Christianity is Poor Social Glue
A former official from the former administration opined a few days ago that America is one nation under God and requires one religion. I’m sure the religion he had in mind was not Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or any faith other than Christianity. Critics pounced on his statement—rightly so—as outrageously anti-American and anti-Constitutional. Dr. Heather Richardson, in a daily missive, details how the “one religion” statement is exactly opposite of what James Madison, a leading author of the Constitution, had in mind.
However, one might muse about what the nature of the Christianity is that the former official asserts must be the nation’s one religion. I’m sure that religion has little to do with the so-called ecumenical creeds, adopted and enforced by imperial decree. (Imperial decree, by the way, ends debate much more efficiently than the monks who killed each other over the wording.)
The religion he wants is social identity Christianity. Social identity Christianity, such as has emerged in several European nations, is not credal in the way that homoousios and homoiousios in the first centuries or that early Lutheran-Zwinglian-Calvinist-Catholic conflicts were. Rather, social identity Christianity is a means of determining belonging: who belongs and who does not belong in or to a nation as those worthy of citizenship. In today’s European nations, waves of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers from Muslim nations have provoked the rise of identity Christianity.
In other words, this is reactive Christianity as social glue, meant to bind some people together and exclude those who don’t “belong.” Belonging involves telling the stories, abiding by a moral order, and agreeing to overcome who or what holds a nation back from its promise. Color and national origins “just happen” to align with the kind of Christianity the Christian identity proponents embrace.
So, the history in the modern, pluralistic world of employing religion as social glue: how has that worked? Not well, of course, other than to turn religion into a means of hate, rejection, warfare—you know, all the stuff Jesus embraced, right?
When Jefferson and Madison imagined a union without a religious requirement to hold office (Article VI of the Constitution) and then forbidding an established church but acknowledging a right to free exercise of religion (the First Amendment), they held history in mind. That history included devastating religious wars in Europe since the middle of the 16th century. No religion could serve as a social glue for the republic for, if you ally a religion with the coercive power of the state, you sow discord, enmity, and violence—not peace.
Twentieth century Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray wrote that the First Amendment is an article of peace, not a doctrine. The amendment is meant to avoid ever allowing one religion to rule and, therefore, being used to divide people.
Every society needs social glue, and a pluralistic democracy perhaps most of all forms of social order—trust, social capital, mutual and reciprocal rights to be protected and defended, a moral sense of what we owe to each other, a practice of argumentation and conversation that enables members to address problems and work toward effective solutions.
Yes, in America’s history and present, the answer to who “belongs” in the republic has substituted skin color/race, ethnic origin, gender, wealth, family name, unrestrained capitalism, and religion for democracy’s social glue. The tensions and violence derived from these substitutions are evident both in our history and our present. Lousy binding elements, all of them.
So, how does a nation such as the U.S. is today, foster trust, social capital, mutual and reciprocal rights to be protected and defended, a moral sense of what we owe to each other, and a practice of argumentation and conversation that enables members to address problems and work toward effective solutions? Not by scrapping one of the only principles that unites most Americans: the freedom to choose one’s religion, if any.
Christians, think of it this way: we know the biblical story in Matthew about Herod ordering the death of Jesus. What would have happened if Herod had decided to enact another time-tested way of controlling a rival: adopt him?
Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.