Following Jesus out of the American civil religion

As followers of Jesus Christ we face concerns of religious freedom on a regular basis. The role of religious life here and around the world being what it is, these kinds of concerns are never far from my mind. When election cycles cross swords with the calendar the most vicious attacks and reckless hyperbole seem to find their way onto Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forums, television and radio. In many instances those who claim a religious heritage built of the teachings of Jesus Christ vacillate between love and hate for months. Or at least hatefulness.

It can get wearisome and wearying.

This post is being reprinted from an old blog. It was written prior to the 2008 election, so it seems appropriate. I have edited only to tighten up any tenses that may have changed, and added a brief addendum and some questions.

I hope you enjoy it.

During this election season, missional pastors will spend much time debating in their own minds how to address the issue of faithfulness to Christ in a time that every third evangelical is doing all but endorsing a straight Republican ticket. Missional pastors, striving to look beyond John McCain [or Mitt Romney] or Barack Obama to larger kingdom issues, face potential hostility from members of the congregation who need to be affirmed in their conviction that the voting is always a clear cut issue, that there is always a candidate that more reflects righteousness–righteousness which is determined by a voter guide.

In addition, missional pastors face the challenge of what some have termed “the American civil religion.” Historian Henry Steele centers the bulls-eye with his definition:

A secular faith in American herself, in democracy, equality and freedom which were equated with America in the American mission and the American destiny.

The obfuscation of this civil religion with a thoroughly biblical faith has created a dangerous syncretism in which the “blessing of God on America” is often sought more than the blessing of God on His churches.

Erwin Lutzer, a transplanted Canadian who pastors the Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, has a book called, Is God on America’s Side? Under a sub-section entitled “The Church’s Diminished Influence,” he makes these observations:

I think there is reason to believe that we as members of the evangelical church are experiencing judgment. One sign of this is that the church has increased visibility but diminishing influence. The so-called Religious Right had great plans to reverse the moral trends of our nation. We are told that we have helped elect presidents and have impacted public policy and even the selection of judges. But by identifying these gains as those won by the “Religious Right,” namely, Christians who are in cahoots with a particular party, we have made this nation believe that the church is a political base rather than the dispenser of the gospel…We have cheapened Christ before a watching world.


The scenario of various religious leaders endorsing one political candidate or another is truly deserving of tears. Some Christian leaders have formed coalitions to “take America back.” The want to “put God back” into our political, legal, and educational institutions. If they have enough numbers and voting power, they think that the hands of the clock can be reversed…In identifying ourselves with a political party and battling for civil religion, we have lost our identification with Jesus Christ.


An example of civil religion is the recent so-called Christmas wars. If we insist that store clerks must say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holiday,” what have we really gained? Are the people who are asked to acknowledge the Christmas holiday any closer to faith in Christ or are they simply irritated that they have to conform to our beliefs? And and if we win legislation mandating that the Ten Commandments be displayed in courthouses and classrooms, are we thereby bringing our culture closer to faith in Christ, or antagonizing everyone around us?

Certainly I believe we should keep the phrase “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance, but if it were removed, would the church be weaker? Christ and Caesar have always been in conflict, but I think it is time to affirm that Christ can do well with or without Caesar’s cooperation.


We want a civil religion because we fear that we might lose our creature comforts if our nation is in decline. I fear that one reason why we are so anxious that the economy remain strong is not so much because we want to use our funds to support the spread of the gospel, but because we all enjoy the American way of life. And we believe that a strong America always translates into a strong church. Perhaps yes, but then again, perhaps no.


To put this clearly: For some Christians, lower taxes, a strong national defense, and lobbying to “keep Christ in Christmas” are more pressing issues than whether their neighbors and friends will spent eternity with God or be lost forever…I’m convinced that many Christians who are angry today would be pacified if only we could return this country to the 1950′s when there were no drugs, pornography was sold on the black market, and movies, for the most part, portrayed family values. They would be satisfied with this change even if no one were converted to Christ in the process! They would be content if Christ were accepted as lawgiver to restore order to society, even if he were not accepted as Savior to rescue society [Underline in original, bold mine].


I have a friend who says Christians should not join any political party since our allegiance is to Christ. He told me that we live here as sojourners and exiles, called to holiness. We should not align ourselves with entities that are corrupt and practice injustice.

What do you think? Has Lutzer overstated his case? Has my friend? What are some dangers followers of Christ might face by involvement with political parties?

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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