American civil religion, at least as many American patriots would like to conceive and practice it, is incoherent. And inadvertently hilarious. I think of the famous statement attributed to Eisenhower: “America needs a religion, and I don’t care what it is.” The problem is arriving at any such religion that has theological substance and consistency, and yet is “capacious” and non-specific enough to include Americans of all faiths (and no professed faiths at all). American civil religion at first had to take accounts of varieties of Christianity, then of Christianity and Judaism, then of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and a spate of panoply of Eastern faiths.
It seems that those who now must urgently want to profess an American civil religion are many conservative Christians. Yet, American civil religion has always had trouble including Jesus Christ. The political scientist Samuel Huntington has noted that American civil religion allows for the employment of the word God, as on the nation’s coinage. However, “two words . . . do not appear in civil religion statements and ceremonies. They are ‘Jesus Christ.'” Put more strongly, “the American civil religion is Christianity without Christ.” Yet here is more inadvertent hilarity, for what is Christianity without Christ?
Maybe Christians need all the humor we can get, but I think we should seek our levity in other places. Better, by far, to recognize that the church is the one true polity of Christianity. Then our relationship to other polities (not least nation states) can be one of a loyalty that is bounded and checked by our higher allegiance to Christ and the Trinitarian God. Christians can live without a civil religion to any nation state. It has even been tried, and not found wanting.
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