“Civic Religion”? Count Me Out

I didn’t attend the big “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington over the weekend, nor did I watch any of the proceedings.  But what I’ve read about it gives me some serious concerns.

There was apparently a great deal of religious talk at the rally, amidst all the other political rhetoric.  There were calls for people to “return to God” in order to effect certain changes in our nation’s policies.  Several speakers described the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as “sacred texts”.  There were also comments about how “our faith has driven us to become the greatest people the world has ever known”, and how we “must restore the faith that once guided us.”

Those kinds of expressions are typically described as part of American “civic religion”, a quasi-faith in our nation and our Constitutional order.  They are not unusual in modern politics — and certainly have been common throughout our history.

Now, I think it can be fairly said that I’m a pretty patriotic person.  I love my country, and I hate to see it criticized, especially from abroad.  I fly the flag every day, I serve in my state’s military forces, and I’m a proud Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus — the patriotic degree of our order.  Several times, I have worked in government positions that have required me to swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”, and I have always been glad to do so, with no mental reservations.  I get all teary-eyed when reading the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address.

I also believe that it is a requirement of my Catholic faith that I respect and honor my nation.  Patriotism is a form of piety, and is mandated by the Fourth Commandment.  As the Catechism says, “The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.” (2239)

But when we start talking about our country in overtly religious terms, as if our founding documents are somehow part of revelation, or as if the United States is a holy nation of divine institution, then I start to get nervous.

Perhaps I’m hyper-sensitive, and this is just another of my strange obsessions.  I certainly don’t cast aspersions on the good will and patriotism of anyone who observed or spoke at that rally.  And, to be honest, I would probably agree with much of the political agenda proposed at the rally.

But this kind of language, to my ears, starts to come alarmingly close to the sin of idolatry, and I will have nothing to do with it.

In the early years of Christianity, the “civic religion” of emperor-worship was a significant problem for the Church.  Many, many saints were tortured and put to death because they wouldn’t offer even the token sacrifice to the emperor, because they rightly saw that as idolatry.  They refused to be disloyal to the true King, the one whose empire was founded on the Cross.  They were much more concerned about being citizens of the City of God, rather than the City of Man.

Here’s how that played out in the case of the glorious St. Perpetua:

Another day as we were at meal we were suddenly snatched away to be tried; and we came to the forum… And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying: “Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child.” And Hilarian the procurator… said: “Spare your father’s gray hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors’ prosperity.” And I answered: “I am a Christian.” And when my father stood by me yet to cast down my faith, he was bidden by Hilarian to be cast down and was smitten with a rod. And I sorrowed for my father’s harm as though I had been smitten myself; so sorrowed I for his unhappy old age. Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts; and cheerfully we went down to the dungeon.

I love my nation.  But I’m sure that Byzantines loved their Empire, the Franks loved theirs, and the Romans loved theirs.  Those nations all passed away, into the dustbin of history.   Sad as I am to say it, the United States is not an entity of divine origin, and will someday pass away.  The Lord never promised that “the powers of death shall not prevail against it”. (Mt. 16:18)

We can, and must, love our country.  We must respect our laws, take an active part in public life, promote the common good, and bring our religious values into the public square to advocate for policies that defend human life and dignity.

But St. Perpetua had it right.  We must not do anything that would treat our nation as a graven image.

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6 Responses to ““Civic Religion”? Count Me Out”

  1. Ralph Mitchell says:

    Ed,

    I would like to have the opportunity to change your mind about the Restoring Honor Rally. First, the love of country and the restoration of prayer in the public square, in our homes and in our schools so we can individually restore our sonship to God and to reconnect our country to the words \One Nation Under God\ are the main objectives of the rally. Ed, my main rebuttal to your assessment is the restoration of a real application of \One Nation Under God\. These words do not bring us closer to worshiping an emperor. These words bring us closer to God and bring us closer to One Nation, whose individual citizens share a common adherence to the Principles and Values derived from Natural Law. Ed, please reconsider your assessment. Trust me, our Catholic religion including the more liberal Catholic elements of \Catholic Colleges\ and liberal clergy and liberal lay and religious can benefit from an honest consideration of the religious passions that are continuing to be liberated and practiced as a result of the Restoring Honor Rally. Below is an assessment of a Catholic Deacon who was at the rally.

    http://www.catholic.org/national/national_story.php?id=38033

    Sincerely,
    Your faithful Catholic reader of your Varia column,

    Ralph Mitchell

  2. Ed Mechmann says:

    My unease about the rhetoric at the Rally really isn’t about the political views expressed (if anything, I agree with them), or the call to moral renewal (I heartily agree with that), or the idea that virtuous and holy people will make better public policies (that’s what I try to do for a living), or the notion that our nation is “under God” (I believe that with all my heart). If that’s all the rally was about, then I’m all for it.

    My concern comes from what I saw in the videos and transcripts — an echo of a strain in American religious thought that you see particularly in some parts of Protestantism, but also among some Catholics as well. It’s a phenomenon of both the left and the right. They speak of America as if it were the Church, or the Kingdom of God, an entity of divine institution. That, in my view, is dangerously close to idolatry, and it distracts us from the truths of our faith. The purpose of our faith — including our doctrines about morals — is not to serve as a means to the end of enacting a better set of laws or building a “better world”.

    The purpose of our faith is to help us fall in love with God, and thus to accept His offer of eternal life.

    In this area, I am very mindful of the strategy of Uncle Screwtape, which serves as a warning to people like me, who are intensely interested in politics, and who seek to bring religious values to bear in the public square:

    Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”… Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours — and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here…

    God bless!

  3. Ralph Mitchell says:

    Ed,

    Please take the time to watch the entire Restoring Honor Rally. Then, I would like you to consider the following. Let’s face it and be honest. We Catholics including many of our Bishops have become politically correct to the point where our silence from the pulpit, from our parents, from our Catholic schools, and from our Catholic politicians have left our young people with a very murky culture where young people do not realize that it is sinful to have sex outside of marriage, that homosexual sex is wrong, and that many of our Catholic politicians are behaving shamelessly hypocritical in the public square. What is the result of this politically correct Catholicism? Recent generations of young Catholics have been raised with a lukewarm fervor by their Catholic leaders. Watch the tape of the Rally and Weigh your concerns against the positive benefits of Openly bringing God into the Public Square. Ed, our young people are watching us everyday. Maybe you can eventually agree that the open passions of “One Nation Under God” of the Rally are more beneficial than the Lukewarm way that we are silent about our political correct behavior that we Catholics having been exhibiting to our young people.

  4. Ed Mechmann says:

    As I have said, I have no problem whatsoever with a more robust assertion of religious principles as they apply to the public policy issues of our age. Nor do I have a problem with religious people becoming more ardent in their advocacy for just and moral political positions. I just have an issue with people who seem to treat the State as if it were the Church, or the Kingdom of God. True conservatism recognizes the real limits of policy making, and keeps first things first.

    William Buckley used to warn against “immanatizing the eschaton”, in other words, trying to bring the end times (the New Heavens and Earth) into the present day world. The Catechism, at no. 676, has a pretty stern warning about this kind of thinking.

  5. Ralph Mitchell says:

    Ed,

    Please realize that keeping Catholicism under a rock is a grave sin. I believe that Glenn Beck is truly following the Holy Spirit with his Restoring Honor and Prayer. Please join us in busting the doors open and demonstrating to our young Catholics that a lay person such as Glenn Beck is a product of his listening to the Holy Spirit through prayer. Let’s use Glenn Beck’s rally as a teachable example of the expression that “All Things are Possible with God.” Please consider putting this concept on the tip of your tongue instead of your other issue with people who seem to treat the State as if it were the Church. Please purge your summary of the Restoring Honor and Prayer rally as people who seem to treat the State as if it were the Church. Ed, this is a very distorted view of what truly is a product of the work of the Holy Spirit right before our eyes.

  6. Ed Mechmann says:

    I’m not disagreeing with you about the need for Church leaders, Catholics and all people of faith to be more assertive. I’m totally on board with that.

    But I’m just skeptical about Mr. Beck being a prophet. The Holy Spirit is undoubtedly speaking to Mr. Beck, as he is to all of us. It may be presumptuous of me to say so, but I would imagine that the Holy Spirit is much more interested in entreating Mr. Beck to return to the true faith into which he was baptized (i.e., the Catholic faith from which he has unfortunately apostasized).