If I said there was a country in which during church services, church members sang tribute to their nation, carried flags in processional, celebrated national holidays, sang patriotic songs, praised soldiers as war heroes for the native land, honored soldiers in uniform who came to church, of what country would you think first. My first thought would be of Nazi Germany, where civil religion was a way to honor the Nazi state and show loyalty to the Fatherland. Hitler hated Christianity but was willing to use it for his advantage and to stir up patriotism in the German people, especially in gaining help for the war effort. Worship of God was closely tied to worship of the nation-atate of Germany.
The United States, however, is similar to Nazi Germany in the sense that civil religion is a powerful force in American society. It first role with the coming of the Puritans in the seventeenth century, who envisioned America as specially blessed by God, “a shining city set on a hill.” That passage was quoted multiple times by Ronald Reagan. The idea was originally that America would set an example of Christian government to other nations of the world. That idea was reinforced by the Second Great Awakening at the end of the eighteenth century, American Civil Religion grew with the notion of Manifest Destiny and the rise of the American Empire after the Spanish-American War. This was tied in to European ideas of empire, of spreading “Christian civilization” throughout the world. That idea became more dangerous with Woodrow Wilson’s notion that the United States has a duty to spread democracy throughout the world. Thus, “Christianity and Democracy” should be the key words used to describe American Civil Religion. Instead of one’s land being considered a gracious gift of God, and the state ordained by God to punish evil-doers (as St. Paul put it), the nation-state became an object of reverence that rivaled God. American flags are marched in procession in churches along with the cross and are placed close to the altar at many churches. National holidays are celebrated such as Memorial Day and July 4, with hymns and the National Anthem played and/or sung. Soldiers returning from war are treated like Catholic saints. Sermons focus on the greatness of America and how “Christian” America has always been, despite scholarship that shows this was not the case in early America, not even in the case of the founding Fathers. Some churches are openly supportive of wars, including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Church members dehumanize the enemy and call on America to “go over there and kick their a….”. Church members often support every American military adventure, claiming that God is on America’s side, ignoring the one million Iraqi children who died due to sanctions and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed in the Second Iraq War. Only American lives are held precious by God.
The similarities with the Nazi German state church are striking. The state is venerated almost to the point of adoration. The United States flag, which has no business being inside a church sanctuary, is held in reverence almost as much as the cross. If ministers had any integrity and put loyalty to God first, the would take all national flags out of the sanctuary and not celebrate a national holiday as a Christian holiday. That may be too much to ask of American Christians, too many of whom buy into American triumphalism and silly theories such as Premillenialism that help to poison America’s policy toward the Middle East
Worship of the state should be decoupled from worshiping God. The church should pray for “all Christian rulers,” as the Anglican Prayer Book says, but not make the nation-state into an object of reverence. Traditionally it was one’s ancestral land that was worthy of veneration, not the nation-state abstraction. “Honoring the emperor< as St. Peter puts it, does not imply semi-worshiping the emperor, as the early Christians recognized when they refused to pray to the genius of the emperor. If only contemporary American Christians had the same level of wisdom.
- Civil Religion (everydaysociologyblog.com)