Over the last few years, I have heard numerous Christians claim that the death of America's old civil religion is a good thing. The basic argument seems to be that civil religion promotes hypocrisy, both individually and socially, by identifying the Christian faith with particular social or political mores. In this way, it cultivates chauvinistic attitudes detached from any vital religion. The result, a Kierkegaardian “Christendom,” is thus a travesty of biblical religion. And I have to concede that there is much truth to this claim.
I thought of these arguments recently when walking with my wife through Georgetown, the affluent and beautiful part of Washington, D.C., renowned for its university (and for the steps in the movie The Exorcist). It was June: pride month. The town was therefore predictably full of rainbow flags, reminding anyone who still believes about sex and identity what almost everyone believed until the day before yesterday that we do not belong anymore, and that we are no longer welcome even to stroll down a high street without being told that we are vicious bigots. Only Georgetown Tobacco—a place I have long regarded as the last bastion of freedom and independence on M Street—had accepted today’s equivalent of Václav Havel’s challenge and refused to indulge the liturgical tastes of the cultural commissars. No rainbow sign in that shop’s window. But it was not just the flags that struck me. More troubling was the in-your-face homoeroticism displayed on so many of the posters and advertisements throughout the neighborhood.
Years ago, when our children were small, we had a family holiday in the Netherlands. While visiting Amsterdam, we studiously avoided the red light district. If there was a place approximating hell on earth, then De Wallen was probably it. And yet we found that its excesses spilled over into other parts of the city. Frankly, we were glad to leave Amsterdam, disturbed by what we and our children had inadvertently seen. We never took them back and were grateful that, whatever Britain’s problems at the time, pornography on the streets was not one of them.
It strikes me that the old civil religion, for all its weaknesses, did exert some degree of salutary influence over public spaces and thus provided some level of protection to the children and families that use them. And it seems that rejoicing in the decline and death of civil religion is only justifiable if what replaces it does the job better. If the replacement does not do so, then such rejoicing is irresponsible. It seems clear that the replacement is not doing a better job. The old civil religion has not fallen to orthodox religion, to a vibrant Christianity; no, it has fallen to an anti-culture where anything goes and anyone who objects is villainized. In fact, I would argue that it is even worse than that: We have a new civil religion, that of the therapeutic, and it is rapidly colonizing Christianity.
One argument against the old civil religion is that it equated the Christian faith with worldly respectability and politics. But under the new civil religion, nothing has really changed. Sure, the content of the new civil religion is that of the triumph of the therapeutic dressed up in progressive garb; but it is proving just as corrupting of the Christian faith. Where once fidelity was equated with patriotism, we now see it equated with the new civic virtues. Christian fidelity is increasingly equated in many circles with social justice (as conceptualized by the progressive left), racialism (as defined by critical race theory), and new sexual identity codes (as defined by LGBTQ activists). And the cottage industry in Christian self-loathing serves merely to reinforce this. Yet the new civil religion is cruel and heartless. Among other things, it means that Christians will likely not be able to take their children for a walk along the likes of M Street without exposing them to things they do not wish them to see and facing the consequent awkward questions that no child should have to ask. And what of the social values of restraint, modesty, courtesy, and kindness? Is a society that despises such things really an improvement over the old society of American civil religion?
This new civil religion is also making rapid gains in traditional Christian communities. I recently asked whether progressives in the PCA would live up to their own rhetoric of humility. Would they listen to the concerns of the majority at their General Assembly regarding same-sex attraction, or would they decry their Christian co-laborers as ignorant bigots? The days since have offered a preliminary answer: It will be Twitter, that most therapeutic of contexts, where they pursue the matter, with all of the soundbites, caricatures, irresponsibility, and vituperation that sadly marks “Christian” use of the medium. And it will be forms of critical theory, that family of ideological instantiations of the therapeutic, that will provide the idioms of expression and the logic of argument. Civil religion is not dead. It has simply gone woke. And in the new form, as in the old, a secularized and domesticated Christianity contorts itself to appear respectable to its cultured despisers.
I, for one, mourn the death of the old civil religion. Not because I think of it as a faithful reflection of the Bible’s teaching, nor because I dismiss its serious problems and difficulties. It was far from perfect, but still a whole lot better than the chaotic moral mess that is replacing it.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.
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Photo by Bicanski via Creative Commons. Image cropped.