3. US Civil Religion: Heretical and Blasphemous

Third Post in a Blog Series on the Christian Right

This series of posts on The Christian Right includes excerpts from my new book, The Cross in the Midst of Creation: Following Jesus, Engaging the Powers, Transforming the World. If you Contact me with the words “free chapter,” I will send you a free chapter of the book.

US Civil Religion: Heretical and Blasphemous

Congressional hearings on the Capitol insurrection have included the actions of Secret Service staff on January 6th and their actions leading up to and following those events. Yesterday’s hearing brought up the Secret Service’s role in forcibly clearing peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020.

On June 1, 2020, then-president Donald Trump walked from the White House through nearby Lafayette Park to Saint John’s Church, accompanied by an entourage of senior administration officials. Just minutes before, federal police had used tear gas to clear peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors from the park and churchyard, along with clergy and laity from other churches who had come out to bring them water and snacks. After the police drove them out, the president posed on the church steps for a photograph of him holding up the Bible, surrounded by his entourage. “We have a great country,” he said. “Greatest country in the world.”

The photo op apparently backfired. The media scrutinized this use of the Bible “as a prop” designed to gain religious sanction for Trump’s policies. Many Christians denounced it, including the Right Reverend Mariann Budde, Episcopal bishop of the diocese that includes Saint John’s Church. Some called it fascist. But among his base, which includes over half of white US Christians, many approved of this display as a symbol of God and country. Several influential leaders aligned with the Christian Right affirmed his actions, including Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham; Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress; David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network; president of the Congress of Christian Leaders Johnnie Moore; and Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

These divergent views about this incident at Saint John’s Church highlight the theological and political divisions among US Christians that parallel the extreme social divisions in US society. The demonstrators, with support from churchgoers, were passionately but peacefully taking a stand for racial justice in the face of white supremacy and systemic racism. The authorities were asserting their dominant role through violence, then using the Bible, a sacred symbol, to indicate divine approval for their actions.

This staged event was done crudely, but such linking of God and country has been part of US civil religion since the beginning of the colonization of the Americas and throughout our nation’s history up to this present time. Religious language and symbols, including the Bible and the cross, have been used to enact the Doctrine of Discovery, which proclaimed God’s blessing on colonization, to initiate and support the slave trade, to promote the idea of “American exceptionalism,” to sanctify Manifest Destiny while clearing Western lands of most native inhabitants, to justify long-standing persecution of Jews and Muslims, to authorize the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps during World War II, to call for a crusade after the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center, to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment and to justify separating immigrant children from their parents.

As mentioned in my post Christian Nationalism, religious symbols including the Bible and cross were even used as religious justification for storming the Capitol. Following the events of January 6, 2021, Bishop Mariann Budde, mentioned above, said they reflected “the most heretical, blasphemous forms of Christianity.” Linking it to nation’s history, she added, “This has been part of our nativist, racist Christian past from the beginning. What has been different in the Trump presidency has been the legitimization of it.”

Using religious symbols or language in these ways misleads people, misrepresents God, and fosters moral confusion. This is an example of harm caused by civil religion that links patriotism, white supremacy, and domination backed by violence with claims of God’s blessing upon the United States as a chosen (Christian) nation. This form of religious nationalism is pervasive. It is taught, practiced, and reinforced by the dominant institutions of our society, which results in the shaping of our attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs as US Americans.

By exploring these attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs and how they manifest in our personal lives, relationships, institutions, and systems, we create space around them and make possible a change of perspective leading to both personal and systemic transformation. For as Walter Wink points out, we must go further than repenting of our conscious collaboration with the powers. We must “be freed from our unconscious enthrallment as well.”

Six months before the insurrection, following the presidential photo op, Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde witnessed to what that freedom from enthrallment to the powers might look like in community: “We of the Diocese of Washington follow Jesus in his Way of love. We aspire to be people of peace and advocates of justice. In no way do we support the President’s incendiary response to a wounded, grieving nation. In faithfulness to our Savior who lived a life of nonviolence and sacrificial love, we align ourselves with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and countless others through the sacred act of peaceful protest.” To those who seek to follow Jesus and live by the Spirit, her words ring true.

In this blog series on The Christian Right, which includes excerpts from The Cross in the Midst of Creation, my goal is to bring clarity to this discussion. The other blog posts in this series will be:

  1. Christian Nationalism
  2. Two Crosses: Divided Christianity 
  3. US Civil Religion: Heretical and Blasphemous (This post)
  4. The Christian Right’s Authoritarian God
  5. The Anti-Imperial Wisdom of God

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