American Civil Religion Redux

James Allen, a radio talk-show host and second- or third-tier columnist at Townhall.com, praises Glenn Beck as a “great leader” who has a “belief in a transcendent being called God.” I dissent and accuse Allen of suborning violations of the 1st Commandment.

Beck’s merits or demerits aside, my point is that belief in a generic “God” is no great virtue, but is my old nemesis “American Civil Religion,” renamed “natural religion” by Allen:

Mr. Beck not only got back to the most basic of all ideas, showing that natural religion is connected to freedom and freedom to liberty, but he also demonstrated that God is more basic than politics and philosophy is more basic than political science.

(Italics added.) My second point is that the God of “natural religion” (and in light of Romans 1, it is dubious to deny all validity to that term) is simply not the Father of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, and to worship and invoke him is, for a Christian who knows the Triune God, the sin of putting another God before the Holy Trinity as revealed now fully (Hebrews 1). It is a kind of moralistic therapeutic deism, and we’ve got too much of that already.

I have previously commented (on Facebook, I believe, rather than here) on the oddity of Mr. Beck praising the “black-robed pastors of the Revolution” because he is a Mormon (an adherent of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints®), a religion born decades after the American Revolution, in the early 19th Century, upon the premise that all the denominations then extant had incurably garbled the Christian message and that God needed to start over with Joseph Smith and some golden tablets that told the story of Jesus’ dealings with the inhabitants of North America sometime after His Nativity in the Flesh, Death, Burial, Resurrection and Ascension.

There is a dispute about whether the Mormon faith is even Christian, despite it’s use of the name of Jesus Christ and reassuring use of terms like “savior.” Suffice for now that I personally cannot endorse as “Christian” in any meaningful sense a faith that rejects the affirmations of the Nicene Creed, the fruit of the first and second Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church, and cannot even take at face value the recent efforts of Mormons to be accepted as an unequivocally Christian faith in light precisely of their foundational rejection of what other Christians have historically believed. Basically, I’m saying “You thought we were a bunch of misled sheep. When did that belief change and why? Do you think we’ve become crypto-Mormon now? Or do you perhaps think your own founder was wrong?”

Enough for that little detour. It’s not entirely detour, however, because it illustrates how Mr. Allen is blurring lines:

Truths stated on the Lincoln Memorial that day encouraged America to return to God and these truths are at the core of the very reason that this country declared its existence. Mr. Beck reminded us that these truths are universal and that all political parties can share them. The cause of our countries (sic) decline is not Democrats or Republicans, but the belief that government can replace God as well as personal responsibility.

[T]here are truths which are clear to all men apart from Scripture and it is those universal truths to which all men are accountable and which provide a common ground for each citizen and political party … God holds us responsible for what we can know through the light of nature, and so we educate ourselves and our children in order to have and keep the blessings of self-governance in light of what is clear about God.

I am strongly attracted to the concept of Natural Law, but I don’t think that its serious proponents would ever claim that it provides any comprehensive legal system. (On which side of the road shall we drive our cars under the Natural Law?) I doubt that what we can know about God “through the light of nature” is adequate to build a polity. But Mr. Allen appears to think that one can build a position on a whole lot of issues just on the basis of natural religion:

  • greater economic liberty
  • lower taxes
  • affordable health care
  • fighting against stem-cell research, abortion, and the redefining of marriage

All those are “moral issues,” on which to take the wrong position is presumably “immoral” and willfully so since the truth is clear to all.

I think that’s utterly delusional. I don’t even see how a moderately confused person could think that natural religion can tell one the point at which taxes become tyrranical. If you were moderately deluded, you might think that all taxes are theft, but then you’ve “got issues” with Jesus, who recognized the general legitimacy of taxes, and you’ve lost me and all serious Christians for your great ecumenical political enterprise.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that what God has revealed through the Scriptures (as opposed to natural religion of the Romans 1 sort) was ever intended to found a polity either. It was intended to lead us to salvation through Jesus Christ, of whom all Scripture, rightly understood, speaks. Christ’s eschatological breaking into time and space has something bigger — much bigger — in mind than political reform.

I alluded to American Civil Religion as my old nemesis. I have long thought that the kind of public school prayers that the Supreme Court banished circa 1962 were fatuous little unitarian ditties, directed formally to Mr. Allen’s ecumenical God, but substantially to schoolchildren, who needed every incentive to sit still for their indoctrination into the glories of the machine in which they would one day be cogs. For instance:

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.

Engel v. Vitale, Supreme Court 1962. This is the sort of prayer that Evangelicals, who never would end a prayer without “In Jesus’ Name,” have fought to reinstate in schools as the answer to all (or at least many of) our problems. It was one of my little “heresies” as an Evangelical (which may make it orthodox with a small “o”) to think such prayers stupid, useless and cynical in their generality.

Nobody believes in the least-common-denominator “God” to whom that committee effort is formally directed. Nobody believes in the least-common-denominator God invoked by Glenn Beck and James Allen — not even Glenn Beck (see above).

It’s easier to criticize than to build. Indeed, far easier. But I don’t think I’m shirking a duty by declining to outline what I consider a suitable political system. I would say rather that I’m shunning delusion by declining to say “here’s precisely how we ought to do it, and you’re willfully in defiance of God if you disagree.” I dropped out of those battles for the most part within days after Bush’s Second Inaugural Address.

My general commitments are clear. I don’t think we should kill innocent human lives — in utero, in vitro, in adventuristic wars, or in prison (yes, I think some people on death row are innocent). I think (on a more timely issue) that the state interest in inherently non-procreative erotic relationships is too small to dignify them with the panoply of benefits traditionally afforded marriage (which until the 1930s or later were virtually all procreative). I think private property is a good thing, and that a command economy will screw things up, but I’m very, very receptive to revivifying our former practice of trust busting — shattering excessive concentrations of private economic power, which is almost as dangerous to liberty and true human thriving as is excessive government power. For more, Google the topic “Distributism.”

But I think we can, with greater or lesser degrees of difficulty, live peaceable and Godly lives — Godly in relation to the specific Gods we may actually believe in, not the generic Schoolmarm-God — in a wide array of political regimes, from quite free to utterly repressive.

I’d rather be free, but we may have collectively passed the point of no return on that opportunity.