Rendering to Caesar: Civil Religion in Transition


Bill Evans head shot

I presented an earlier version of this material at Erskine College and Seminary three weeks after 9/11.  In the wake of that horrifying event we Americans struggled to make sense of it all, to recover our national sense of equilibrium.  One of the more visible ways that Americans sought to make sense of it was through religion. Across the nation, countless candlelight prayer vigils and church services were held. Church attendance went up, at least for awhile.  One particularly interesting religious exercise took place at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC on September 14, 2001. This ecumenical service was quite unlike the church services most of us are accustomed to attending. There was a brief but moving speech by President George W. Bush. There were prayers and readings from various religions’ scriptures by a variety of religious leaders—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. The name of Jesus did not figure prominently in the service, except in the sermon by Billy Graham. Shortly after that a prayer service was held at Yankee Stadium in NYC. Here the participants included a Christian minister, a Rabbi, a Muslim Sheik, an Imam, and a Buddhist monk. At these events something “religious” was going on, but it was not, strictly speaking, the religion of the church, nor of the synagogue, nor of the mosque, nor of the Buddhist temple. It was something else. Now I want to pose a question here at the outset: was this “something else” a good thing or a bad thing? In order to answer that question we need to explore a phenomenon that has come to be known as “civil religion.”

We may define “civil religion” as the attempt by a nation or people to understand its history, character, and leadership in terms of transcendent reality and a larger meta-narrative or story, the results of which are not fully identifiable with any particular churchly tradition. This effort finds expression in sacred texts and symbolic events. For Americans, such sacred texts include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and so forth. Symbolic ritual events would include the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the remembrance of wartime dead on Memorial Day, Fourth of July Celebrations, and the like. In all of these texts and ritual events, the name of God is almost invariably invoked. As we explore this topic, I’d like first of all to outline a brief history of “civil religion.”

A Brief History of Civil Religion

The Roman Empire is a convenient place to start. Soon after the fall of the Republic and the establishment of a dictatorship under Julius Caesar, it became common to deify emperors after their deaths. That is to say, shortly after their deaths men such as Octavian and Tiberius were honored as having taken their place among the gods. By the end of the first century AD, living emperors began to be acclaimed as gods, and the public veneration of these “living gods”—the offering of sacrifices and the pouring out of libations—came to be regarded as a mark of good citizenship. Such citizenship requirements posed obvious problems for Christians, who regarded sacrifices to the emperor as idolatry (which, in fact, they were). The struggle between Christianity and Roman civil religion continued until the triumph of Christianity under the Emperor Constantine, and for the remainder of late antiquity and the medieval period it was largely the Christian church that provided the framework of self-understanding for European society.

That situation continued until the Reformation. Suddenly, western Europe was no longer united by a single religious tradition and set of authorities. Wars of religion tore the European continent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. European nations were split between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and since neither could defeat the other, the result was chaos. And so people began to think, “What sort of belief system might provide a basis for a stable society?” Thus the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau called for a “civil religion” of reason in his famous work The Social Contract. Not too many decades later, leaders of the French Revolution tried to impose a religion of reason on the nation of France, with rather disastrous results. Turning to the twentieth century, some historians have suggested that the Nazi ideology was a form of civil religion in extreme form, as a religion of the state effectively sought to subvert and then to replace traditional churchly religion.

But what about the American experience? In America we encounter a complex and interesting form of civil religion, and one that has been extensively studied since the 1960’s by scholars such as Robert Bellah, Peter Berger, Sidney Mead, Michael Novak, Jerald Brauer, and others. Incidentally, my historical summary here is dependent in part upon Robert Bellah’s seminal 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” which is still a good place to start if you want to pursue these issues further.

The roots of American civil religion lie in the Puritan period as thousands of people left England in search of the freedom to worship God as they believed the Bible requires. Moreover, they believed that theirs was a noble and righteous endeavor–they were a chosen people, a “New Israel” establishing a New Jerusalem that would be a light to the world. Witness these words by John Winthrop, first governor of Puritan Massachusetts:

we shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us.

Notice here how biblical imagery is being used to bring a sense of meaning and significance to the early American experience. Out of this Puritan period comes the persistent notion of America as a chosen people, a special nation unlike any other, a special recipient of divine blessing. Moreover, this special nation is viewed as having a divinely appointed role to play—America will enlighten the nations. Some even went so far as to suggest that America’s efforts would usher in the millennium, a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth.

By the Revolutionary period, America’s population has become much more diverse, but once again we find biblical imagery being used. The trip from Europe to the New World was viewed as an exodus from Egypt, with George Washington cast as a second Moses. By this time, the conception of America’s role has been somewhat secularized. The national task is now is not the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, but to be a herald of political freedom and democracy. America’s job, as a later generation put it, was to “make the world safe for democracy.”

The documents of this early national period often refer to God. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, we read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Note that here God is viewed primarily as creator and as one who safeguards the moral order of right and wrong. The documents of the period do not quite approach the Christian God—there is nothing of a Trinity, nor of redemption for sinners through the blood of Christ. This is, after all, “civil religion” rather than churchly religion.

The next crucible of American civil religion was the Civil War period. Here earlier images of America as a chosen privileged nation were augmented by other images of suffering, atonement, sacrifice, death, and rebirth. The most intriguing figure of the period is Abraham Lincoln—a president who never joined a church, but who sought to understand the national situation in powerfully religious terms.  Witness these remarkable words from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, as he muses on the irony of North and South both praying to the same God for victory:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe clue to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him. Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

After Lincoln’s death by an assassin’s bullet, his own person and role came to be viewed in biblical and religious terms as a Christ figure, dying to redeem the nation and to establish what Lincoln himself in the Gettysburg Address called “a new birth of freedom.” These themes of national sacrifice, death and rebirth were then ritually depicted year after year in Memorial Day observances throughout the nation after the war, observances which continue to this day.

By the twentieth century, America had become a much more diverse nation religiously and ethnically than it had been during the Civil War. From its founding though to the mid-nineteenth century, America’s population was predominantly Christian and Protestant. After that, waves of Roman Catholic and Jewish immigration changed the religious face of America. During the nineteen forties and fifties America’s civil religion was further adapted to the new situation of a more pluralistic nation. What emerges is a civil religion of bare formal theism, the lowest common denominator of what most people could identify with. To be sure, during the 1950’s the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and legislation was passed requiring the inclusion of “In God We trust” on all coinage. At the same time, however, it became increasingly gauche to speak of this “God” too specifically. It was during this period that the phrase “Judeo-Christian Tradition” came into common usage. President Dwight Eisenhower was quoted as saying, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith–and I don’t care what it is” (quoted in Bellah, “Civil Religion,” p. 3).

American civil religion and its symbols fell on hard times during the Vietnam conflict of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Even as some such as Richard Nixon sought to support the war effort in Southeast Asia through the symbolism of civil religion, others rejected both the war and the civil religion that seemed to support it. The results of all this seemed to be a sense of national anxiety and malaise that extended through the 1970’s. But with the election of Ronald Reagan, civil religion once again became respectable. Presidents Reagan and Clinton were both adept at wielding the symbolism of civil religion.  President George W. Bush extensively used the rhetoric of an American mission to the world—in this case bringing democracy to the Middle East—but that rhetoric fell rather flat.

If public ritual events are any indication, we are in a new stage of American civil religion. Today, America is more diverse than at any previous stage in its history. Furthermore, there is an ideology of multiculturalism at work, which celebrates diversity for its own sake. It affirms not just the presence of multiple perspectives, but their validity. Today even the notion of a Judeo-Christian ethos seems too narrow and confining for many. And so, at public prayer services we often see not only Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish clergy taking part, but also Muslim and Buddhist clerics. While the older civil religion celebrated what Americans had in common (however little that may have been) the new civil religion celebrates diversity itself. Moreover, there is reason to think that this new civil religion of ideological pluralism is aimed at subverting the exclusiveness of traditional Christian teaching that salvation is only through Jesus Christ. The implications of this new civil religion for our nation remain to be seen.

Observations and Prospect

What can we learn from this survey? Several conclusions stand out from all of this. First, civil religion emerges in situations where no single church or religious faith can claim an overwhelming majority. Where all subscribe to a single faith there is simply no need for civil religion. We should also note that the idea of civil religion is foreign to Islam, which holds that the mosque must control all aspects of life.

Second, we have seen that American civil religion has changed dramatically. It has moved from the robust monotheism of the Puritans, to the somewhat attenuated theism of the Republican period, to the minimalistic, bare-bones theism of the 1950’s, to the contemporary celebration of theistic, polytheistic, and non-theistic religious and secular diversity. In other words, when we talk about civil religion we are dealing with a moving target.

Third, I would also suggest that civil religion is inevitable in a pluralistic society. As sociologist Peter Berger noted in his book The Sacred Canopy, there seems to be something about us as human beings that requires us to legitimize and understand ourselves and our societies in terms of ultimate reality, to seek the resources of religion as we try fathom our place in the world. We seek to justify ourselves and our way of life as that which God desires, or as the goal of history, and so forth. But if civil religion is inevitable in a pluralistic society (and our society is nothing if not pluralistic) then civil religion is something that we must come to terms with.

We began by asking whether civil religion is a good thing or a bad thing. Given the complexity of the issue, the only answer we can give is: It depends. On the one hand, civil religion can be profoundly invidious and even demonic. Here the emperor worship of the Roman empire, the civil religion of reason of the French Revolution, and the Nazi civil religion of the German Volk come to mind. In each of these instances, the state was identified with ultimate reality, and in each of these instances the result was tyranny and idolatry. Christians cannot rightly participate in such civil religion. Even American civil religion has sometimes had negative consequences. In the nineteenth century, the idea of America as a chosen nation was transformed into the secular notion of Manifest Destiny–it was God’s will that America spread over the continent from “sea to shining sea,” and woe to any heathen native Americans who got in the way. That is to say, the deplorable treatment of Native Americans was due in part to the dynamics of American civil religion. Civil religion can also quickly deteriorate into a civic boosterism that simply baptizes governmental program and policy.

On the other hand, civil religion has, historically at least, had a remarkable unifying function. It has made it possible for Americans to come together around what they have held in common, without forcing them to compromise their beliefs about specific religious doctrines. Moreover, American civil religion, with its affirmation of a transcendent Creator and lawgiver, has provided a bulwark against statist tyranny. Even the state is subject to the law and judgment of God. The state is not absolute. It cannot do whatever it wants. Thus, civil religion, with its focus upon God as moral governor, has stood in service to the noble American political experiment of democratic, limited government.

But what about the new situation, the new emerging American civil religion that we have witnessed in recent decades? Here I think some pointed questions need to be asked. Some have to do, first of all, with what we may call the problem of content. This is a problem that all Americans need to think about. We have seen that American civil religion has been gradually emptied of theistic content, to the point that we are now reduced to celebrating our differences. But here we must ask, can a nation be united on the basis of its differences, on the basis of its lack of religious unity? Furthermore, can the emerging non-theistic civil religion provide a sufficient basis for the legitimization of society? That is to say, is it capable of providing a foundation for America’s leadership and institutions so that these are generally acknowledged as worthy of respect? Now this is of great importance, for American democracy arose in the context of a broadly Christian monotheism. The Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution did not arise out of a culture dominated by Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Islam. Will our political institutions begin to collapse from lack of moral support as the older civil religion erodes and is displaced by something else?  On this issue the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas created quite a stir when he said:

Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk. (Habermas, Time of Transitions [Polity, 2006], 150-51)

In other words, for the purposes of our discussion the implication seems to be that a civil religion that diverges too far from the truths enshrined in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures may be of rather little use in preserving what needs to be conserved.

There is also what we may call the problem of observance. This is a problem that Christians in particular must confront. To what extent may evangelical Christians participate in the new emerging civil religion? This is a difficult question. Historically, Americans found it plausible to believe (rightly or wrongly) that most of us were praying to the same God. But now as our civil religion rituals present us with the public prayers of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, not to mention the “meditations” of utter secularists, some of us are not so sure. This calls for wisdom. As the new civil religion unfolds, there will doubtless be situations where Christians must withdraw in order to maintain their integrity. Other situations will present us with opportunities to bear witness to the truth. As American Christians, we are entering uncharted territory. In Matthew 22:15-22 Jesus is asked whether one should pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus answered, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This suggests that we have responsibilities both to God and to Caesar. But the time may come when civil religion (rendering to Caesar) and Christian faith (rendering to God) stand in opposition to one another. The time may come when Christian faith compels us to oppose an idolatrous civil religion.  We need discernment to read the signs of the times.

Above all, let us never make the mistake of confusing civil religion, valuable though it may be in some forms and circumstances, with the fullness of God’s revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. To put it bluntly, civil religion never saved anybody. A merely civil righteousness is not the saving righteousness of Christ.