American Civil Religion vs. True Christianity

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In my previous post, “The Only Martyr’s Death Worth Dying,” I began to explore differences that exist between true Christian faith and the mishmash we often practice in America. A fancy word for this melange exists, syncretism, which is the blending of two different ideas or practices into one. Often those ideas or practices are contradictory, yet the practitioner cannot recognize the inherent contradictions.

Nowhere is this syncretism more apparent than in America. The narrative of our country and the narrative of the Kingdom of God have syncretized so profoundly that the religion far too many self-proclaimed Christians in America practice isn’t true Christianity at all but something I like to call American Civil Religion.

God, Guns & Guts

How this ties into my previous post is that most people who oppose Christianity in America are not haters of true Christianity but of American Civil Religion. Where this is sad for the American Church is that most people cannot tell the difference. They think American Civil Religion (ACR) IS true Christianity.

Part of that confusion is due to the syncretism that spawned ACR. Because some elements of true Christianity are sprinkled throughout ACR, it looks like a twin, but to people who are discerning, the differences are stark.

The funny thing about ACR is that many who embody it are also quick to talk about “another Gospel,” as in this passage:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
—Galatians 1:6-9

Yet which gospel do we Americans actually affirm?

Here are six distinctions between American Civil Religion and true Christianity:

1. Bogeymen

ACR lives and dies by its bogeymen. Someone or something must be opposed and feared. The current president. Illegal aliens. Communism. Tyranny. Standardized testing in schools. Homosexuals. Liberals. Socialists. Blacks. Whites. Jews. Muslims. Middle East dictators. Loss of values. Loss of freedoms. Loss of rights. There is always a threatening bogeyman or two, and this galvanizes those enmeshed in ACR. It’s almost a lifeblood element.

Unlike some of the items on this list, true Christianity does not have an analogous issue. The closest bogeyman the true Christian gets is Satan. Like the decapitated rattlesnake in its death throes that can still bite by reflex, Satan is not safe, but for the true Christian, he is a defeated opponent. And defeated opponents make for lousy bogeymen. The Bible reminds us that our respect and awe are reserved for God alone, and when we abide in Christ, Satan has no power over us. Fearing bogeymen is not a concern for the true Christian. If anything, when ACR’s bogeymen are actual people and groups, the true Christian is called to show love to those bogeymen and pray for them.

2. Fear

Because bogeymen play so well into the ACR narrative, fear must result. Fear is ever-present in the heart of ACR practitioners. They will know they are ACR by their fear.

But true Christians understand that fear and faith don’t mix. The perfect love of God casts out all fear. The true Christian cannot be a slave to fear because he or she abides in Christ. And what can assail Christ? Nothing and no one. They will know they are Christians by their love.

3. Loss

People enmeshed in ACR are obsessed with loss. In America, the ACR narrative forever talks about loss of rights, freedoms, our “Christian heritage,” and so on. Yet above these is the greatest loss of all for ACR proponents: loss of control. Again, this plays into fear.

True Christian faith recognizes that there is nothing to lose because everything has been lost already. “You have died, and your life is now hidden in Christ,” writes the Apostle Paul. “You are not your own; you have been bought with a price,” he adds. Loss means nothing because no one and nothing can take away Jesus. Likewise, the Christian cannot be removed from Him. If anything, loss brings joy in the life of the Christian, because losing the dross of the world means more room to gain Christ.

4. God & ____________

ACR is forever pairing God with something or someone. God & Country. God & Guns. God & Military. God & GOP. We even have a concept in American history that embodies this concept in two words: Manifest Destiny. Want to legitimize any “righteous” cause for the ACR? Pair it with God.

The true Christian avoids creating anything that forces God to share His Glory, because God will not share it, ever. The closest the true Christian gets is to abide in Christ—God & the Church, and even then God remains the sole focus of our worship.

5. Kingdoms

In ACR, it’s America first. Always. When asked their citizenship, ACR believers will respond with “America” and almost never “Heaven.” Still, kingdoms perplex ACR. “King”-anything recalls America’s revolution and smacks of tyranny. That noted, an underlying desire in many ACR proponents is to be a sort of new Kingdom of Israel here in the United States. For this reason, those enmeshed in ACR tend to quote from the Old Testament at the expense of the New in their apologetics. However, while ACR believers will quote Bible verses to support the essentials of their “faith,” those verses often have no structure to undergird the actual Kingdom of God.

In stark contrast, true Christianity recognizes the New Testament’s Kingdom of God as the framework for everything the Christian says and does. Scripture is used in a way that perpetually goes back to this Kingdom and its Now and Not Yet reality. In that reality, Christ is King and Christians are Citizens of a Heavenly Kingdom. America, as a political entity, must always be a distant second in allegiance. The Christian’s ambassadorship is for Christ and His Kingdom alone. (This is a primary area of concern for true Christianity in America because the Church here perpetually struggles with its Kingdom of God narrative, largely due to the nonstop noise coming from ACR.)

6. Self

Self is at the heart of ACR. Our way of living. Our freedoms. Our rights. Our country. Yet even in the midst of all that “our” lies a whole lot of “me.”

Selflessness is at the heart of true Christianity. The Christian esteems others better than himself. She lives for Christ, dies to self, and considers doing so a privilege. The Kingdom of God matters, and the individual Christian within it not so much. Jesus must increase and all who love Him must decrease.

It doesn’t take much effort to see the differences between ACR and true Christianity, yet few of us make the distinction. People who don’t know God can’t make this distinction at all, and this should concern those of us who don’t want to perpetuate ACR. When ACR is mistaken for true Christian faith and practices, everyone loses.

None of this is to say that you and I can’t be Christians and Americans too. Nor does it imply that we can’t be “rah-rah America.” National pride does not negate Christian belief or vice versa. It’s a matter of allegiance. For the Christian, the allegiance is to Christ, and nothing can supercede this. The true Christian’s real citizenship is not in any earthly political entity but in an unseen one in which the Lord rules.

If this post makes you mad, consider that you’re mad because our American Civil Religion is so engrained in everything we say, do, and live in America. Consider that ACR is a false gospel based on fear. Consider its selfishness. Consider that it obfuscates true Christianity. Consider that perhaps it’s what non-Christians hate most of all. Consider that ACR has become your faith and mine instead of true Christianity.

Then, do something about it.

24 thoughts on “American Civil Religion vs. True Christianity

  1. Over the past few years the constant din about the latest and greatest bogeyman has felt wrong. I was thinking it was more of a problem with the western church, but I never made the connection to it being a false gospel in its own right. Thanks for putting words what has been bothering me for some time now.

  2. Diane Roberts

    Wonderful, wonderful post today, Dan!

    I would like to define the two religions by adding two words:
    Nationalism-basically ACR. This is what Germany and Japan implemented in the 1930s and it led to WWII.

    Patriotism-what you defined in your next to last paragraph and the position Christians should,be taking.

  3. Craig Schuler

    “Then, do something about it.”

    Are there any suggestions regarding what to do or how to do it? The discouragement/frustration/despair you’ve felt over your inability to locate small communities of Christ-followers wanting to live counter-culturally to ACR and other derivative forms is well-documented here. So how can these “kindred spirits” find and connect with one another outside of the blogosphere?

    • Craig,

      The context on the “do something about it” was more toward calling the individual to self-examine and see if ACR is active in his or her own thinking and practice, but here are my thoughts:

      1. Self-examine. Is ACR active in your own life? Recognizing ACR is half the battle.

      2. Shine light on the darkness. I would bring ACR to the attention of those who promulgate it. Graciously point it out and share why you believe it is harmful and why true Christianity is the answer. Be an apologist for true Christianity.

      3. Don’t let others blithely equate ACR with true Christianity. When someone makes a statement that equates ACR with true Christianity, don’t let it slide. Point out why ACR is not true Christianity. This is especially important when dealing with unbelievers. The only way to counteract the poison they’ve heard/seen is with the truth.

      4. Know why the Bible makes it clear that ACR and true Christianity are not the same. Nothing beats knowing and understanding the errors of oppositional thinking.

      5. Work to distance true Christianity from ACR. Do what you can to make sure you don’t accidentally reinforce ACR in front of others. Be a stereotype breaker.

      6. Counter fear. Christians in the U.S. have become Chicken Littles. Gently rebuke that mentality when you encounter it.

      7. Counter the bogeyman mentality. This connects with #6. Problems start when ACR believers create a bogeyman and then wrap him/her/them/it in a shroud of fear. Gently rebuke the tendency of humans to create enemies. I hope this doesn’t sound like a cliché, but when someone who claims to be a Christian espouses fear of someone or some group, I inevitably add, “Didn’t Jesus say to love your enemies and pray for them? So you’re praying this person/group, right? And serving him/her/it/them when you get the opportunity?” I would keep doing that, not in a smug way, but as a genuine set of concerned questions.

      8. Learn to model dying. One aspect of this that concerns me greatly centers around Rev. 12:11:

      “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony; and they loved not their life even unto death.”

      This is almost a lost cause verse in American Christianity. We love our lives to death. We don’t love not our lives even unto death. When individuals within the group are not afraid to die, it strengthens the weak who otherwise would be afraid. We are not there in the American Church, and we need to be. Someone needs to model this. ACR runs rampant because we love our lives too much. ACR exists because people are afraid to die. ACR is the last gasp of people who refuse to let go. It’s the old nature holding on to the bitter end. Be the person who knows how to die.

      Those are my suggestions. I know they don’t address the group much, but I believe all this starts with individuals who change their way of thinking and living by rejecting and going on the offensive against ACR. If enough individuals reject ACR and point out its errors, the better we all will be.

      Thanks for the question. I hope my answer helps.

  4. Nate

    These are great distinctions that need to be made loud and clear.

    I really like this particular one: where as ACR is constantly trying to hold onto something that is being lost by us as a nation,

    “True Christian faith recognizes that there is nothing to lose because everything has been lost already. “You have died, and your life is now hidden in Christ,” writes the Apostle Paul.”

    Yes. Trying to hold onto some idyllic, fading American Way is just another way of trying to “find your life.” Which always results in losing it.

    • Nate,

      Indeed. I find myself appalled at the desperation to hold on, because I understand it, feel the nostalgia in it, and find it at work in my own life. At the same time, I understand how unreal it is and always has been.

  5. Aussiejohn

    Dan,

    Thank you for both this and the previous article. Although I find all of your writing thought provoking, these two are special.

    Everything you say is true of Australia. Just change the name “America” to “Australia” and your article hits the nail on the head here.

    • Aussiejohn,

      Great to hear from you. I feel blessed that you still read this blog from time to time.

      Even the borders can’t stop misguided über-nationalism.

      And I must apologize in advance that when I think of an Australian equivalent to the “Ugly American” sometimes embodied in ACR, Monty Python’s “Bruces” sketch comes to mind. Maybe you have something more apt you can share.

  6. Thanks for the excellent work on ACR. Your essay has helped Me with a sermon series planned for upcoming weeks. I posted a note about your essay at my new blog–undercover because I’m a little Leery that some of my ideas might jeapordize my Through-the-week job; On the other hand, No great effort should be required on your part to figure out who is doing the blogging over there. Peace, and keep up the good work, brother.

    • Elijah,

      Prayed for you and your sermons. I’m sure the series will be transforming for the hearers.

      Nice blog domain, BTW. Reminds me of something I wrote a few months back.

      Blessings.

  7. I came to your site to read a GFA posting and, as a long time supporter, share the grief and loss of an imploding ministry. However I also came to this article and agree….we have so diminished the potential of God’s power thru wrong focus . You might like my article: “Gun Control, Drug Control, God Control…Making the Devil Laugh” http://www.theburninglamp.com

    • Thanks, Lisa. I hope you stay around and contribute to the conversation here. This is one of the longest-lived Christian blogs, and a lot of solid people comment here. We hope you will be one of them.

      And yes, I share your disappointment with what’s happening with GfA. This I do know, though: The people low in its ranks are still toiling for the Gospel. Let’s hope the leadership cleans up its issues.

  8. Mark

    Great article, very well done. Two books you might enjoy. New Book by C. B. Wolfmueller called “Has American Christianity failed ?” and an old book by Jon Meachm, “American Gospel.”

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