Feb  2017 07
Christians With the Sword

You want to live in a Christian nation? Speaking as a lifelong Christian, that prospect frightens me, especially considering the values held by the Christians who want the power.

The bloodshed that led to disestablishing one religion, or one version of one religion, was very fresh in the minds of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. While the colonies were being formed in the 1600s, Christians in Europe were killing each other by the millions for reasons that included religion.

Despite knowing this history well (some fleeing from the bloodshed), European Christians came to America feeling ambiguous about giving up the practice of utilizing the state’s coercive power when it suited their purposes.

Historian Sidney Mead (The Lively Experiment) wrote that most Christians during colonial days came to America to worship in their own way and persecute in their own way. Almost no religious leader, other than a few Baptists (thank you, Roger Williams and John Leland), wanted the separation of church and state for doctrinal reasons. The First Amendment, wrote Catholic John Courtney Murray in the mid-20th century but reflecting the mind of the Founders, is an article of peace, not a faith statement.

Some religious leaders and traditions never did make their peace with the First Amendment, nor with post-Constantinian Christianity. You will remember that Constantine was the Roman emperor who had a vision of the first two Greek letters of “Christ,” with a voice telling him “By this symbol conquer.” And that is how the one executed by the Romans (Jesus) and his form of execution (the cross) became weapons of the Christian Empire.

Well, there remain American Christians who want America to be a Christian nation, in the Constantinian way. During the Civil War, the Constitution of the Confederate States rectified what their leaders considered the error of the U.S. Constitution: they included God.

Certainly, not any God. Not a Judeo-Christian God. They meant the God of Jesus Christ, and they meant Christian nation, not a nation of Christians welcoming persons of other faiths.

Today, the Christian Right—that ideological/political coalition that utilizes some aspects of Constantinian Christianity for political interests—is pushing forward in their quest to rectify the mistakes of the Founders and make the U.S. a Christian nation. Or they simply assert an alternative history that the U.S. was founded as and shall always be a Christian nation. (Why do we keep fighting the blasted Civil War!)

The previously mainstream alternative to the Christian Right is a cluster of religious sentiments and practices scholars call civil religion. There is no Church of Civil Religion, as Martin Marty has said frequently.

Civil religion is a kind of faith befitting a pluralistic democracy. When one religion cannot inhabit the nation’s Holy of Holies because the Constitution will not allow it, then elements are borrowed from the majority faiths to interpret national life and the nation’s social covenant that should bind us together.

So, we empower the flag to symbolize unity, justice, freedom, and sacrifice. We get angry when someone “desecrates” (a religious word) the flag. At many local and national gatherings, we invoke “democracy” as if we’ve just intoned the secret name of the Holy—or, well, in our less cynical periods we do.

We honor particular clauses from the Declaration as sacred writ (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”, but not all of them, such as the “savages” reference to Native Americans in the list of grievances against King George). Civil religion enables Americans to be a multi-religious people who can be religious in public ceremonies in a minimally offensive way.

Practicing civil religion allows that, while church and state must be separate, religion and politics are overlapping circles. What is good, what is common ground, for what or whom do we exist, where do we aim to go, what is worth living and dying for, what is the good life, what is happiness, what is freedom, what is our obligation to each other, what is our covenant with each other, what is the importance and meaning of work, how do we treat persons who are different from whatever is the social norm, who is deserving of protection—these all are questions religions and political platforms share.

Civil religion is under grave threat from the Christian Right (not all evangelical Christians, by any means) which is cheering President Trump’s stated intent to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment prohibits non-profits from acting as PACs and their leaders from electioneering and endorsing candidates.

Those who seek to kill the Johnson Amendment seek to kill civil religion and enthrone Christianity. Destroying the Johnson Amendment is not a Muslim desire. It is not a Jewish desire. It is not a Buddhist desire. The Native American church is not clamoring for it. Liberal Christians are not rallying for it. Many evangelical leaders are opposing the move. There is fundamentally one type of Christian who wants to see it die: the Christian Right.

Non-profit leaders, including from religious organizations, already can speak freely on any political issue, except we cannot—as reps of our organizations—electioneer or endorse candidates.

Do you really want your religious leader telling you for whom to vote? And, those who most want that "right" are also most likely to think they know who God's candidate is. Proposed legislation to repeal the Johnson Amendment will have the effect, intended or not, of dividing religious communities and weaponizing them for the sake of partisan politics. Neither religion nor democracy will benefit.

Furthermore, I’m convinced this president wants the affirmation and blessings of court-beholden priests and prophets who align with his agenda, rather than anyone who might contradict—from a religious point of view—what he wants to do.

If his Twitter feed is any indication of his gut theology (the one that lives in all of us at an intuitive and unconscious level, regardless of our reasoned claims), he wants a God who admires and sides with him. He does not welcome or appreciate opposition as a means of keeping him humble and honest. He does not want prophetic Christians bringing God's word regarding social justice, equity, equal rights, protection of the vulnerable, hospitality for the sojourner, or behaviors rooted in love for the Other. Modern day Isaiahs, Jeremiahs, and Micahs are supposed to be silent.

Being a religious people has been an element of what makes the U.S. great, or at least potentially great. Religious freedom is a sacred right. Constantinian Christianity is antithetical to that right. Politically weaponized Christianity has already been damaging to the cause of Jesus, just as Roger Williams feared it would. We would all do well to resist its spread.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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