Looper Column: America’s Different Faith (and It is Not Islam) – Life-style – Aurora Advertiser – Aurora, MO
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According to the Pew Research Center, 70% of Americans identify as Christian. This includes evangelical Protestants who, along with Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, form the largest bloc of American Christianity.
The next largest religious bloc in Pew’s study is Judaism, which makes up a little less than 2% of the population. Then Islam, which is less than 1%. Some have argued that the second largest bloc that dwarfs both Judaism and Islam are those who identify as “nothing special”. They make up about 16% of the total population.
However, it is questionable whether the “nothing special” form a religious bloc. It’s like giving a catalog number to an empty space on my bookcase. However, there is another religious group that is much larger and more influential than any of the above, with the possible exception of Christianity.
In contrast to the “nothing special” group, this block clearly meets the criteria to be considered a religious group, although it is completely overlooked by Pew and most sociologists. This group has no official structure or hierarchy, but it appeals to a god, has a historical narrative (or mythology, as some believe), and worships its saints.
This religion has received various names over the years, but the one Rousseau used the longest before the American Revolution is “civil religion.” According to sociologist Robert Bellah, Rousseau outlined the simple dogma of civil religion as follows: “The existence of God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice and the exclusion of religious intolerance.”
Isn’t this civil religion just Christianity by another name? Not at all. While civil religion recognizes a sovereign God active in the affairs of nations, it does not recognize him as the Father of Jesus. Nor does it confess Jesus as Lord, which is the basic premise of biblical Christianity. Interestingly, every American president in history has mentioned God in an inaugural address. Nobody mentioned Jesus Christ.
This does not mean that none of our presidents were Christian, but it does suggest that they viewed civil religion as publicly acceptable but Christianity as a private matter. They speak freely of God and ask for his blessing at the end of their speeches, but is it the God of Jesus whom they invoke?
The American version of the civil religion (there are others) borrows freely from Judaism and Christianity. His metanarrative is based on the biblical story. It shows an oppressed people like Abraham’s descendants in Egypt (think Europe) who are liberated and find their way to the Promised Land (America) which becomes a “city on a hill” and a light that shines in the darkness shines and a better way to the world.
This idea led Ben Franklin to propose that Moses on the seal of the United States raise his staff and part the Red Sea. Thomas Jefferson wanted it to show the Children of Israel led by the cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. This is significant because Franklin was not an Orthodox Christian and Jefferson was not a Christian at all. They believed in God, but they did not confess Jesus to be Lord.
The appropriation of Christian subjects through civil religion has created great confusion for many Americans who believe they are Christians because of their belief in “God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice.” But Ben Franklin’s creed does not make a person a Christian. Belief in Jesus does.
Civil religion has often legitimized expansionism. His god of providence – the one Bob Dylan called “God on our side” – has declared an “overt fate” that will sanction the removal of all obstacles, including indigenous peoples, and allow preventive action against all threats, including people of other religions . Currently, this also includes Muslims. Christians may also take part in the future.
Belief in Jesus and belief in the God of civil religion lead to different results. Faith in Jesus leads to an all-encompassing spiritual formation that brings with it a way of life – a way of life of Jesus. Civil religion lacks this coherence. Unable to bring a lifestyle, it offers only a weak influence on power.
Shayne Looper is a pastor at Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog “The Way Home” is on shaynelooper.com.