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Civic Religion for Political and Personal Gain

My degree at BIOLA had an emphasis in Political Science. The department head was (shocker!) a Democrat, at an institution where the vast majority of students and professors were Republican.

Dr. Peters not only was the head of department and a professor at BIOLA, but he also served on the city of La Mirada’s city council and as mayor for several terms. His teaching was effective because he didn’t just have academic knowledge, but practical experience. Another reason for his effectiveness is that he delicately challenged students’ worldviews on different topics. Given the background of many Evangelical students, this was the first time many of us had been exposed to more liberal political views. In one of my classes, Dr. Peters split the class into groups in which pairings were to argue in favor of or against controversial issues such as abortion and marijuana use. It required examining an issue from all perspectives and learning why people would have opposite views.

Later I went to graduate school at Cal State Fullerton, whose Political Science Department would not hire a single Republican and had just one Libertarian on staff. The rest were proudly and vocally Democrats. So, I had the opportunity to learn from Dr. Peters who was more interested in teaching students to think for themselves and evaluate difficult topics versus those trying to inculcate students to their own views. While I disagreed with some of Dr. Peter’s political views during my undergraduate years, he was by far the more effective professor.

One of the most impactful lessons I learned from him was in an introductory class that discussed civil/civic religion. Not being raised here, I hadn’t observed or experienced much of this in the US yet, but the concept was fascinating.

What’s civic/civil religion you may ask?

Civil religion, also referred to as a civic religion, is the implicit religious values of a nation, as expressed through public rituals, symbols (such as the national flag), and ceremonies on sacred days and at sacred places (such as monuments, battlefields, or national cemeteries). It is distinct from churches, although church officials and ceremonies are sometimes incorporated into the practice of civil religion.”

Examples of civic religion include:

  • the invocation of God in political speeches and public monuments;

  • the quotation of religious texts on public occasions by political leaders;

  • the veneration of past political leaders;

  • the use of the lives of these leaders to teach moral ideals;

  • the veneration of veterans and casualties of a nation's wars;

  • religious gatherings called by political leaders;

  • the use of religious symbols on public buildings;

  • the use of public buildings for worship;

  • founding myths and other national myths

Since taking this class in about 2001, I’ve carefully observed the use of civic religion in the US, and how expertly it is wielded in the political sphere. Most commonly, I see it used to ingratiate oneself and build support amongst voters, donors, and supporters. On the flip side, it is also used to shame and silence those who raise valid concerns and objections to an issue by denigrating them as “unpatriotic.”

Okay, but how does this impact our daily lives? It does on every level.

Consider military contracts. Items purchased by the US military cost many times what they would on the open market. If one raises this issue of wasteful spending, the accusation is that you don’t support our troops and want to cut their funding.

Like in any workplace, individuals who have had a long tenure can grow complacent. As was described to me by an active duty military officer, it’s common for those who have served 20 years (long enough to get their pension) to “check out,” and pass of their duties to subordinates. This is not to disparage the many hard-working members of the military, yet it’s a known issue, but one that can’t be touched with a 10-foot pole for fear of being labeled insubordinate and unpatriotic.

Consider every presidential speech you have ever seen on TV. I have never seen one that does not end with some version of God bless you and God bless America. Have you ever considered why this might be? It’s a direct effort to appeal to the religious beliefs of many Americans and to attain their confidence through utilizing a religious invocation, whether the president believes those words or not.

Another example would be founding myths and national myths. Often, Christian politicians quote America’s founding fathers, attributing their own Christian beliefs to these founders, despite ample evidence that many of the founding fathers were not Christians in any orthodox form.. If you break the founding fathers into 3 categories, the smallest group were Deists, the 2nd were Christians, and the 3rd held views which were a mix of Deism and Christianity that rejected the supernatural and miracles. Yet, US politicians continue to justify their actions and votes based on myths of what the founding fathers believed and intended for America.

If you watch current events closely, you’ll identify numerous other examples, particularly with President Trump and support of him by many far right-wing Evangelicals that espouse old myths, create new ones, and utilize faith based language to justify support for the president and his policies. One excellent resource that I follow is run by John Fea (Ph.D, Stony Brook University, 1999) Distinguished Professor of American History at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania) on his website, www.thewayofimprovement, that weekly catalogs such incidents of the “Court Evangelicals” as he’s termed it.

Some other recent examples of leaders utilizing civic religion for their own means include:

To be clear, political leaders should not be expected to leave their faith at the doorstep when they are working, as if it were possible to shed a faith skin. Os Guinness provides a thoughtful explanation of this in his book, The Global Public Square, arguing that a person’s faith informs their decisions and world view as a policy maker. Despite robust protections to maintain the separation of church and state in the US, civic religion undermines these freedoms and constrains open and honest dialogue on many difficult issues facing our nation. The real problems occur when policy makers wield faith and civic religion as tools for political or personal gain, and at times go so far as to intentionally alienate those citizens who do not share their beliefs.

Faith expressed in the public square can be a force for unity, but also one of hatred and violence. If we were to remove the language of civic religion, then we could discuss more seriously how to actually help members of the US armed forces, how to address immigration, how to address education, and so much more. My hope is that more Americans, of all religious backgrounds, will reject the platitudes of civic religion, and insist that logic, science, and truth be used to discuss public policy. Until this changes, I foresee no real improvement in our current polarized political system.

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Naomi Winebrenner
Naomi Winebrenner
10 sept 2020

"The real problems occur when policy makers wield faith and civic religion as tools for political or personal gain, and at times go so far as to intentionally alienate those citizens who do not share their beliefs."

They do it because it works. We keep voting for the people who do this. I honestly don't see a way out of it. Politicians who opt out of this stupid game just don't get elected.

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