Election season is a near constant reminder that American’s (and other peoples around the world in similar situations) have a pretty big sword hanging above our heads. We barely recognize it, but the situation we are in is pretty dire. There is a not-so-clear and present danger that we might give in to what I, and theologians like Peter Leithart, call (American) Civil Religion.
American Civil Religion
(A)CR is the thought that some aspect of America, whether that be its institutions, its people, its actions, or so on, is sacred. Sacred- set apart, holy, the Other, unapproachable, worthy of our complete devotion, unimpeachable, in the right, rare, and real. For a large part of America (A)CR is the constant, although perhaps unconscious, schema of how we approach the rest of the world. It guides what we identify as (an American, an Oregonian, a Portlander), what we value (the military, voting, freedom of speech), and what we do (work hard, play hard, enjoy life, fulfill our dreams).
The President (If we like him) – the Anointed One.
The President (If we don’t like him) – the Antichrist.
The flag – the Cross.
The Military – our refuge.
Holidays like July 4th – Holy days.
Taxes – our tithe.
The Pursuit of Happiness – our Eucharist.
You get the picture.
I am worried about the threat of (A)CR because it replaces something. It replaces Christianity. And it does so in a very subtle way. (A)CR is able to replace Christianity because it has the outward appearance and inward cohesion of many part of what it means to be Christian. Jesus is big in (A)CR. But as soon as Jesus starts to disagree with (A)CR, then (A)CR stops talking about Jesus and starts talking about some enigmatic “God”.
“God” bless America.
Jesus Doesn’t Run People Over
Let’s take the above picture as an example. I don’t know who owns the above vehicle, but there is a good chance that if they are an American they would call themselves a Christian. Just statistically speaking that would probably be true. Now, can you ever see Jesus saying the above sentiment about the troops? I don’t think anyone but the most extreme would say “Yes.”
I got the above picture off of Facebook, where 64,000+ had liked it, and 2,400 had shared it. I saw this picture because a pastor friend of mine had liked it.
I get the issue behind it. Americans, for the most part, are proud of their troops. It’s a big value of (A)CR to appreciate those who have served in our place. I’ve even seen those soldiers compared to the role of Jesus. Giving up their lives for others.
But, honestly, can you see Jesus saying the above? Can you see Jesus supporting America’s troops in Afghanistan? Did he have a side their? Was Jesus supporting our troops or the administration that dropped an A-Bomb on the Japanese during WWII?
I am pushing buttons here on purpose, not to say that all war is wrong, or that when a state defends its sovereignty or punishes evil it is wrong, but to say that there are elements of (A)CR that can never jive with Jesus. He is going to judge elements of every culture and religion, including (A)CR.
God has not blessed America. Or if he has he has not done so to the detriment of the rest of the world. America is not always right. We’re not gonna be saved (or fail) this electoral season if one or another man ascends the metaphorical throne and becomes President. Our enemies are not America’s enemies.
The Ebb and Flow of Empire
I’m reminded of the first part of the book of Daniel at this point. King Neb. has a dream and asks Daniel to interpret it. The dream is of a statue with a gold head, chest and arms of silver, belly and thigh of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of a clay and iron mix. A stone cut without human hands comes and cuts down the statue, destroying it completely. The stone then becomes a great mountain filling the whole earth. Daniel relates that the status is a picture of human kingdoms; the stone of the kingdom of God. Empires, like Babylon, Rome, the USSR, and *gulp* America, will rise and fall. In the end they will come of nothing. God will judge them, and create his own kingdom.
Daniel has a another dream later in the book. Four great beasts (representing human empires) come out of the sea. Up until the end all of these empire-beasts fight against the Ancient of Days, the Most High. A last one comes up, he’s different than the rest, in that he destroys the whole earth, but in many ways he is still the same, he fights, he loses, he’s destroyed. But Daniel mentions something in his interpretation that is incredible to me. There’s a group of people that last. The Saints, protected by the Son of Man on the side of the Ancient of Days, they inherit the final kingdom.
They don’t make it for themselves because they managed to create peace in the Middle East. They don’t buy it with the budgetary surplus they figured out. They don’t fight or work hard enough for it.
They suffer, remain faithful to the Most High, and get handed it.