Seven Sins of American Evangelical Civil Religion

The imagery and symbols are clear. Church and state have never truly been separated in the United States. From its inception, the marriage of religion and politics has been a powerful force to unite pundits around political ideologies. It doesn’t matter if the ideologies are conservative or liberal, invoking faith during an inaugural address or political photo-op is simply a part of the ethos of the American civil religion. The power of an appeal to the divine for the political ambitions of an empire, even a republic, is something as old as religion itself.

The infamous photo-op in front of St. John’s Church, the so-called church of the presidents

There are consequences to such an appeal, particularly when a faith tradition like Christianity originally made no claim to a political identity. Indeed, the early Christians were motivated by the mission of God rather than distracted by political ambition. The end result, as we know, was persecution as they were seen as a threat to the Roman Empire. Elizabeth McNamer recounts, “The anti‐Christian writer Celsus (about 178 CE) warned Christians of the perils of their lack of civic sense and of their disloyalty to an empire from which they derived many material benefits” (The Case for Bethsaida after Twenty Years of Digging, 113). Even so, the early Christians maintained their distance from politics. Origen, writing in defense of Christianity against the assertion of Celsus, argued:

Origen of Alexandria (184-253AD)

“And it is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a diviner and more necessary service in the Church of God—for the salvation of people. And this service is at once necessary and right. They take charge of all—of those that are within, that they may day by day lead better lives, and of those that are without, that they may come to abound in holy words and in deeds of piety; and that, while thus worshipping God truly, and training up as many as they can in the same way, they may be filled with the word of God and the law of God, and thus be united with the Supreme God through His Son the Word, Wisdom, Truth, and Righteousness, who unites to God all who are resolved to conform their lives in all things to the law of God.” (Against Celsus 8.75

Indeed, the early Christians were motivated by the mission of God rather than distracted by political ambition. Click To Tweet

In spite of the testimony of the early church, many American evangelicals today idolize the notion of God and country. Both Democrat and Republican evangelicals believe their patriotic duty is propagating their ideology as it is clearly best for the nation. Politicians appealing to their Christian pundits, such as in President Biden’s inaugural address or former President Trump’s holding of a Bible in front of a church, couch their rhetoric in religious language and symbols that solidify respective ideologies and political bases. Such rhetoric exacerbates tensions among brothers and sisters who profess Christ yet are attracted to a perceived Christian political duty that unwittingly creates multiple manifestations of the American civil religion. As Michael Gorman noted,

“What makes American civil religion particularly seductive is that it borrows so heavily from Christianity; its reinterpretation of the dominant religious tradition(s) does not produce the syncretism of polytheistic paganism but the syncretism of Christianized Americanism or Americanized Christianism. This form of religiosity is so pervasive that we would not be wrong to contend that if America’s original sin vis-à-vis others is racism, as Martin Luther King claimed, then its original sin vis-à-vis God is civil religion.” (Reading Revelation Responsibly, loc 1411)

The consequences of an American civil religion cannot be underestimated; especially where it has impacted American evangelicalism to such a degree that the church has lost her witness in society. The unfortunate reality we face is one that is not discussed as we are too busy blaming the other for wrongdoing. As Jesus said, we are more concerned for the speck in the other’s eye than for the plank in our own (Matt 7:5). Pure and simple, we evangelicals have sinned against each other as we propagate our own versions of an American evangelical civil religion. It seems to me, unless we acknowledge our complicity, repent from it, and work toward forgiveness and reconciliation, the lamp stand of the American evangelical church will indeed be taken away without discrimination between evangelicals who align either as a Democrat or Republican.

The unfortunate reality we face is one that is not discussed as we are too busy blaming the other for wrongdoing. As Jesus said, we are more concerned for the speck in the others eye than for the plank in our own (Matt 7:5). Click To Tweet

The Seven Sins

The consequences, namely our sins against each other, manifest in the marriage between faith and politics. The seven sins of the American evangelical civil religion are at the same time descriptors of the religion as well as a critique. The sins reflect what Gorman described as the two fundamental failings of Christianity in America: “the one horizontal (people to people), the other vertical (people to God).” In no particular order, it seems to me that the sins include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Weak understanding of discipleship – the conflation of being an American and being a Christian has undermined the true cost of allegiance to Christ alone (Matt 19:20-21).
  2. Political Tribalism – polarization between perceived patriots and non-patriots, in-group and out-group, us and them (Col 3:11) .
  3. Allegiance to the country and to God are inseparable – it is at best syncretistic and at worse heretical–if there is a difference between the two (Matt 6:24).
  4. No desire to reach the nations with the gospel. Instead, a tribal-centric focus on American exceptionalism, however it is defined by the political tribe, is the hope for the world. “Lead by example” whether politically (including militarily), economically, or socially, and the world will follow (Matt 28:18-20).
  5. A people more committed to prescribing morality or combating systemic injustice than to relating ethically to their neighbor like Jesus. In both cases, the state (animated by tribal ideology) legislates the solution to the people’s problems as defined by the political tribe rather than living like the body of Christ which inherently defends the faith, stands in the gap for justice, and proclaims the gospel (Rev 2:1-7).
  6. Value rights over sacrifice – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is viewed as God ordained versus “it has been granted to you for Christ’s sake not only to believe in Him but also suffer for His sake” (Phil 1:29) as the true inalienable right of a Christ-follower. 
  7. When there is sacrifice, the greatest is in service to country for protecting tribally defined and God ordained rights – this creates a false sense of eternal hope for causalities of the tribal cause. In this sense, it is messianically eschatological as it views a national ideology as the savior or liberator of the other, the country, even the world. As such, the national ideology, not Jesus, is the hope for the future of the country (John 6:40).

The ultimate consequence of these seven sins is an impotent church at war with God, cultural others, and with ourselves. Unfortunately, this war leaves a battlefield of dead and dying souls who will no longer listen to the American evangelical church’s distorted gospel that would be unrecognizable to the early church of Origen’s day. Dietrich Bonhoeffer aptly summarizes the need for a different Christian perspective:

“Jesus releases his community from the political and legal order,… and makes it into what it truly is, namely, the community of faithful that is not bound by political or national ties.” (Discipleship, 102-103)

"Jesus releases his community from the political and legal order,… and makes it into what it truly is, namely, the community of faithful that is not bound by political or national ties." – Dietrich Bonhoeffer Click To Tweet

If we properly understanding Jesus it will lead us to be humans who act like Jesus and gather us in a community focused on Jesus’ mission rather than on politics.

Learn more about the Church’s identity in When Evangelicals Sneeze: Curing the American Church from the Plague of Identity Loss

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