Friday, December 3, 2010

Cracking the American Civil Religion

I did it in a comment at First Things here. I wrote:

The American Civil Religion is actually somewhere between “all faiths are equally valid” and “Christ is the only way, all other faiths are false.”

It holds that all faiths are VALID paths to God, but that Christianity is the quickest path up the mountain of salvation because of the superiority of Jesus of Nazareth’s moral teachings. As it were, Jesus of Nazareth was not (knowably) God Incarnate, 2nd Person in the Trinity. Rather, the greatest moral teacher man had ever known.

31 comments:

Mark in Spokane said...

John, I think you are close to the truth here. I would rephrase it a little bit.

The American civic religion affirms that all faiths are equally valid paths to God. Christianity is the best path, for the reasons you stated. Within Christianity, there are sub-paths that are better or worse -- and the evaluation of the merits of each sub-path vary from founder to founder. For Adams and Jefferson, for example, Catholicism was riddled with superstition and "priestcraft." Charles Carroll, however, would have disagreed with them! All of the Founders who dealt with religion focused on Jesus as moral teacher, some affirming that his moral teaching had authority because Jesus was divine or specially chosen by God in a unique way, others like Jefferson seeming to affirm the extrinsic value of Jesus' teaching regardless of Jesus' unique theological nature.

So, all paths valid, Christianity the best path, and then within Christianity, various sub-paths being considered better or worse depending on the founder.

Great insight, though. Very good thinking!

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

[The American civil religion] holds that all faiths are VALID paths to God

I strongly disagree. Genuine American pluralism holds that another man's path to God [or hell] is out of government's [civil] hands.

Proselytizing is one of the exercises of religious freedom protected by the First Amendment! {See Patrick Henry defending the Baptists for "preaching without license" and also, there's an approving Sam Adams quote that I can't find, if anyone can help.)

In no case does the American civil religion abolish the differences between religions [sects] or their claims to "exceptionalism," that theirs is the only way to heaven.

That wouldn't be "pluralism" atall. That's mush.

What the American civil religion obliges us to do is agree on what we can [like that there is a God, and He doesn't want us to murder or steal], and be as polite as possible about what we don't agree on, especially the salvation stuff.

J. L. Bell said...

Don’t Jesus’s “moral teachings” focus on things like maintaining peace even while under attack and lack of concern with worldly wealth? Hasn’t the U.S. of A. grown into a superpower by doing quite the opposite?

bpabbott said...

TVD: "Genuine American pluralism holds that another man's path to God [or hell] is out of government's [civil] hands."

I'm in agreement with Tom (I think, I am).

My understanding is that validation of religious doctrine is not intended to be a concern of government. My perspective is intended to be viewed spiritually, not materially.

If doctrine asserts / encourages particular behaviors that are materially destructive to material or spiritual liberty then it is a concern of government.

Mark in Spokane said...

But I think you can find quotes from Jefferson, Adams, Washington, etc., to support the assertion that they supported religious faith and saw it as a good thing, even if that faith was something other than Christianity, broadly construed.

Daniel said...

On questions of salvation and the divinity of Jesus Christ, I would say the American Civil Religion is best reflected in our first President. Those question are avoided and evaded. To affirm or deny the divinity of Jesus Christ is to stray from the semi-universality of a proper Civil Religion in a pluralistic country.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Today's pluralism should leave any specifics at the door. Faith is how you understand reality, and that includes the transcendent. And even atheists have faith that there isn't a "God", except as an explaination of the "gaps" in our knowledge.

The agnositc would be the more appropriate term for American civil religion, as it doesn't lay claims, but doens't deny them, either...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not as the Founders understood the civil religion, Angie. That's not factual.

________________

Mr. Bell, the "correct" interpretation of scripture is held to be above our pay grade here.

As is how current events and may or may not be approved by God.

If you don't accept the Bible as God's truth, your opinion on how to interpret it would be irrelevant anyway.

And if you do accept the Bible as God's truth, it's still irrelevant to the purposes of this blog, which is devoted to history, not theology, and certainly not to "truth claims," yours or anyone elses.

Sort of how the Founders went about things.

;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Tom, You said, "
If you don't accept the Bible as God's truth, your opinion on how to interpret it would be irrelevant anyway.

And if you do accept the Bible as God's truth, it's still irrelevant to the purposes of this blog, which is devoted to history, not theology, and certainly not to "truth claims," yours or anyone elses.

Sort of how the Founders went about things."

Isn't this an agnosticism, in regards to "truth claims"? Knowledge about the claims to "God's truth" were not what the Founders were focusing on. Theirs was to form a government that would protect "civility" in regards to religion, which did not stipulate how or what religious conviction should "be about"...

I think atheism is a different matter, and I would agree that the Founders were not atheists, in our sense of the term...

J. L. Bell said...

Unlike so many people, Mr. Van Dyke, I don’t claim anything about “God’s truth.” I certainly don’t claim that the only “relevant” interpretations of the Bible come from people who see it as “God’s truth.”

Indeed, that statement of yours appears to contradict the distinction Mr. Rowe emphasizes above: that for the “American civic religion” there’s a difference between Jesus as “moral teacher” and Jesus as divine. Anyone can interpret and/or accept moral teachings.

I’d be delighted to see a discussion that sticks to historical facts. Starting with how the Christian Bible known to the founders and us contains some straightforward statements in Jesus’s voice about, for example, peaceful behavior and concern with worldly things.

The hypothesis above suggests that the American civic religion includes belief in “the superiority of Jesus of Nazareth’s moral teachings,” which I take to mean those statements.

If American values do hold Jesus’s moral teachings to be superior, then it makes sense to ask whether historical evidence shows the nation adhering to those teachings more than to others.

If that evidence suggests not, that would raise further questions. How does this “civic religion” function in relation to other values that do more to steer national behavior? Is the “American civic religion” based on belief in the superiority of other aspects of the Christian tradition, not Jesus’s moral teachings?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Bell, the "Jesus' moral teachings" riff applies certainly to Jefferson, less so as we move away from him. Neither is Jefferson's "Jesusianism" remotely definitive of Christian political theology or even Christianity itself.

As for your attempt to argue the Bible [or Jesus' teachings] against what America is, or for what you think it should be, I find the approach faulty, if not disingenuous, Mr. Bell. I also find your summary of Jesus


Jesus’s “moral teachings” focus on things like maintaining peace even while under attack and lack of concern with worldly wealth? Hasn’t the U.S. of A. grown into a superpower by doing quite the opposite?

as just the sort of thing that kills legitimate historical inquiry and discussion, a) with a contentious and facile reading of the Bible and b) dragging in current events and/or a contentious view of America in 2010.

We've spent much time around here on the Calvinist theology of "resistance theory," of Beza, Peter Martyr, Ponet and Mornay that led up to the revolutionary era. That's the meat of the matter, the genuine historical inquiry, not skimming the NT and asking WWJD.

Certain Christians argue that this Calvinist tradition is unBiblical, and some nonbelievers argue it contradicts the facile view of Jesus-as-Barney the Dinosaur.

But the point is that this "resistance theory" is a Calvinist theological tradition, and one---perhaps the one---that vitiated the American revolution.

That's the historical concern. There's no place for holy rollers to come in here and interpret the Bible for us [some have tried] or clever atheists using their Cliffs Notes version of the Bible telling us what it says, as cover for social commentary. It's insulting and it's inappropriate.

BTW, uber-deist Ethan Allen, his his self-penned and best-selling account of his military triumphs, claimed to be fighting the British for "Jehovah."

I found that interesting, surprising, and it gave me a chuckle at the irony. Ethan Allen was one of the handful who were truly and provably deist, yet even he thumped Jehovah. [Rhetorically, of course.]

Tom Van Dyke said...

Angie, your use of "agnostic" certainly applied to Ben Franklin, who everybody knew accepted no doctrine [yet explicitly denied none either]. I would agree that the American civil religion could go no further than this "Franklin limit," or what Avery Dulles called the "Deist Minimum."

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Mr. Bell,
Your definition of "Christian" denies other definitions. You seem to affirm the "social justice" message of Scripture. There are just as many "Christians" that believe differently.

And this is the problem in our country today that has led to division and hostility when it comes to public and political discourse. We no longer see civility, because too much is at stake, that is, a religious identity.

Laci the Chinese Crested said...

Here is the actual text of the letter.

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no factions, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. "

Pinky said...

.
If you don't accept the Bible as God's truth, your opinion on how to interpret it would be irrelevant anyway.
.
I dunno about that as far as America's Civil Religion is concerned.
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Seems more likely that Americans own the right to interpret the Bible according to their personal ways and as a long standing documentary that we used to call, The Good Book.
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Our Founding Principles relate to the ideas of growth and improvement beyond where we find ourselves at any particular time. It is our tradition.
.
???
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But, I also remember a time when it was considered wrong to discuss the "things of God" with the "unwashed". Learning to respect the rights of others to such interpretation speaks to the intolerance of denominationalism which seems to raise its UGLY head from time to time. And, now we are in one of those SICK times again.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Like Angie, I perceive an insinuation that Christians who don't embrace "social justice" politics---if not pacificism!---are somehow unfaithful to Jesus' word.

Now, I think it's fine there are some Christians who presume to tell other Christians what Christianity is supposed to be.

If we're speaking theologically. The Reformation, in rejecting the authority of the Roman Catholic Church to interpret scripture [the "magisterium"] opened the door to all sorts of interpreting.

There was never a time when one sect wasn't telling the others they had it wrong.

Seems more likely that Americans own the right to interpret the Bible according to their personal ways and as a long standing documentary that we used to call, The Good Book.

That's at the heart of Protestantism, and it was John Locke for one

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/11/heresy-and-tolerance-in-american.html

who figured out that with sects multiplying by the dozens, certain lines were going to have to be drawn if we were to stay away from each other's throats.

That line, of course, was limiting the "civil" power over doctrine.


Now, it's a fine theological argument in my view to pump "social justice," just as it's valid to vote right-to-life issues. Let the theological argument continue.

However, I wouldn't presume to tell a Muslim what his Holy Book says about theo-politics. I have no standing; that discussion is theological, and must take place between Muslims.

But, I also remember a time when it was considered wrong to discuss the "things of God" with the "unwashed"

I would think a Muslim sees it that way, and I would agree with him.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Tom.
You said,
"But, I also remember a time when it was considered wrong to discuss the "things of God" with the "unwashed"

I would think a Muslim sees it that way, and I would agree with him."

and you also said,

"That line, of course, was limiting the "civil" power over doctrine."

This means that the State has no right over doctrine, but it also means that the State does have a right over the civil rights of those that might disagree. This protects civil liberties, while affirming individual conscience.

When you say that the religious don't talk the "unwashed", then you are agreeing with Muslim's right to lie to the "infidels"? If so, how are we to do any "business" with those that cannot be trusted as to their "word" and the "social contract"?

There are certain priorities to/in some religions that undermine "civil religion" or tolerance. And this is the problem we face presently from evangelical types that think their understanding of everyone's life is "biblical" or the "social justice" types that define what our social policy should entail, to those that think that there is a 'higher law" than our Constitution. These undermine the real world for an "ideal one", a Utopian dream.

I don't disagree that we should work for justice, peace and "the good", but to imagine that "peace will come on earth" where we can disarm ourselves, is ideal to the extreme.

I don't know what the answer is in our dangerous world, but our Founders did believe in accountability and this is where we err, if we "look the other way" or ignore abuses, and think that we will build trust, when ideologies are so vastly different!

Pinky said...

.
The right of individual interpretation is based on the teachings of Jesus in that parables are given to those who can receive the meanings. Otherwise, it's over the heads of those for whom they are not intended.
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The right to reject the traditions of the church is also based on what Jesus taught regarding the what was taught by the "generation of vipers". So, rejecting the magisterium of the Catholic Church gets to be an identifying factor for Protestant Christians.
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I believe it is also the foundation of America's Civil Religion, i.e., the right of the individual to have a personal relationship with the divine. It is one of the basic unalienable rights.
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Even today, organized religion is hard at work to usurp the rights of all people to have a personal relaitonship with God. Read this thread to see those who are on the side of organized religion.
.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And against, Pinky.

However, the blind spot in your argument is that being part of an organized religion---and voting accordingly---is also religious freedom.

The right to reject the traditions of the church is also based on what Jesus taught regarding the what was taught by the "generation of vipers".

I suppose that's a rather accurate representation of Protestant theology, altho I'm no expert.

However, that's theology, and Protestant theology at that, above my pay grade.

_________________

There are certain priorities to/in some religions that undermine "civil religion" or tolerance.

Well, Angie, the "civil" religion includes tolerance, but "civility" isn't all there is to it. There's still a God who doesn't want us to murder or steal, etc., and the Founders as a whole saw him as the Supreme Judge of the World, so there was a component of being judged in the afterlife for our actions.

And this is the problem we face presently from evangelical types that think their understanding of everyone's life is "biblical" or the "social justice" types that define what our social policy should entail

I have no problem with that, either way. I think people's faith should be reflected in their politics, at least if that's their choice. [I have less respect for those who put their faith in a lockbox.]

to those that think that there is a 'higher law" than our Constitution. These undermine the real world for an "ideal one", a Utopian dream.

But the Founders universally agreed there is a higher law than the constitution, or any civil law. This goes way back in Christian tradition, Aquinas, Augustine, even the epistles. A human law that violates the natural law is no law atall.

And I don't want to get into Islam and "taqiyya." But a Muslim would hold that human law cannot conflict with natural law too, and in this way can quite be part of the American "civil" religion.

And it's a word to the wise for governments that human law isn't the last word on law and that they can count on Christians [or other believers] to blindly follow human law.

To try to get into less controversial ground, think the Underground Railroad, in direct and willful violation of the [entirely constitutional] Fugitive Slave Act. There are not many Christians who are not on the side of the angels and against the state on that one.

[Especially from the comfortable armchair of 2010.]









And this is the problem we face presently from evangelical types that think their understanding of everyone's life is "biblical" or the "social justice" types that define what our social policy should entail, to those that think that there is a 'higher law" than our Constitution. These undermine the real world for an "ideal one", a Utopian dream.

Pinky said...

.
But, Angie, the entire idea of our American Civil Religion is that it over rides the ideas that any formal religion might uphold. No one persuasion has any more say-so than any other. It's up to you and me to be who we are--it is our exceptionalism.
.
.

Pinky said...

.
ha ha
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Tom writes, I suppose that's a rather accurate representation of Protestant theology, altho I'm no expert.

However, that's theology, and Protestant theology at that, above my pay grade.

.
Far above your pay grade.
.
:<).

J. L. Bell said...

Angie Van De Merwe wrote: Mr. Bell,
Your definition of "Christian" denies other definitions.


This is mistaken to the core. I never defined “Christian.”

I used the word twice, once to refer to "the Christian Bible” and again to refer to “the Christian tradition” that includes more than the moral teachings that Bible attributes to Jesus.

The original posting above separates Jesus’s moral teachings from other aspects of Christianity. More than one commenter has been unable to maintain that distinction. Which seems like more evidence that it may not be a deeply embedded part of an “American civic religion.”

J. L. Bell said...

Mr. Van Dyke, if you reread the posting at the top of this page carefully, you’ll see that it refers to “Jesus of Nazareth’s moral teachings.”

It doesn’t refer to Paul, Calvin, Beza, Peter Martyr, Ponet, Mornay, or any other thinker who followed Jesus. Those writings are what I referred to “other aspects of the Christian tradition.”

I replied to Mr. Rowe’s posting with questions on Jesus’s moral teachings and how they relate to American national behavior, if they’re indeed part of our “civil religion.” I never claimed that Jesus’s moral teachings are “definitive of Christian political theology or even Christianity itself”; indeed, my reference to “other aspects of the Christian tradition” shows how I recognize they aren’t. I contend merely that Jesus’s moral teachings are relevant to Mr. Rowe’s hypothesis.

Obviously my questions troubled you. So much so that you’ve claimed that:
(a) only people who “accept the Bible as God's truth” can interpret any part of it with relevancy—even in a discussion explicitly based on not accepting Jesus as necessarily divine.
(b) citing Jesus’s moral teachings is “contentious and facile”—even in a discussion of the influence of Jesus’s moral teachings.
(c) referring to America’s growth into a superpower has to do with “America in 2010,” as opposed to the whole course of American history up to 1945.
(d) these discussions are all about history, not theology or “truth claims”—even though you then went on to write, “There's still a God who doesn't want us to murder or steal, etc.”

I don’t think I was “disingenuous” in posting my questions. In fact, I was ingenuous enough to think that people might respond to the issues without being evasive, hypocritical, defensive, and occasionally rude.

Pinky said...

.
Very good posts, J.L.B.
.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I had thought that America's "civil religion" meant that the individual's natural rights were supported by our government. And one of the natural rights is how one chooses to "worship", or not "worship".

Good government is of uptmost importance, for without it, humans do not have liberty to pursue their own "life". Life under tyranny is de-valued and a diminished life. Good government doesn't have as much to do with God, but with leadership. Those that lead a country are responsible for/to the citizens for their quality of life. But, what is "quality of life"? Is it liberty or "social mandated behavior"? These are differences in political philosophy.

Those that think it is their moral obligation to ensure certain priviledges of a prosperous life undermine personal liberty. The disadvantage of liberty is that the individual must take ownership and respond to opportunities available to him.

"Civil Religion" is about how we treat our neighbor, and that is dependent on what we think our responsibility for/to our neighbor is. Some think that we should be nosey busybodies, while others think that as long as one doesn't interfere with another's life, then they are being a good neighbor. Certainly, there are variances between these two extremes.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, we can count on Pinky to add his dagger to any back. Well done, Phil. You never fail to disappoint.

_______________

Mr. Bell, clearly your remarks were based directly on Jon's original post without seeing my demurral:

JR: [The American civil religion] holds that all faiths are VALID paths to God...

TVD: I strongly disagree. Genuine American pluralism holds that another man's path to God [or hell] is out of government's [civil] hands.


This explains our misunderstanding.

However, it harkens back to a comment I made on your own blog agreeing with some of your commenters that your injection of your own partisan politics into your usual rigorous historical studies mucked up your blog.

I was going to cite the post, JLB, but I got a malware alert

The website at boston1775.blogspot.com contains elements from the site www.studyofplace.info, which appears to host malware

So I can't acquaint our readers with our previous disagreement. I'm still quite glad that our blog here remains relatively free of partisan cant, however.

As to my previous point, and our current bone of contention, JL, I find nonChristians presuming to interpret the Christian scriptures---for Christians---completely out of line.

I address it here again in Jon's latest post:

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/12/waldron-on-issues-with-imago-dei.html

And I'm not surprised you and Jon object. I've been studying this technique on the internet for awhile now, and it's about time somebody called it out.

And if I'm wrong, I expect the same people to start advising Mormons and Muslims---and Jews!---about how they should interpret their scriptures.

But I do not think this is likely.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Good government is of uptmost importance, for without it, humans do not have liberty to pursue their own "life". Life under tyranny is de-valued and a diminished life.

Well, Angie, the hardcore Christian/Romans 13 argument says that you can be a Christian just as well under Roman tyranny [or any other tyranny, Communist or Islamic, whathaveyou] as under any political arrangement.

This, I suppose, is what Jon and JRBell are arguing; although they themselves reject Christianity, that doesn't stop them from making that argument.

Christians are best seen but not heard. Or something. You'd have to ask them.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Tom,
"Well, Angie, the hardcore Christian/Romans 13 argument says that you can be a Christian just as well under Roman tyranny [or any other tyranny, Communist or Islamic, whathaveyou] as under any political arrangement."

And we have debated on this blog about Romans 13, haven't we? And this is the problem, because one has to believe that God is ultimately in control to submit to such tyranny.

Isn't it interesting that those that say they believe that "God is the blessed controller of all things", are the very ones that rationalize tyranny? Just turn the other cheek....

I guess that would mean that the colonists were wrong when they resisted taxation?! And our whole govenment is based on "sin", because America became a separate country because resisted "bad government".

But, you have also argued that Calvinism was one of the basis of resistance theory, toward the Catholic Church. Haven't you?

It seems that since the State cannot get involved in such matters, one has to make their choice about where one is to associate.

What about "faith based" monies granted by the State?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I have no problem with the faith-based thing conceptually. Gummint and private society cooperating is better than full gummint control.

On the other hand, the gummint attaches strings with the money, and eventually requires the religious organization to compromise its principles.

So the argument that church and state should be separate for the good of the church holds here.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

OK, I think I "get it"...

American government is tolerant to differences in religious opinion/conviction (as long as it doesn't interfere with individual rights/human rights).

Jesus of Nazereth's moral example is humanitarian, i.e. all people deserve the respect and dignity of representation/an advocate. Therefore, our American government is the highest moral example to the world. Unity in diversity....