A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Once Again, The Civil Religion of the Religious Right AND the Religious Left

In his book, To Change the World, James Hunter persuasively argues that the religious right and the religious left are nothing more than mirror images of each other. The civil religion of the religious right should be obvious to everyone paying even superficial attention to religion and politics in America, but as Hunter points out, the religious left has a civil religion that is basically the same in character as Christians on the other side of the political aisle, and both groups are centered on a faulty hermeneutic.

Hunter defines civil religion as "a diffuse amalgamation of religious values that is synthesized with the civic creeds of the nation; in which the life and mission of the church is conflated with the life and mission of the country. American values are, in substance, biblical prophetic values; American identity is, thus, vaguely Christian identity" (145).

The religious right has used Scripture for years to commend to the state what its positions on domestic and foreign policy should be. Romans 1 and the Old Testament Book of Leviticus are employed to oppose gay marriage. 2 Corinthians 9:7 is quoted to oppose government taxation for social programs, and 2 Chronicles 7:14 is used as the rallying cry for a national revival. "If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray"..., is interpreted as referring to the people of America. The problem, however, is that God is speaking to his people of Israel. No modern nation can rightfully claim to be the people of God. The Bible reserves the language of divine peoplehood for two "nations" alone-- Israel and the Church. Thus, when Christians interpret that verse in reference to the United States, they misinterpret it. If 2 Chronicles 7:14 is to be a rallying cry for revival, it should be directed at the people of God, the Ecclesia.

But the religious left is no different. It may be that Christians on the left in some places are more uncomfortable with patriotic worship services in church than the religious right, which seems to relish such moments, but as Hunter rightly observes,
Jim Wallis, among other politically progressive Christians, has rightly complained that the Christian Right is engaged in promoting "civil religion" rather than in biblical Christianity.... Yet Wallis and others in the Evangelical Left engage in the identical practice for which they criticize the Christian Right (145).
And like the religious right, the religious left utilizes the biblical values of Scripture to commend to the state what its policies should be on various issues:

Government budgets and tax policies should show compassion for the poor and foreign policy should include such considerations as fair trade (Matthew 2:34-40, Isaiah 10:1-2)

Government officials should tell the truth in what is truly going on in foreign and domestic policies (John 8:32)

Policies on abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, HIV/AIDS, and genocide (to name a few) should follow the biblical injunction to choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Wallis even quotes Isaiah in defense of an increase in the minimum wage (147).

The issue here is not that truth telling is a bad idea nor that care for the poor is of no concern nor that the unborn should not be protected. The dilemma again is a hermeneutical one. Hunter's conclusion is spot on:
The problem, of course, is that Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and the other prophets were living in a Jewish theocratic setting. The only way that Wallis and others can make these strong statements is to confuse America with Israel and the political dynamics of modern American democracy with the divine laws mandated for ancient Israel. It isn't that the wisdom of scripture is irrelevant for the formation of political values, but one can only make the close associations and specific political judgments Wallis does by turning progressive religion into a civil religion of the Left.... Both Right and Left, then, aspire to a righteous empire. Thus, when he [Wallis] accuses Falwell and Robertson of being "theocrats who desire their religious agenda to be enforced through the power of the state" he has established the criteria by which he and other politically progressive Christians are judged the same (147).
If the religious right and the left want to get the target of their hermeneutic correct, they need to understand that the commands of Scripture are directed toward the people of God Israel and, from the Christian standpoint, the church. It is the church that is to embody the prophets' concern for justice and the Torah's concern for morality and purity. And it is by that biblically based way of life that the church engages in the politics of witness that it is God and not the nations who rules the world. The church by its example bears witness to the nations what God wants of them as well.

Once the nation becomes the primary hermeneutical target of Scripture, the primary community of faith becomes the state. The church is eclipsed in this world and so is the kingdom of God.

And once the state becomes the primary community of faith because the Scriptures are applied primarily to the state, civil religion is at hand. The church no longer plays the role of prophet to the nation; it becomes a puppet of the state.

Both the religious right and the religious left have their own brand of civil religion based on the same modern Liberal and individualistic assumptions. The religious right freely admits this.

It is time for the religious left to stop denying it and own up to the truth that they have the same agenda, though their issues are different.


Anonymous said...

Allan, thanks for this. The ignorance of the religious left on this point is shocking to me, though like you I have tried to point it out numerous times.

Donald Sensing said...

No argument with the post. Understand, though, that the civil religion of both Left and Right is the religion of a definite minority of all church people of any political stripe.

The civil religion of Americans generally, and of the majority of church people, is the same: sports and entertainment.

Besides them, the religious arguments of the Left and of the Right pale in significance.

Allan R. Bevere said...


It's an uphill battle. On this issue the left is in sincere denial.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments.

I certainly won't take issue with you on sports and entertainment. We human beings are polytheists, to be sure.

I would disagree though on the civil religion of Americans generally. If you ask the majority in the pews whether or not America is a Christian nation, the majority would say yes.

Steve Kindle said...

Allan, I'm wondering if Israel under the kings can properly be called a theocracy. When Samuel appointed Saul it was with the understanding that God would no longer be Israel's king. I see the role of the prophets as reminding the secular kings what God would want for the nation, often with a denunciation of their status. What God wanted for Israel is what God wanted for all nations, Assyria included (see Jonah), an I believe the USA.

Additionally, as in a democracy, the issue is to compete in the marketplace of ideas in order to affect outcomes. This is how I interpret my role as one from the Left. I know many on the Right feel the same way about their involvement in the public square.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks so much for your comments.

Whether or not Israel can rightfully be called a theocracy during the monarchy is a good question. In any case, I would say that regardless they were still God's people, so it seems to me that secularism doesn't work here.

I don't disagree with you about the marketplace of ideas. I have no problems with Christians of all political stripes bearing witness to the nation what God expects. I just think that the primary way the people of God influence the state is through its own witness of being the people of God. In other words, the primary political action for the church is what the church does, not influence legislation.