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Americans just recently celebrated the important role of fathers in the upbringing of children. No doubt more than one sermon drew comparisons between divine fatherhood and human fatherhood, even though doing so is fraught with challenges for the American Christian given the historical connection to American civil religion.

“The fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man” was a phrase that proponents like Shailer Mathews used to advocate the social gospel. For Mathews, life in the kingdom consisted of the ethical parameters governing human solidarity and kinship under the universal paternity of God. This laid the basis for translating the gospel into a social program that could supply a moral framework for the nation. It became a way to re-invigorate the Jeffersonian combination of non-sectarianism and the necessity of ethical virtue for the life of the nation. A virtual Protestant establishment could coincide with a moral framework grounded upon Jesus’ universal ethic under divine fatherhood.

By the time Will Herberg wrote Protestant-Catholic-Jew in 1955 he could safely assume that “fatherhood of God, brotherhood of man” offered a précis of American civil religion. Herberg suggested that the phrase communicated shared spiritual values embedded within American democracy as “one nation under God.” The United States was a nation with the soul of a church, but that soul had become the spiritual values communicated in its civic and cultural life. This is how Jews, Catholics, and Protestants could come together—moral and spiritual values of national life preceded theological identity. It was the basis for political rhetoric that appealed to “our values” as Americans.

Martin Luther King, Jr. noted the utter failure to include African-Americans under the slogan’s banner of a universal brotherhood. There was no universal brotherhood as long as African-Americans were excluded. Religion and legislation were needed because, as King asserted, “it may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.” King adopted the phrase while also questioning whether such a liberal Protestant civil religion could form the basis for American society. Instead, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King seemed to shift the ground to the moral law as an expression of the eternal and natural law of God. Fatherhood of God remained an important, albeit modified, theme, because it pointed toward a personal God who intervened in history and in whose image human beings were fashioned, making them sacred.

The phrase never set very well with some groups. As part of his argument against Protestant liberalism, J. Gresham Machen attacked the universal fatherhood of God as a kind of “vague natural religion” that could not be found in the teaching of Jesus. He lamented the evacuation of theological content in the use of fatherhood as a referent to the one God rather than the person of the Father in part because it contributed to a loss of divine transcendence. The Catholic novelists Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor seemed to concur with Machen’s distaste for such a bland formula. In Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, Ralph C. Wood summarizes O’Connor’s and Percy’s concerns: “Not only did the civil religion of the 1950s melt particularized historic faiths into a thin religious gruel; it also made even the most secular Americans into allegedly religious people.”

The utility of appeals to a universal fatherhood of God have run their course as part of public discourse. They were never entirely satisfactory with their sacrifice of Trinitarian discourse at the altar of civic engagement. The fatherhood of God must be understood in terms of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In proclaiming paternity as part of the being of God, early Christian writers like Athanasius not only pointed toward the full equality of the Son in communion with the Father but also the generative capacity and dynamism inherent to the divine being. The Father eternally moves out in love with the begetting of the Son, which is the basis for the creative act of will that spawned something from nothing.

And yet, because the Word alone is the “proper” Son of the Father, Christians proclaims that humans cannot know God as Father apart from the revelation of the Son. They must be adopted into this triune life, an adoption first annunciated in the election of Israel as the people of God. Through conformity to the Incarnate Son, redeemed human beings enter the triune generative movement from Father to Son, a movement that comes to completion in the Spirit. As Martin Luther suggests, believers “hallow” the name of the Father through words and deeds that reflect the Incarnate Son who was crucified and rose again. In repeating the Our Father, believers tap into triune rhythms and seek to conform themselves to those internal harmonies. They learn, in short, to dance with Father through the Son even as they pray in the Spirit.

There is always a temptation to evacuate Christian discourse of its theological content in the name of civil religion. While the phrase “fatherhood of God, brotherhood of man” emerged from the desire to be missional—a laudable goal—it divorced the message of justice in the kingdom of God from the center of the Christian message, namely, the identity of the God into whose name all are baptized. It has taken the renaissance of Trinitarian studies over the past several decades to recover that triune identity.

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