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Os Guinness on Nationalism and Worshipping Ourselves

The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It (HarperCollins: 2008), pp. 144-5.

Yet over the course of time the United States has given rise to its own soft civil religion, and the reason lies in the character and function of civil religion. In the absence of an official religion, what binds a nation together becomes suffused with a sense of the sacred and surrounded with a religious or semireligious aura until it becomes its civil religion. Thus, in essence, civil religion is a nation’s worship of itself.

In the case of the United States, its vibrant liberty and diversity put added pressure on the search for a sure unum to balance it strong pluribus. America therefore had to find this unity and steer a course between the founders’ decisive ban on any established orthodoxy and their equally decisive judgment that public life without any ideals was dangerous. The result was a blending of patriotism with a diluted and generalized Protestantism that formed a moderate and highly unusual form of American civil religion. Theologically and constitutionally speaking, American national unity and stability have never depended on the common sharing of one faith, but practically speaking, for many Americans they have, and the themes of patriotism have been given a religious glow. As the historian David Fischer points out, male images of America such as Uncle Sam and Yankee Doodle have always been popular, but the most appealing image of all has always been the timeless female goddess of liberty.

Resistance to civil religion comes from two sides. On the one hand, many secularists and some Jews are suspicious of civil religion because they view it as a way to escort religion and especially the unquestioned place of religion in the past, back into public life with an armed escort and a color guard.

This suspicion is justified. Wrap any American issue in the flag, and those who differ with it are unpatriotic and un-American. Christian conservatives therefore need to be patriots with independent consciences and critical minds, and to be vigilant in their guard against any uncritical shift from legitimate patriotism to nationalism, for nationalism is another example of where the the fundamentalism of the Religious Right is modern rather than Christian.

On the other hand, many Christians themselves are even more opposed to civil religion than secularists are. For if God alone is to be worshipped, then the worship of anything short of God is idolatry, especially if civil religion means that Christians are essentially worshipping themselves. Political freedom, for example, is a gift, a precious gift and a privilege; but for Christians, political freedom is and will always remain a secular gift. It is not sacred and it is not God, so to sing, as the American hymn does, of “freedom’s holy light,” and to think and act as if such were the case, is to cross the line into civil religion and idolatry.

Against all such confusions and misunderstandings, it must be stated unambiguously that a civil public philosophy is secular; it is not a civil religion, and it must never be elevated into being religious. A civil public philsoophy is a matter of the common vision for the common good, the sahred agreement about the rights, responsibilities, and respect that form the common bonds wihtin which Americans can live freely and debate important differences. This common vision is an achievement and a gift. For some it is a gift from God as well as a legacy from the past, while for others it is simply a legacy from the past; but for neither is it religious or a matter of civil religion.