the end of civil religion

I made the mistake of reading about the Louie Giglio imbroglio before going to bed, and it kept me from falling asleep. So now I’m dangerously typing a blog post at 1:00 AM, hoping I won’t regret this in the morning. I share my evangelical friends’ concerns about America’s growing intolerance with conservative Christianity (i.e., Christianity) and wonder with them if there is space for us in the public square. But on balance I suspect that being disinvited to pray at a presidential inaugural will turn out to be a good thing.

I admit that part of me was comforted when Billy or Franklin Graham prayed at past inaugurations. I was less sanguine about Rick Warren, who seems to lack sufficient gravitas for such occasions. A part of me liked the idea that America was still a Christian nation who marked our most solemn ceremonies with prayers to the true God.

But most of me thought the prayers were out of place, offensive to those who don’t believe in Jesus and demeaning to the office of the person offering the prayer. I’m not saying I would have the courage and humility to actually do this, but if I were a pastor who was invited to pray at the presidential inauguration I’d like to think that I would politely decline on the grounds that I am employed by the King of Kings and won’t stoop to become a pastor of civil religion. I refuse to confuse Christ’s church with the American government and I won’t allow my presence to leave the false impression that because we’re Americans we are somehow all God’s children who enjoy his blessing.

I believe that Christians must argue for our place in the public square and that our Christian values should determine how we vote and argue for our positions. But I think it’s probably for the best that we decline all opportunities to contribute to America’s window dressing of civil religion. Our church and doctrine will be purer, and it will be easier to tell who the unconverted are. That can only help the spread of the gospel.

So yes, they really do hate us and soon it may be illegal in America to read certain passages of the Bible in public. But since God is sovereign, I’m betting that will turn out for the furtherance of the gospel. And I can go back to bed.

13 Comments

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  1. Sometimes a 1:00 AM blog post is where we are most honest. And I very much agree with your thoughts here.

  2. Where would you “stoop” to offer a prayer? Would you also politely decline to pray before a neighborhood block party, high school graduation or a company picnic because you are employed by the King of Kings?

  3. Andy: Good question, something that briefly crossed my mind at 1:00 AM. Ideally, I would weigh the possibility of contributing to civil religion. I don’t think there would be much danger of this if I’m asked to thank God for the food at a company picnic (especially if it’s Chick-Fil-A) or a block party (depending on who is in my neighborhood). I think I would decline to offer an invocation at a public high school graduation or at the Mayor’s Breakfast. I think we’re better off if we keep the Christian church distinct from the normal, common structures of society.

    A side but relevant issue is that I would consider it an honor to pray at an inauguration. It would be difficult for me to do this without feeling that this was somehow more important than my service to Christ’s church. So for my own spiritual health, and to keep my priorities straight, I think I’d better not do it.

  4. I love the flow of thought here. God tends to use this type of law to draw a line in the sand. If we honor God, it may be years later, but He will honor us. Many are martyred for their Christian faith every day. There’s that theme of religion, again, because while the world stops and stares, religious people (not true believers who know they need a mediator!) kill in the name of God every day. Jesus took no issue with the Roman government, but the religious leaders plotted to have Him killed on many occasions. So we have to understand as believers, our job is to love because, by definition, God Himself says He is LOVE. People hated Love Made Flesh, because it upset the religious folks’ apple carts. I found it so heartwarming that the person Jesus credits with the biggest faith in all Israel was the Roman Centurion, the enemy of the Religious.

  5. My concern is that we (the church) fail to be salt and light…I do understand your concern for not wanting to give the appearance of a stamp of approval or to blur the lines of distinction…here is an interesting article on the idea of two kingdoms that seemed to give rise to Hitler’s evil reign. http://americanvision.org/6882/ho-two-kingdoms-always-turns-out-radical/

  6. Good point, Andy. There are dangers all around, on either side. The church can lose its witness both by being so separate it doesn’t speak to the issues of the day and by becoming so one with the state/culture that it is co-opted by it. I think our greatest problem in America is the latter. And that was also the problem in Germany, and why Bonhoeffer and Barth protested that the church must find its voice. It’s hard for the church to speak truth to power when it is the power.

    Another issue that factors in is whether I would be invocating as a normal citizen or as a pastor of the church. It may not always be easy to tell, but that has to matter as well.

  7. Nobody hates you. Quit being a martyr. As an atheist, I could care less about your religious beliefs. What most religious types don’t get is that many of us are tired of having what we consider to be a form of mass hysteria shoved down our throats at every turn. What’s wrong with enjoying what you perceive as your relationship with a higher being in private? As Thomas Jefferson wrote : “…the subject of religion, a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his maker, in which no other, & far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.” I suggest that if you feel persecuted, then it’s simply that you continue to offend those around you. Perhaps adhering to the teachings of Jesus, being meek and exhibiting humility, might benefit more than spreading hate against those that don’t believe in God?

  8. John: You do realize that the meek and humble Jesus was crucified, right? All I’m saying is that we Christians shouldn’t expect anything different than what happened to our leader, and you are kind of proving my point.

    I’m glad you don’t hate us. We truly believe that we love you, and certainly don’t intend to “shove anything down your throat.” We do realize that the gospel of Jesus offends, which explains why we’re in this situation. Please know that we don’t think we’re better than you, but would be thrilled if you receive the same forgiveness of sin and everlasting life that Jesus died to provide.

  9. John B Egan – the problem is there is no such thing as neutrality…would you say Christians were wrong to oppose Hitler and his evil plots against the Jews? Would you say the same thing to William Wilberforce who, as a member of the British Parliament, worked and succeeded in abolishing the slave trade in England? Would you say the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was wrong because we have another example of someone forcing his/her religious views on society?

    Every law the government makes and enforces some philosophy or religious system…neutrality is not an option or even possible.

  10. Mike – greatly appreciated your post. simple, clear, measured. not bad for 1AM.

  11. Thanks Mike. Offering a prayer at a government sponsored event as part of the program’s agenda certainly sends a mixed message to believers and unbelievers alike. I don’t think declining such an offer automatically makes one a light snuffer. If it involved a podium to preach the Gospel then go for it. Like you I think it’s about time Christians in the U.S. make and practice clear distinctions between patriotism and their allegiance to their Lord and Savior.

  12. I don’t think offering a christian prayer at a state event is the problem. The problem is that well-meaning Christians believe that being “salt and light” happens by beating the political “conservatism” war drums that seek to amend the constitution and expand the purview of the federal government’s powers to forcibly bring about its agenda (all the while claiming to the party of “small government”). The blow back is that non-Christians fight back, also with political force, and suddenly ‘christian values’ are politicized. Instead of adhering to constitutional limits, politicians start using the debate to get power (read: votes) by stirring the pot as much as possible. The end result is that religious freedom gets a black eye.

    The better way for us Christians is to be “salt and light” through the great commission. Why are we worried about forcing law and conformity on people who aren’t disciples, as if that will draw them into the fold? It is personally offensive and politically disastrous. Coercive force is precisely the wrong (read: immoral) solution to every problem. Period. This is the lesson we already learned and why our nation exists. But we seem to have forgotten.

    If we could get our political heads on straight, then it wouldn’t be a problem to offer a prayer at a state function!!! It never has been a problem before, and it isn’t because society has changed that much. Give me a break. The vast majority of people who aren’t christian still think its nice and sweet to listen to someone asking a higher power for a blessing on our country. Those who say they are offended are projecting their frustrations with the current political malaise on to a benevolent, generalized custom. We need to know the difference and solve the right problem.

  13. Civil religion is a boozer in itself.You have a bunch of non believers who think they are believers and God is mocked by their words and actions……..

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