Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

“Something that is beyond man is happening,” said Glenn Beck at a rally two weeks ago. “America today begins to turn back to God.”

The thousands of supporters nodded in agreement, as did millions more who heard the address on television. I too wanted to agree, but I was hindered by a technical consideration: Which God are we referring to?

Joe Carter's column appears each Wednesday in On the Square Over two thousand years ago, Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” Since then all those who have heard his name have had to give an answer. Like Simon Peter, my response is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Of course, not everyone agrees, which is why Beck didn’t say, “America today begins to turn back to Jesus.”

Because his audience was comprised of many Americans who are not Christians, Beck was forced to refer to a deity we could all claim to believe in: the generic god of civil religion.

It’s ironic that someone so leery of state power would use such language. Indeed, as an amateur historian, Beck would likely be interested in the origin of the term “civil religion””and how it was developed to get Christians to shift their allegiance from Christ to the State.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, who coined the phrase in his treatise, On the Social Contract , observed that in ancient times all governments were a form of theocracy, with each nation serving its own god. States, therefore, never had religious wars since the governments “made no distinction between its gods and its laws.”

Rousseau finds the genius of the Roman Empire was its ability to absorb both the nations and their gods and transform them into one pagan religion. This changed, he claims, with the appearance of Christ. “Jesus came to set up on earth a spiritual kingdom, which, by separating the theological from the political system, made the State no longer one, and brought about the internal divisions which have never ceased to trouble Christian peoples,” he wrote.

As the new idea of a kingdom of the other world could never have occurred to pagans, they always looked on the Christians as really rebels, who, while feigning to submit, were only waiting for the chance to make themselves independent of their masters, and to usurp by guile the authority they pretended in their weakness to respect. This was the cause of the persecutions.

Rousseau claims that this division between religion and the state “made all good polity impossible in Christian States; and men have never succeeded in finding out whether they were bound to obey the master or the priest.” Political leaders tried to restore this lost ideal but failed because Christianity, which puts devotion to God above that of the State, influenced society too much.

Since the state can use religious devotion but religious devotion can equally well hinder or threaten the state’s authority, a third way was needed: civil religion. “There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles,” wrote Rousseau, “not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject.” Such belief cannot be compelled, he admitted, but those who fail to bend the knee to patriotic fervor can be banished, “not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty.”

“The dogmas of civil religion ought to be few, simple, and exactly worded, without explanation or commentary,” he added. “The existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas. Its negative dogmas I confine to one, intolerance, which is a part of the cults we have rejected.”

America has done a fine job of incorporating Rousseau’s “dogmas of civil religion,” keeping them “few, simple, and exactly worded.” We have restricted such sentiments to the most unobtrusive areas, allowing “In God We Trust’ to be printed on our coins and the phrase “under God” into our Pledge of Allegiance. We allow recognition for a “Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence.”

What we don’t allow is the recognition of the Christian God. And that is what should give Christians pause.

There is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between America’s civil religion and Christianity. If we claim that “under God” refers to the Christian conception of God, we are either being unduly intolerant or, more likely, simply kidding ourselves. Do we truly think that the Hindu, Wiccan, Muslim, or Buddhist American is claiming to be under the same deity as we are?

We can’t claim, as Paul did on Mars Hill, that the “unknown god” they are worshiping is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are very aware of the Christian conception of God, and fully reject it.

We can’t claim this in part because the Supreme Court has made it clear that it is the Christian conception of God that is being rejected in our national references. “Given the values that the Establishment Clause was meant to serve,” noted Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “I believe that government can, in a discrete category of cases, acknowledge or refer to the divine without offending the Constitution.” This category, she said, was “ceremonial deism.”

If Christians were told that the references to God were constitutional because they were referring to Allah or Vishnu we would balk. But tell us that the God we are agreeing to claim sovereignty is the god of Voltaire and Paine and Jefferson and we don’t raise a fuss. Indeed, we respond to calls to “turn back” to this very god.

Just as the pagan religion of the Roman Empire was able to incorporate other gods and give them familiar names, the civil religion lets all beliefs submit themselves to one nondescript, fill-in-the-blank term for this deist entity. We are asked to leave Christ outside the public square and bow before the god of Ceremonial Deism at its center.

But as St. Paul asked, “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?” Our God is a jealous God and he is unlikely to look favorably upon idolatry, even when it seems to advance religion and morality. While we should be as tolerant of civil religion as we are of other beliefs, we can’t justify submitting to it ourselves.

That is not to say that we can’t say the Pledge and think of the one true God. But we should keep in mind that this fight isn’t our fight and the “god” of America’s civil religion is not the God who died on the Cross.

When we enter the public square we should do so as Christians who reject civil religion yet honor what Ben Franklin called “public religion.” Michael Novak defines it as “the public’s belief in the sacredness of conscience, the importance of religious liberty, the link between religion and republican virtues, and the necessity of these virtues for the faithful and steady workings of our Constitution.”

In other words, Christians should advocate a religiously-informed public philosophy, not baptize the Rousseauean alternative.

Joe Carter is web editor of First Things .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles