Jesus would cry out “Mine”.

    The Lord Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father, not on the central throne itself. He remains the Son of God and Son of Man. Yes, “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of Our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever,” but Kuyper’s rhetorical flourish does not bear the weight we keep putting on it, and even becomes dangerous in our use of it.

    • Jim says:

      Thanks for providing such informative biblical theology, Daniel. Most helpful. You and others have pushed me to think more about how Kuyper’s dictum acquired such bad connotations. I say ‘acquired’ because I don’t see those there from the start. The 1880 address where the phrase originated was, of course, the oration founding the Free University, and in the immediate context of the phrase Kuyper is trying to warrant a Christian _university_ rather than (as some had suggested at the time) a theological seminary. Kuyper replies that the insights and mandates of the Christian faith concern _everything_: not just religion but law and medicine and the disciplines of the arts and humanities too. (Those were the major divisions of universities at the time.) The clause just before the square inch phrase says that ‘no area of our existenceis hermetically sealed off from the others.’ In short, Kuyper’s intention at the time was to warrant Christians getting active beyond church and home and private piety, the only places where many of his followers–and opponents–thought that the faith ‘belonged.’ ‘Square inch’ originally is a mandate for Christian involvement, then, not for Christian conquest. But since the language has been taken in the latter direction, I agree, let’s drop it. But let’s remember the original mandate and follow through on it in our own way, in our own time.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thanks, guys, wonderfully challenging to read your back and forth!

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    So appreciate the conversation between the two of you on this important topic/issue.
    Yes, the more “benign” (Christian) nationalism of Biden is to be preferred to the strident (Christian) nationalism of the Trumpistas (and its ugly eruption on January 6).
    In my journey, it has always been seeking to balance Jesus’ nonviolent relationship with Empire (working justice and mercy within Empire) and the apostles statement in Acts 5: “We must obey God rather than human authority.”
    The merging of Christ’s church with Empire’s world just doesn’t wash. Craving earthly “power/authority” is contrary to Jesus’ mindset. But, Christ followers bear witness within Empire, doing acts of kindness, justice in humility, pointing to the Ultimate Authority, “(glory to) the One who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.”

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      A United Church of Canada friend of mine who’s a pastor in Toronto pointed out that the main calling of Christians in the public square is neither to vacate it or control it but to witness in it, and I would add, witness in word and deed. As Newbiggin would say, we Christians are witnesses in the great courtroom of history, and not the judge or the jury.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, James and (Daniel) for your comments in regard to American civil religion as seen from a Christian perspective. Looking at and evaluating American civil religion from the Christian (Reformed Christian at that) perspective is a pretty limited perspective. The Christian view is increasingly becoming marginalized in Western society. As with the apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (Presuppositional Apologetics), you have to start with certain undeniable presuppositions, otherwise his apologetics goes nowhere. Same for one’s understanding of civil religion. It has to begin with certain presuppositions about religion and state. Christian presuppositions increasingly mean little to American politics. Increasingly, we are living in a post Christian age. And while living in an historical period of time that is progressing toward a more godless perspective, the presuppositions of even Christianity are changing in the public mind and getting more godless as time goes on. On top of that, other religions and their validity in the U.S. impact how one perceives the impact of religion on politics and the state. The presuppositions of other religions, as they impact the state, differ from that of Christianity. So to refer to civil religion as a religion is misleading from the start. Christians are attempting to understand American politics from an increasing diminishing box or world view. Such theories, as presented by Christians (and these articles) are coming from an increasingly small box and are having a diminishing impact on our culture. Thanks for your attempt to compare what you call civil religion to the Bible’s teaching.

  • Jim S says:

    I am greatly thankful for the two of you and this thoughtful, gracious dialogue.

  • Laura de Jong says:

    Ooh, I am here for this conversation. If y’all wanted to keep this back-and-forth going, that would be alright with me! I’ll add my two wholly uninformed and drastically simplified two cents to the question of Canadian vs. American identity…

    I like the imagery of the cowboy, who is (at least in film portrayal – brb, looking up my notes from Film in American History) the lone good guy in the fight against evil. He alone knows what to do, he alone knows what is right, he alone will save the day. The line between right and wrong is a clear one. There are two sides, and at the end of the day, the winner is the one who chooses the right side.

    There’s a lot here you could tease out about American mythology, but for me it all gets wrapped up in this idea of extremes, of bifurcation. There is right and there is wrong (the cowboy genre morphs beautifully into the cult of superheroes). There are good guys and bad guys. There is me and there is the other. There is England and there is America, King George and General Washington. There are Republicans and there are Democrats. Either America will be the leader of the free world, or America will cease to have a purpose. There is liberty or there is death. America’s founding story is a tale of two sides, with liberty at its core as the ultimate virtue.

    And with extremes the stakes are always high – are you with me or against me? So our present moment feels like a rather inevitable playing out of the great American experiment…

    Meanwhile…if Canada has a “soul,” a grounding myth, I think Margaret Atwood was probably right in arguing that our identity is, in part, shaped by survival, by a struggle against a harsh wilderness. The “extremes” in Canada weren’t between people groups (minus First Nations people of course…the history of the Mountie is less benign than we would like to admit), but people and environment. And if your struggle is against nature, the way to be victorious is to bring other people into the struggle, to rely on neighbor and countryman. Once the wilderness is tamed, you’re left with a sense of community and collegiality, of “we’re-all-in-this-together-ness” (it would be interesting to compare themes of early Canadian/American folk songs and see if this plays out).

    Things in Canada feel a bit less…intense…than they do here. There’s less at stake. (We are, after all, the country that bided its time and then asked to become our own country, please and thank you, rather than go to war over it). Certainly Canada has its own issues, and is not immune to the same ideological struggles that plague America, but it seems to me that the way those issues are dealt with is less heated than here. So cowboy v. Mountie works…or consider the flashiness of the eagle with the industrious plodding of the beaver…

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      That confirms my experience of Canada as an immigrant citizen. The other distinction is that Canada has never felt it needed to lead the free world, and it’s more open to borrowing from other nations and cultures. That saves it from a Messianic view of itself, as a “city set on a hill”.

    • George Vink says:

      Delightfully done, Laura from a fellow “exile.” The soaring of the bald eagle contrasted with the industriousness, often pursued for its skin only, beaver, makes a great metaphor, or some analogy.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      And I want to emphasize again, from my immigrant experience as a Canadian citizen, I don’t hear Canadians saying they believe in Canada (except for Justin Trudeau and his ilk) in the way that Americans do. I am curious of Laura’s experience on this. That certainly lowers the temperature and makes things less intense. There is less at stake indeed. There other signs: Canadians have a more relaxed and even pragmatic view about citizenship in general — there is no problem with dual citizenships, while in the States it is still officially an “ex-patriating” act. Their approach to money is more pragmatic, more humourous (looneys and twoneys) and less contentious. There’s nothing sacred about Canadian money, no “In God we trust.”

      • Laura M de Jong says:

        Right – I have no idea what it would mean to “believe in Canada.” There’s no grand ideal that we as a country uphold or defend…except maybe now leaning towards secularism and pluralism. But even if that’s our ideal, to be a Canadian is really to be no one great thing. I gave a speech in college on why Canadians love Tim Hortons so much, and argued that because Canada has so little by way of national symbols or motifs, we’ve elevated the few things you can find across the country – even a donut and coffee shop – to give us the sense that we belong to something.

      • RLG says:

        What you are hearing from Canada, Daniel, is a greater post Christian influence on society and politics. The polls all point to that. God does not impact politics the way he does in the U.S. Some would say the U.S. is more primitive in its view of society and politics than Canada or Europe.

    • Jim says:

      Geez, Laura, you must have had some pretty good teachers! Esp on American film history. 🙂

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you, James (and Daniel and Laura) for continuing this conversation.

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    I’ve always been of the mind that “both sides” of the American political binary have their own form of “civil religion,” but the versions differ in how they are manifested.

    On the “right side,” what we generally think of as “civil religion” (too imprecise the definition may be) is manifested with displays of flags, sincerely pledging allegiance, respecting the military, etc.

    But on the “left side,” “civil religion” manifests itself in having eternal confidence that government, at least when in the correct hands, will manage and regulate the lives of its citizenry to reach the goal of “true equity.” Left side “civil religion” is perhaps a bit harder to see, but it is every bit as real, even if different in its goals.

    Consider that the “left side” abhored governmental intervention into the rioting (not just demonstrating) that happened in Seattle and Portland in 2020 (is continuing in Portland). They characterized any threat of military force — police force even — to oppose CHAZ’s “independent nation” control of a section of downtown Seattle, or rioters/looters/destroyers in downtown Portland, as a “threat to democracy itself”.

    In Seattle, the mayor opined that CHAZ could be “another summer of love” (until they put siege to her house of course). In Portland, virtually every public official went on record to support not just the demonstrations but the actual riotous destruction (the Mayor denounced police action and anyone sent by Trump to defend the federal courthouse, the Governor denounced Trump for all of it, and the Multnomah Cty DA announced he would prosecute nothing brought to him by police, let alone the feds, relating to the riots).

    But then came January 6, when Democrats pretty much fully owned the federal apparatus of government. Rioters invading Capitol Hill now constituted an act of “insurrection” and “treason,” not “voices of the unheard”. And having 25,000 (!) National Guard soldiers to protect governmental buildings and institutions switched from “fascism” and “just like Hitler’s SS” to “protectors against domestic terrorists.”

    Indeed, now the government, the government mind you, must must literally deprogram those of a certain political perspective (those who voted for Trump of course). “Civil religion” anyone?

    Frankly, in my 66 years of living, I’ve never seen as quick a “flip” like this one. What changed? Answer: who was in control of the power, the political apparatus. Nothing more.

    On both the left and the right, there are those who call for government power to control society in the way they deem right, without concern as to whether government is overstepping the proper bounds for government. Civic religion, at least as I define it.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      Surely, on January 6, the Democrats did NOT “pretty much fully own the federal apparatus of government.”

      • Doug Vande Griend says:

        Well OK, the “pretty much ownership” would technically come on January 20, but the expectation of it existed January 6. More importantly and to the point, the National Guard presently remains in Washington DC, quite after January 6 or January 20. And general, it’s Democrats (holders of majorities of both houses and the executive branch, fair translation: “pretty much own”) that advocate for that presence. Biden/Pelosi/Schumer could say go home but they say stay instead, and Republicans are inclined to say “go home.”

        If the Guard were in Portland or Seattle in October, 2020, the same Democrats who now demand a months long National Guard presence to guard governmental buildings would have condemned Trump/Republican fascism and militarization.

    • RLG says:

      You are no doubt correct, Doug, in assuming that both sides of the political scenario in the U.S. have their own definitions of civil religion. The “lefties” think they do a better job of defining the “righties” form of civil religion, just as the righties see the faults of a lefty civil religion. Both seem to be contentious toward the other side. Both sides seem to think God is on their side, therefore giving them justification in their bitter stand against the other side. Perhaps if God was less of an issue, as in Canada, there would be a lot less political contention.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Interesting debate, but we must be clear that Christian Nationalism was behind the attack on the US Capitol, see this article from yesterday’s NYT:
    Christian Nationalism needs to be opposed and we should all sign the statement against it here:
    The statement says in part, “Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.” Government is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We worship God, not America.

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