Book about civil religion absolutely fooled me!

American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present
By Philip Gorski
Princeton University Press, 2017, 320 pages

As readers of this blog are aware, I’m not a big fan of “Christian nationalism” or “civil religion.” By Christian nationalism, I’m referring to the popular belief among many evangelicals that America was founded as a Christian nation and is understood to be in a covenant relationship with God in ways that parallel God’s covenant relationship with ancient Israel, and that it is up to Christian Americans to protect and preserve America’s status as a Christian nation via politics. Jerry Falwell, Sr. may have been the most famous apostle of Christian nationalism and current purveyors include his son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress, and Franklin Graham.

As for civil religion, one source defines it as “the folk religion of a nation, often involving ritual expressions of patriotism. It is frequently given merit by leaders within a society, for example with the invocation of God in political speeches or religious references relating to patriotic holidays” (see here). In American civil religion, citizens are united under a nebulous, generic Supreme Being, with good citizenship and service to country being the highest ideals.

I recently stumbled across this book on our local library’s on-line catalog and thought it would be a nice, big, juicy critique of civil religion. Argh, was I ever wrong! Gorski cites the increasing polarization in this country between Christian nationalists and radical secularists and concludes the only desirable path forward is civil religion.

This book is chock full of acadamese and is dry as a bone. I’m thinking I deserve a gold medal from the library for sticking it out to the end. The only “saving grace” was that the notes, bibliography, and index consumed 90 of the 320 pages. In those rare moments when my eyes weren’t glazing over, I did pick up on the following:

  • Early American Protestant ministers preached a type of American covenantalism that was even more radical than I had previously understood. I did appreciate the portion of the book that analyzed how early Americans collectively saw themselves as God’s chosen people.
  • American covenantalism led to the notion of American exceptionalism and entitlement, which then led to all kinds of abuses.
  • The author erroneously paints all evangelical Christians as unreasonable religious nationalists in the mold of Falwell, Jeffress, etc.
  • For civil religion to succeed, the author argues that people mustn’t take their personal, private religion too seriously (i.e., sectarianism).
  • Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. are touted as exemplary civil religionists. The greatest goals of civil religion are a united and responsible citizenry and the pursuit of social justice.

I’m of a mind that both Christian nationalism and civil religion are incompatible with Biblical Christianity. Yes, God’s Word exhorts believers to be good citizens, but the reason for that is so that the Gospel may be unhindered, NOT that we may become neck-deep in nationalism. I understand that Christians have been debating precisely what good citizenship entails for two-thousand years, but it’s demonstrably easy to see that we’ve gotten it wrong over most of that span. I’m of the opinion that conservative evangelicalism took a wrong turn back in the 70s and 80s when it put the Gospel on the back burner and immersed itself in politics and culture wars. But I’m also very confident that the path forward for Christians is not Gorski’s impersonal civil religion.

24 thoughts on “Book about civil religion absolutely fooled me!

  1. Funny, I was trying to figure out a thought on this when you popped in at my place, Tom. As I have said before, this tends to be a quandary for me in a lot of ways. My background and experience has formed me into a pretty staunch patriot; yet I clearly understand that this is not part of my faith, either. Sometimes I struggle with the balance. It’s also hard her in the South where the two are wrapped up like people playing Twister, if you know what I mean. Patriotism is part of our culture, and runs really deep. Yet, too many link it to the churches and it gets messy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comments, Wally. The proper relationship between church and state has always been a tough one. The notion that America was God’s chosen or special nation was preached from the pulpits for 300 years and this post would be interpreted as blasphemy by many because that notion is so ingrained. I know from your previous comments that you don’t agree with the notion of America being God’s chosen nation. Patriotism is a different topic. I know a democratic republic can’t function properly unless its citizens are committed to a degree. I think Christian citizens should view their temporal affiliations differently than unbelievers, but that’s going to differ by individual and by region as you mention. There’s no right answer to this, but I think the church erred greatly by linking faith with patriotism. I know I think less nationalistically than I used to, but I still appreciate this country. What bothers me personally is when American Christians join with religious unbelievers in venerating a nameless supreme being that’s acceptable to everyone. That’s the currency of civil religion. I always appreciate your weighing in on this topic.

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  2. Well, your local library may never deliver, so consider yourself gold medaled from all of us here, Tom!!! Lol. . . I never would have made it to the end of this book!! So thank you for sharing the gist of it with us, and for your pithy summary. I agree with you, and I’ll add that God only made a covenant with ONE nation, ever — the nation of Israel. That was the “old covenant,” and thankfully Jesus ushered in the “new covenant” through His death. … of course, the United States is a pretty cool place to live and has a GREAT constitution that has served us well for over 250 years, but this whole Christian Nationalism thing is a bit weird. So thanks again for your post. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the kind comments, Lisa! I’m very grateful to live in this country where we can worship freely. Yes, Christians in America went down the wrong path when they began touting the nation as the new Israel. But of course that was the belief from the start with the Puritans. As for civil religion, we really aren’t “one nation under God” because the vast majority of citizens are not born again in Christ. There’s a temptation for Christians to get sucked into civil religion because it’s so pervasive and has such a long history. Whoops, you got me on my soapbox again! 😊

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  3. 1.) “I’m thinking I deserve a gold medal from the library for sticking it out to the end.”

    2.) “I’m of a mind that both Christian nationalism and civil religion are incompatible with Biblical Christianity”
    Believe it or not I say “Amen!”

    3.) I was anticipating your review of this book for some time! So I’m glad this finally got posted!

    4.) I don’t know if I’ll be reading this anytime soon just as I’m swamped with so much readings I need to do I haven’t even gotten around to writing reviews!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yup, your comment was in my spam folder. Sorry about that and thanks for the heads up and comments!

      Argh! This book was a bear to read but had some valuable information. The author unintentionally made some points for me with his problematic-for-evangelicals pro-civil religion stance. I realize my views on Christian nationalism and civil religion run counter to the established order. I think my old fundamentalist Baptist pastor’s constant regurgitation of Falwellisms started it all. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve seen some Fundamentalist circle emphasize so much of Americanism and Republican partisanship that I too have been turned off, where the doctrines are super weak but the juicy details of tabloid level dirt of the Democrats are emphasized more. That turns me off, really…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think I mentioned to you before that when I’m channel surfing and I come across Robert Jeffress’ show on TBN I know I can’t even stop for a few seconds.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Whew! I hope WordPress would restore my commenting ability for other blogs as more people “unspam” me. Strange how it does that; I think its from posting comments too quickly they think its a machine maybe

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review, brother! I hate it when a book surprises me in a bad way. But I’m so thankful for your review. Politics was such an idol for me before being saved, it’s hard for me not to be weary of anything political. I know we need to be educated citizens, but I’m much more concerned with my citizenship in heaven. Between study, prayer, devotion, and listening to teachers and preachers…who has space for any extra information?
    On the other hand, those who follow the “old paths” need to be aware that we follow Gods Word and not fallible man. The early American preachers were just as much fallen men as the preachers of today. We ought to read them as such, sadly many can quote more Edwards and Whitefield than they can the Bible. The way is narrow…there’s ditches on either side. Praise God, He gave us one another to help when we fall, and to guide us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the good comments, sister. I have some Christian friends who are VERY caught up in politics and nationalism, to the point that they become quite emotional and argumentative about the subject. To me, that is taking on the attitude of an unbeliever who has deep roots in and deep affection for the temporal, just as you describe.

      Liked by 1 person

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