When the nation is the object of one's highest concern; when national documents are considered holy scripture; when the nation's founders and historical figures are lifted to the status of demi-gods; when citizens of the nation consider themselves to be God's chosen nation, that they are especially favored by Divine Providence; when citizens conflate greatness and goodness; when patriotism becomes religion, we see civil religion at work. (See my essay "Barack Obama and the American Civil Religion" in the book The Audacity of Faith)
Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor Rally held on the Mall in Washington D.C. this past Saturday was an exercise in civil religion. In my opinion civil religion is dangerous because it is a subtle form of idolatry. The nation is ultimate. It leads us to believe that, if we live a certain piety, God will serve us by blessing us. God will bless the nation. It does not make God our ultimate concern. It does not remind us that God does not exist to serve us, but we exist to serve God. We live within a universal rather than a national moral horizon, and we ought to shape public policy to conform to universal claims of justice.
The civil religion makes national demands, including the demand that we sacrifice our lives and even the lives of our children in war. This becomes even more dangerous when we conflate the civil religion with Christianity. We forget that Jesus paid it all, that Jesus ought to have been the last blood sacrifice. We allow national wars, send our children to fight and to die, and then use the language of Christian sacrifice -- they died so we may live.
I am a Christian, and I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, Jesus is not the God of America, and the United States is not a Christian nation. To make Jesus the God of America is to make Jesus too small. To make Christianity the religion of the nation makes every citizen of any other religion or citizens who confess no religious faith second-class citizens. It would impose a religious test on elected officials (an unconstitutional de facto reality in most cases already). It would deceive us and the world into thinking that every war we fight is a Christian crusade. The United States is and ought to remain a non-sectarian republic.
Further, as Beck used the rally to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, in itself a noble thing to do, he failed to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.'s adamant nonviolence and uncompromising stance against American militarism. In his famous speech against the Vietnam War delivered April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City, he called for clergy to counsel conscientious objection.
Glenn Beck spoke of Julia Ward Howe, the woman who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Sarah Palin spoke as the mother of a combat veteran. However, Howe, disgusted by the bloodshed of the Civil War and of the Franco-Prussian War, wrote a poem that conceived of Mother's Day as a day where mothers would declare their refusal to send their children to war. Howe believed that this act by mothers could end war itself.
Beck and the speakers said much with which I agree. However, Beck demonstrated a superficial understanding of Howe and King and preached a brand of civil religion that paints a religious veneer onto patriotism, a veneer that is deceptive and corrosive to both patriotism and to religion.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.