Politicizing the Gospel – Part #2 by Greg Albrecht

In PART #1 of “POLITICIZING THE GOSPEL” we considered the recent backdrop of warfare and violence.  In PART #2 we begin to narrow our focus as to the nefarious marriage of politics and religion. 

                                    Militant Evangelism and Nationalism

In terms of religion, we must not forget the attempts by Christendom to “evangelize” people all around the world whom it deemed to be pagans (and other pejorative terms).  The historical record is clear about the horrendous bloodletting of several “Christian” empires that attempted to violently colonize not-so-advanced areas of the world in the name of God—places like Africa, India, Asia, North, Central and South America.

Just a few centuries ago Christendom felt justified in bringing people into what it called “the kingdom of God” at any price—by the sword, torture, intimidation and brutality.  While such methodologies are distinctly frowned on in North America and Europe today, intimidation and threats, in the name of God, continue. Many of the practices of religious “evangelism” have been justified by a maxim religion otherwise deplores—the end justifies the means.

In a potent, syncretistic mixture often referred to as American Civil Religion, love and worship of God is combined with the worship and love of country.  American Civil Religion is a general and over-riding religion and while not all religions in America agree with its tenets, some do and are cozy bed-fellows.  Other titles given to this subtle anti-Christ faith include “democratic faith” – “the American way” – and “our common faith.”

American Civil Religion is a marriage of institutionalized forms of both Judaism and Christianity, resulting in a potent mix of nationalism.  This Civil Religion is a detailed set of beliefs, rituals, special days and services and includes its own pantheon of sacred leaders.  It is a culture rather than a unique denomination – a culture that can co-exist with an institutionalized religion or a culture than can thrive apart from an institutionalized church. 

American Civil Religion is somewhat like a folk religion, wherein national heroes are lionized, national history is revered and national values are the core religious beliefs.   It is, in some respects, what many summarize as “the American way of life.” This civil religion fuses God, country and the flag, somewhat like the Roman Empire attempted to combine worship of the gods with love of country and empire.   

American Civil Religion has overwhelmingly been attractive to European whites, and always, for obvious reasons, less attractive to African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans.   The equation of America with Israel of the Old Covenant is frequent, so that America has been referred to as the “American Israel.”  The theme of the American Israel was used as a justification for the shameful treatment of Native Americans, as Americans of that era were told that God told the Israelites to drive all the native tribes out of the promised land.   

Within Civil Religion Europe of old was the Old Testament nation of Egypt, and America was the promised land to which God led his people as a “light to all nations.”  Abraham Lincoln became the martyred president, a Christ-like political figure who was humble, tender, patient, and self-sacrificing, even to the extent that his own life was taken.  Lincoln is also cast, within American Civil Religion, as a type of Moses, leading his people out of slavery.

Memorial Day grew out of the time of Civil War, so that it historically has been, and in many rural towns still is, a time of thanksgiving for the dead, a time to unite the nation in remembrance to and of the American vision.  It is not uncommon, on Memorial Day, to observe George Washington and Abraham Lincoln revered and “raised” to virtually a divine level, as “true Americans” with extraordinary virtues.

In these early years of the 21st century Christian nationalism is a major theme within American evangelicalism.   Within evangelicalism, America is often seen as God’s exceptional and chosen nation, in a similar way that Hebrews were in the Old Testament.  American evangelicals often perceive abortion clinics, gay marriage and a refusal to salute the flag as an abomination, for which God will punish (or is even now in the process of punishing) the United States.

Conspiracy theories can add fuel to this fire, as people who are already, at one level or another, alienated from society, are particularly vulnerable to suggestions that sinister, even Satanic forces are at work to destroy the United States.  What is perceived as rebellion against God paves the way for people, in the name of God, to justify murder and mayhem against those who are believed to be rebelling against God.   

Thus American Civil Religion politicizes the gospel, replacing the gospel of Jesus Christ with democratic ideals.   American Civil Religion pays lip service to Judeo-Christian teaching and appropriates its language and terminology, but it replaces the gospel with democracy, the will of the people.  Democracy is the overarching, foundational platform of American Civil Religion – it welcomes and tolerates all religions as long as they bow the knee to nationalism.

Of course, in defense of American Civil Religion and democracy in general, we are well served to recall Winston Churchill’s observation: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe.  No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.  Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

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