Who We Stand With
I began watching the Ken Burns special on the Vietnam War yesterday, on my phone. What an odd little thing that still is to me, watching a television program on one’s telephone. The biggest phone advancement when I was a kid was when the rotary phone gave way to the push button keypad, which caused my crazy uncle to announce the end of the world. I’m glad my uncle isn’t alive to witness the smartphone, because it would cause him to fall over dead.
He was always on the verge of collapse anyway, overwhelmed by any new development. I remember when I was five years old, and went with him to the George Rogers Clark Memorial in Vincennes to watch President Lyndon Johnson. Off to the side were a handful of folks carrying signs which indicated their displeasure with the growing war in Vietnam. My crazy uncle nearly fainted dead away at that. He believed Americans should be good Christians, ready at a moment’s notice to go kill people in a foreign land. He nearly sunk into a coma when I became a Quaker.
I’ve encountered this sentiment many times in my life, and I’m sure you have too, this notion that American Christians should be compliant and patriotic and do whatever the government tells them to do. It is rooted in a widespread belief that the objectives of God and America are the same.
Sociologists call this civil religion. This term was first used by the French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1762 book, The Social Contract, and it is the process whereby the symbols, value, and priorities of a nation or culture become imbued with a sacred meaning and carry divine authority. So if you question or reject that nation’s symbols, values, and priorities, you are not only a bad American, you are a bad Christian.
Civil religion can be a very useful tool for political leaders who use it to persuade people their rise to power was ordained by God. In his book, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler wrote, “I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.” Well, that’s civil religion, the marriage of divine will and political power. And we know from watching Hitler’s Germany, that civil religion can be utterly evil and disastrous. We also know, don’t we, that many Christians in America today practice civil religion. They don’t call it that. If you were to ask them what religion they belonged to, they’d say they were Christian. They believe our nation’s symbols and values are divinely ordained, and that to question or reject them is to question or reject God.
Today’s America is rife with civil religion. This has always been true to some extent, but it is especially prevalent today. If your faith or morality places you at odds with our nation’s symbols, values, and priorities, and you express concern about the nation’s symbols, values, and priorities, you will be condemned as un-Christian or un-Godly or un-American.
But there have always people of faith who question the marriage of faith and political power. In the fifth chapter of the book of Acts, Peter and the other apostles were ordered by the authorities to stop telling others about Jesus. Now if Peter and the apostles had practiced civil religion, they would have said, “Oh, because our government is ordained by God, we must do what it says and be silent.” But they didn’t do that. Instead, they said, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” And they were flogged for their trouble. There’s always a price to pay when one rejects civil religion.
But let’s be clear about something: It is never our job as Christians to unquestionably affirm our nation’s symbols, values, and priorities. When our Christian faith and our nation’s values are in agreement, then we can honor both God and country in good conscience. There will be no conflict between our responsibilities as American citizens and our duties as followers of Jesus.
When our nation works for peace, when it defends the outcast, when it is the architect of decency, when it values liberty and justice for all, we can stand and say our Christian faith and our nation’s values are in agreement, and we can happily obey both God and human authority. But when they do not, we can stand in good conscience and say, “I must obey God rather than human authority.” That may come with consequences, but no one ever said the Christian faith was simple. Well, my crazy uncle said it was simple, but no one else. Not simple, not easy.
I’m telling you this because many in our nation have mistaken civil religion for Christianity, but they are not the same. They each ask different things of us. This week, a man emailed to ask me what I thought of the NFL players who took a knee last Sunday. I said it was an appropriate and powerful reminder that despite the promises of our Constitution, our nation has two levels of justice—one level of justice for white people, another level of justice for people of color.
This angered the man, who told me I should be ashamed of myself, that I was a Christian pastor and it was my job to work for unity. I told him I agreed, which is why I supported equal justice for people of color and the redress of grievances, because until that happens, there will be no unity in our nation. It’s apparent that civil religion and Christianity don’t define unity the same way.
Civil religion believes unity is achieved when everyone obeys. Christianity believes unity is achieved when everyone is treated justly and loved.
Civil religion requires the corruption of conscience, the blind eye, the muzzled voice. Christianity requires the growth of conscience, the opened eye, the truth plainly spoken.
Civil religion asks us to submit to the powers-that-be, to go along and get along. Christianity asks us to defend the underdog, to stand with the oppressed, to speak up when others are denigrated and diminished.
Friends, when we condemn someone who is standing for justice, when we chastise them for making us uncomfortable, what we’re really saying is that our personal comfort is more important than someone else’s unjust suffering. Jesus Christ is not, and has never been, primarily interested in our comfort. Jesus Christ is interested in our integrity, in our compassion, in our willingness to stand with the least of these and say, “You are my brother, you are my sister. Today, I stand with you.”