America’s State Religion

Who is the God of America?  There has been considerable (and oftentimes painful) discussion and debate over this question, and ones like it, for the past few decades.  The politically-conservative right-wing arm, generally within the Republican Party, has been insisting that America is some sort of a Christian nation.  But how many of them are actual practicing Christians versus people who think Christianity is a simply convenient moral system with some feel-good superstitious beliefs and a decent tradition behind it?  Obviously, I don’t know.  As Psalm 64 puts it, “the inward mind and heart of a man are deep.”  What I can look at, though, is the question of who/what the American society has been proclaiming as God these past two hundred years or so.

tension in the 18th century

The debate is fierce, with some Christians pointing out quotes like this one from George Washington: “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.”  And at the other end of the spectrum some folks pull out quotes like this one from the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”  Can you imagine what the right-wing media would do if President Obama said that today?  They’d have a field day!

That second quote has a critically important word in it that, I think, reveals what happened with American civil religion.  The word is “opinions.”  Rather than harping on this myself, allow me to quote The Closing of the American Mind, an excellent book by the late Alan Bloom:

Hobbes and Locke, and the American Founders following them, intended to palliate extreme beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, which lead to civil strife. … In order to make this arrangement work, there was a conscious, if covert, effort to weaken religious beliefs, partly by assigning—as a result of a great epistemological effort—religion to the realm of opinion as opposed to knowledge.  But the right to freedom of religion belonged to the realm of knowledge.  Such rights are not matters of opinion.  No weakness of conviction was desired here. … It was possible to expand the space exempt from legitimate social and political regulation only by contracting the claims to moral and political knowledge. … In the end it begins to appear that full freedom can be attained only when there is no such knowledge at all. … The inflamed sensitivity induced by radicalized democratic theory finally experiences any limit as arbitrary and tyrannical.  There are no absolutes; freedom is absolute. Of course the result is that, on the one hand, the argument justifying freedom disappears and, on the other, all beliefs begin to have the attenuated character that was initially supposed to be limited to religious belief.  (p. 28)

So first of all, from all this I’m noticing that there was a definite move in America’s early years to establish this country on a political philosophy – one which values freedom over all else – to the extent that all religious questions and answers are put on the sideline.  Not that religion was unimportant to the State – no, it was very much celebrated, and usually looked very Christian too! – but the issue of freedom (in speech, in religious opinion, and so forth) was the primary issue.

Obviously (or at least obviously to a Christian), Christianity has a great deal of freedom & liberation language: justice for the oppressed, release for the captives, food for the poor, healing for the sick, not to mention the immense freedom of forgiveness from sin!  And so between that and the sheer number of Christians in the USA, this country happily went on its way through history acting like a Christian country.  Except when push came to shove, like when the Treaty of Tripoli was negotiated (unanimously approved by Congress and signed by President John Adams), the true priority became clear: freedom and peace trump prevailing religious views.

the god of freedom & liberty

This priority helps us answer the question at the beginning: who is the God of America?  America’s God is the god of freedom and liberty.  Christianity does, to some extent, provide a god of freedom and liberty, but ultimately falls short because the Christian God also reserves the right to judge the world based upon a truth that is defined by himself, rather than by us.  The American god relegates theology to opinion, the Christian God puts forth theology as knowledge.  And so it really was only a matter of time until the conflict between them flared up.  The old Christian-like religion known as Deism, which was prevalent among the founding fathers of the USA, has recently given way to atheistic and agnostic views which do just as fine a job (if not better) at worshiping the god of freedom.

Ultimately, there is no separation between religion and state.  There never could be a separation, and the founding fathers knew that.  (Again, this isn’t just my read of history, Alan Bloom said the same thing in the earlier quote.)  You cannot have a culture without a cult [a system of common worship that defines a culture’s coherence].  Under the god of freedom & liberty, America has a Deistic Cult, and the religious expression of that cult, now, is secularism.  In that sense, there is no separation between church and state.

looking at Christianity in America today

As to how this impacts Christians today, this is why we have Christians who say things like “I don’t believe in organized religion” or “I believe in Jesus not Religion” or “it is a relationship not a religion” or “I am spiritual not religious” – All of that is the religious dogma of Deism, in the service of the god of freedom & liberty who relegates theology from knowledge to opinion.  It is this religion of the State which teaches Christians not to commit to any particular church (or denomination) and thereby keeping them good citizens of the state rather than citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Christians need to offer incense to the state god of freedom and liberty, they can go to church on Sunday or stay at home and read their Bibles, but they cannot for one minute think that their Bible might make them question American values such as the contents of the Bill of Rights.  The moment a citizen adheres to a church over the state, the absolute loyalty of the state religion is challenged and that cannot be allowed to happen.  That is why J. F. Kennedy had to promise not to ‘obey’ the Pope if elected President, and Mitt Romney had to promise not to listen to the Mormon Prophet.  In so doing, both of them showed that they were good citizens and servants of the State dogma and acquiesced.

And look at those names: J. F. Kennedy a democrat and Mitt Romney a Republican.  This acquiescence to the American deistic cult is not a feature of just one party; it’s something we see across the board.  Ask yourself and any Christians around:

  1. What’s more important, teaching someone that Jesus is human and divine, or teaching someone the values of democratic society?
  2. Would you rather your children memorize the Preambles of the US Constitution & Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address, or memorize the Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, and Apostles’ Creed?
  3. When hear the word “fathers” do you think “founding fathers” of the USA or the “fathers” of the Early Church?
  4. Is it more precious to you that you’re a citizen of a free nation or a subject under King Jesus?
  5. Does your church building have an American flag inside or Christian images?  Which is more prominently located?

This is an admittedly difficult paradigm shift for many of us because of how we were raised, what we were taught to value, and what society continues to value and uphold.  But this is a critically important issue for us to wrestle with: Christ calls us to a radical discipleship in which we learn from him in the community of the Body of Christ – the Church.  We cannot allow the American god of freedom & liberty to tear us apart any more.  We cannot allow the state religion of secular deism dull our senses to the realities of Christ’s kingdom with its other-worldly laws and justice.  We can now see entire denominations wrecked by this religious duplicity from trying to please two masters; let’s not continue down that road any further.

Special thanks to Fr. Dale Brown, who posted some stuff on Facebook a month or two ago which got the ball rolling with much of these thoughts.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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One Response to America’s State Religion

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Theocracy | Leorningcnihtes boc

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