Reviews > Culture

Gods and country

Culture | America's civil religion is becoming polytheistic, raising the question: Should we prefer a naked public square to the pagan alternative?

Issue: "California's new governor," Oct. 4, 2003

PUBLIC SCHOOLS, BALL GAMES, CIVIC ORGANIZAtions, and government meetings used to begin with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, very often the Lord's Prayer. Political speeches from all parties used to be loaded with biblical references. Today, Christianity is not only being purged from the public square, but a new civil religion seems to be emerging to take its place.

Although American institutions grew out of a biblical worldview, Christians have been uneasy with their faith being a part of a civil religion. Only individuals can have saving faith, not countries. Christianity is for "every nation and tribe and language and people" (Revelation 14:6). Christianity has to do with salvation for everlasting life, after all of the world's kingdoms have passed away.

Anthropologists say that every society tends to erect a cultural religion, in order to give its institutions a sacred authority. Indeed, most of the world's religions are cultural religions. Islam's goal is not the salvation of souls but the establishment of Koranic law in society. Hinduism, for all of its mysticism, is a sanctioning of the Indian social order, with its caste system and karma-justified hierarchies.

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Christianity is not like that, but the Bible does teach that God works through cultural institutions and calls Christians to be good citizens (Romans 13). Christians, being in the world though not of the world, have vocations that bring them into engagement with their cultures, leading them to try to improve society by loving service to their neighbors and by opposing injustice-such as the abortion of innocent children-on the authority of God's Word.

One difference between a Christian engagement with culture and that of cultural religions is that the latter use the laws of their gods to sanctify a status quo. Christianity uses God's law to subject the status quo to God's judgment. Under Christianity, no humanly devised culture, however valuable in many ways, can be turned into an absolute.

But the Bible tells Christians to pray for their leaders, and they have been happy to do so. Prayer, religious symbols, the Bible, and the invocation of God have been seen as appropriate in the public square, as long as the state does not swallow up or take the place of the church and its supernatural gospel. Christians can thus be both patriotic and spiritual, as long as they do not confuse the two realms and keep their allegiances straight.

Now, however, the distinctly Christian elements that have made their way into America's civil religion-such as monuments of the Ten Commandments in courthouses-are being purged away with inquisitorial zeal.

The reasons given are not so much those of secularism, that religion has no place in the public square, but of religious diversity. It is not fair, say the Commandment removers, to privilege Christianity. What about Muslims, Hindus, pagans, and people with self-made theologies?

There are signs that this "religiously diverse America" is becoming a new civil religion. Gatherings to mourn and to commemorate the terrorist attacks on 9/11, both on the national and local levels, made a point of being "interfaith," involving Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Catholics, and Protestants all worshipping together. Legislatures still open with a prayer, but now it may be delivered by a Muslim imam or a Buddhist monk rather than by a Christian clergyman. Prisons now hire chaplains who are not only Muslims but radical jihadists recruiting for terrorism. Wisconsin has hired the Rev. Jamyi Witch, a member of the neopagan sect of Wicca, as a prison chaplain. Schools are also trying to be inclusive by celebrating all religions.

As government officials and the public insist on recognizing the validity and equal representation of all religions, what this may amount to is a new civil religion. This one, in effect, will be polytheistic, recognizing and paying homage to many gods.

This was the approach of ancient Rome, which simply added the gods of the lands they conquered to their Pantheon. Rome was religiously inclusive, working all of the cultural religions into a single civil religion, and it was famously tolerant. Its tolerance ended, though, when it came to Christianity, which condemned the other gods as idols and insisted that Christ is the only way to salvation. Christians refused to burn the incense to the civil religion and many paid for their "intolerance" with their lives.

Christians today may also have to bow out of participating in a polytheistic civil religion. A naked public square, empty of all religious references and thus purely secular, may be better from a Christian perspective than the public square of Athens, cluttered as it was with idols, altars, and other monuments to human religiosity, with a single altar to an unknown God.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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