American Civil Religion
Many Christians today get up in arms when atheists and other secularists try to do things like remove prayer from the public schools, remove “In God We Trust” from our coinage, take “One nation, under God” out of our pledge of allegiance, and so forth. But the problem with these and other expressions of American civil religion is just this: The American civil religion is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims that God the Father may only be approached by us sinners through the merits and mediation of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and by the Holy Spirit. In contrast to the Christian gospel, American civil religion declares that all people, whether Christian or non-Christian, can approach God in prayer, and can do so together in “inter-faith” prayer services, whether or not they choose to approach Him through the mediation of Christ. The “god” of American civil religion is a generic, lowest-common-denominator deity, a “God as you conceive Him to be” type of deity. But the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims the blessed, Holy Trinity, the God revealed in Holy Scripture, to be the only true and living God, and it calls all people everywhere to repent of all worship of and loyalty to false gods (including the “god” of American civil religion) and adherence to false religions. Therefore the god of American civil religion is an idol, a false deity which orthodox, confessional Christians have no business pretending to worship.
The late Dr. J. Gresham Machen, a New Testament scholar at Princeton Seminary and one of the founders of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, opposed American civil religion in general, and Bible reading in the public schools in particular. For example, in the early 20th century he wrote the following:
“I am opposed to the reading of the Bible in public schools. As for any presentation of general principles of what is called “religion”, supposed to be exemplified in various positive religions, including Christianity, such presentation is opposed to the Christian religion at its very heart. The relation between the Christian way of salvation and other ways is not a relation between the adequate and the inadequate or between the perfect and the imperfect, but it is a relation between the true and the false. The minute a professing Christian admits that he can find neutral ground with non-Christians in the study of “religion” in general, he has given up the battle and has made common cause with that syncretism which is today, as it was in the first century, the deadliest enemy of the Christian Faith.”
Machen was no secularist. He was a devout, practicing, confessional Presbyterian Christian and committed churchman who was deeply concerned for the purity and peace of the church. But he was also deeply committed to the principle of separation of church and state, and he opposed attempts to sacralize the secular realm through civil religion.
Over at Dr. D.G. Hart’s blog, “Old Life Theological Society,” I wrote the following comment in response to a quote from Russell Moore (who was advocating prayer at the beginning of civil meetings):
“Russell Moore: “Prayer at the beginning of a meeting is a signal that we aren’t ultimately just Americans. We are citizens of the State, yes, but the State isn’t ultimate. There is some higher allegiance than simply political process. We often disagree on what this more ultimate Reality is, but the very fact that the State isn’t the ultimate ground of reality serves to make all of us better citizens, striving to seek for justice in ways that aren’t simply whatever the majority can vote through.”
“GW: This is a pathetically pragmatic defense of the current syncretistic, generic civil religion of America. Adding a dose of religion (in the form of generic prayer) to a civil meeting is used for a merely civil purpose. As Moore states, God is being used here “to make all of us better citizens.” This kind of practice is nothing less than a violation of the third commandment, and blasphemy. It is anti-Christian to the core, even though the practice is widely defended by professing Christians. Michael Horton has also rightly pointed out (in his book on the 10 commandments) that such inter-faith prayer is anti-evangelistic, for it implies that Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians can approach God without the mediation of Jesus Christ.
“While there is no legal test of religion required for one to serve in public office, one suspects that a potential candidate for office who was a confessional Protestant but who refused to participate in the syncretistic ceremonies of public civil religion would have almost no chance of getting elected. Even if he were staunchly conservative and strictly constitutional in his views, the evangelical voting populace would likely refuse to vote for him because of his refusal to sacralize the secular realm by participating in civil religion.
“Orthodox, confessional Christians do not worship the Deity of generic American civil religion; we worship the blessed, Holy Trinity. We reject the generic, lowest-common-denominator god of American civil religion for what he/she/it is: an idol. We refuse to sacralize the secular, for when you try to sacralize the secular, the end result is the secularizing of the sacred.”