09 November 2013

A Christian critique of 'civil religion'

Whenever the subject of prayer in school or other public places comes up, someone's bound to cite Mathew 6:6, the verse where Jesus tells his followers to pray in private rather than make a public spectacle of their piety. It might be surprising to see that verse cited by Christian Right columnist Cal Thomas in the context of the Supreme Court case involving allegedly sectarian prayers at town government meetings in Greece NY. Thomas, however, has long had an ambivalent attitude toward politicized religion. His own politics are much influenced by his religious views, of course, but he's never been entirely comfortable with the rhetoric that idolizes the U.S. as a Christian nation, if not God's chosen nation. He suspects that the desire of some Christians to put a Christian stamp on the public sector is less about Christianizing the nation and more about sanctifying the state. In his own words:

The desire by the faithful, especially Christians, to see their faith expressed in the public square has been a part of America's "civil religion" since the founding of the country. The idea that America is especially chosen by God for some purpose greater than those of any other nation is a type of idolatry that violates the very Scripture in which Christians claim to believe. Isaiah puts it succinctly as to how God views nations: "Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing (Isaiah 40:17)." One must conclude from this passage that "all" includes the United States.

Many of Thomas's fellow believers really do believe that the U.S. has some special, perhaps divinely mandated purpose to spread or defend Christianity. Thomas himself broke with the Moral Majority because he believed that they had grown too concerned with controlling the government, as if government was necessary for the perpetuation of religion. He has stated repeatedly in his columns that the higher priority for Christians is to convert individuals rather than control the government. His idiosyncratic opinion on the Greece case underscores how crucial distrust of government is for some conservatives, Christian or otherwise. Thomas is arguing, in effect, that public prayers like those offered in Greece, whether "sectarian" or not, are less acts of worshipping God (or "the almighty") than they are acts of worshipping the state. For Thomas's type of conservative, worshipping the state is the worst sin. He condemns liberals and other statists because he suspects them of setting up the state in place of God -- if not as a literal object of worship then as the source of all things upon which we depend -- but he identifies the temptation among many conservatives and Christians as well. He may suppose a zero-sum relationship between God and government, God being neglected when his worshippers try to colonize the public sphere in his name. It's fine to see a Christian zealot uninterested in forcing public prayer down our throats...until you imagine what Thomas's utopia might look like. Then the distinction between public and private might be lost while the church preys on -- I mean, prays for all of us.

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