Saturday, July 2, 2022

Civil Religious Nationalism’s Future in the United States: Contemporary Threats to Civil Religious Nationalism from Polarized Society



As the United States in the 1950s began to codify a uniquely Judaeo-Christian interdenominational pluralistic religious mindset through various expressions of prayer and public valuation of religious content and structure, increasingly a counter-push began to form, and had its day in the 1960s, as secular forces began to rally around sexual liberation, drug culture, consciousness expansion, and anti-government violence (Soper & Fetzer, 2018). So, the struggle began, around the question of what America was in respect to religious expression and government activity. Was the United States a country that ought to build a wall of separation from religion, was the United States a nation that would mandate hostility toward religion? Or was the United States instead a fundamentally Christian nation? Did Christianity deserve a pre-eminence in public life and a pre-eminence in government policy and activity? Or could there be a happy balance, could there be an American civil-religious nationalism, in which government did not enforce one particular religion, but also did not outlaw or separate religion from public life? Was there a way religion could be valued by government without being mandated by government? The United States was fundamentally formed on civil religious nationalism, the idea of no particular religion as the state religion, while the state also allowed for free expression of religion, and a general unity around religiousness in general.

Yet today in the United States we see two hotly contested viewpoints of the future of the nation, pushing in two very different directions. Increasingly we see Christians gathering around the republican party to promote a pro-Christian agenda, and increasingly we see secular progressive non-religious forces gathering around the democratic party, promoting a pro-secular agenda. This polarization tends to push in the directions of a pseudo-religious nationalism, often referred to as “Christian nationalism.” This polarization also tends to push in the direction of secular nationalism, a perspective in which religion is minimized, shunned, or even persecuted in a sovereign nation. Think of something similar to the French revolution, a radically secular revolution that was hostile toward religion.

What are the differences then, between civil religious nationalism and pseudo-religious nationalism? And what are the differences between civil religious nationalism and secular nationalism? It is a difficult path to walk for the United States, expressing itself as a successful civil religious nation. The tendency is for nations to swing to either a one religion dominated structure or a secular state driven structure. In a one religion structure, such as in Poland or Greece today, one religion is dominate and affirmed by government, with assigned rituals, prayers, religious festivals, and laws inspired by the religion (Soper & Fetzer, 2018, p. 12). It’s interesting that both Greece and Poland tend to be fairly stable expressions of a one religion dominated government system (Soper & Fetzer, 2018, p. 12). Other nations where one religion is dominate in government could include nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Brunei, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Qatar, where the dominate religion is Islam, and the governments of such nations actively enforce tenants of sharia law (Mathur, 2021).

In the United States the conversation has been around the concept of Christian nationalism, or what one might call a Christian supremacy, or as I’ve stated it, pseudo-religious nationalism. In this ideology we see that conservative politics takes center stage, as if lugging some form of Christianity along with it but perverting it along the way to make it subservient to political goals. Paul D. Miller (2021) defines Christian nationalism this way, “Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance. Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square. The term “Christian nationalism,” is relatively new, and its advocates generally do not use it of themselves, but it accurately describes American nationalists who believe American identity is inextricable from Christianity” (Miller, 2021). 

The definitions given for Christian nationalism seem so vague and nebulous that they are virtually indistinguishable from dutiful Christian activity in the sphere of politics, which is something Christians ought to do as they preserve society by being “salt and light” to the societies in which they reside. But we see such definitions as those given by Miller (2021) to center on the fact that pseudo-religious nationalism is defined by violence, extremism, and one-religion supremacy in government and culture.

The best response to this danger of pseudo-religious nationalism, is to make sure that we always maintain God’s great gift of free will. We must always make sure we preserve the freedom of self determination for each person. Every single human ever born has the sacred right to either embrace God or reject God. Government and society must never enforce a decision on the people of any nation.

Ye we know that there will one day be a world government controlled by one, the Lord and creator of the universe Jesus Christ. But that time is not yet. And any attempt by Christians to create a theocracy on the Earth tends to end in power abuse, corruption, and violence. So, we must always guard against pseudo-religious nationalism, in which political operators and extremists attempt to exert undue control over a nation.

Yet I honestly find myself deeply conflicted with this concept of Christian nationalism. Because many of the tenants of Christian nationalism, according to the official website, seem fundamentally sound. Some of these tenants include the idea of affirming, as the Supreme Court did in 1892, that the United States is a Christian nation. To affirm this fact as a historical truth seems like a net positive. To value life in the womb, reasonable borders around a nation, to encourage Christian expression in the public square, to affirm male and female as God’s design, to affirm the value of the nuclear family, and to affirm self-defense and capitalism as successful models for society all seem to me to be good things for Christians to do (About Christian Nationalism, 2017). Of course, we must always guard against extreme expressions of these perspectives that would encourage violence or violent overthrow of government as a solution to these issues. So, the challenge for us as Christians today is to continue to affirm civil religious nationalism, which is expressed in religious liberty, while guarding against a one religion nationalism that might lead back toward the type of religious persecution that our ancestors fled to America to escape from in Europe.

Secular nationalism by contrast is quite different, one might think of a nation like France where the “separation of church and state” is taken to an extreme. For example, when The Salvation Army does work in most sovereign nations it does not need to divorce itself from it’s religious Christian context to receive government funds to provide services to those in need. However, in France for example, the Salvation Army had to split services between Christian and secular, to meet government requirements for separation of church and state. Another example of a secular nation would be China, in which the government of the nation is hostile toward religion and in particular persecutes Christians and Uyghur Muslims (Abbas, 2022). 

There is a broad spectrum of various expressions of secular nationalism, but in general there is some level of religion-state separation (Soper & Fetzer, 2018, p. 17). According to Soper & Fetzer (2018), “This model can manifest itself in a benign separation that preserves religious liberty but keeps the state at arm’s length from religion, or as an assertive separation where the state seeks to diminish or to control the political role and power of key religious groups” (p. 17). 

India and Uruguay are examples of different types of secular nationalism as well (Soper & Fetzer, 2018, p. 17). One interesting consideration of secular nationalism is that one could also say that it is not really irreligious, because in these models the state often takes on a role of being religiously reverenced, as the solution to problems, and the guide for virtue (Soper & Fetzer, 2018, p. 17). Often to depart from religion in once sense simply means it return to it in another (Soper & Fetzer 2018, p. 16).

So, in contrast with pseudo-religious nationalism in one sense and secular nationalism in another, is the current successful model of the United States which is civil-religious nationalism. In the model of civil religious nationalism, we see a government which does not mandate a particular religion, but instead tolerates and affirms various different religions as legitimate. In the United States at one time this civil religious model was seen in a protestant dominate society in which various denominations tolerated and supported one another, and over time that protestant religious pluralism also affirmed and tolerated Catholicism and Judaism, and even today tolerates certain non-extreme forms of the Islamic religion. In this model government is not controlled by a particular religion or religions but affirms and encourages religious practice in general. Various things like a National Day of Prayer, or encouragements to pray by government leaders, religious holidays, and “In God We Trust” written on money all express an encouragement of a general religiousness in society, without naming one particular religion. In this model government laws are sometimes influenced or indirectly influenced by the various expressions of religious virtue in the society. In general, in a civil religious nation, all religions are seen as valid, all persons are seen as equal under the law, religious expression is encouraged in the public square, not silenced, but the government avoids mandating any particular religion as required for practice in public life.

In the United States today, due to increasing political polarization, news media polarization, social media activity on the rise, and access to many new forms of information, we see certain present-day threats to civil-religious nationalism. I’d like to discuss four main threats along the political spectrum that are of concern for the preservation of civil-religious nationalism, they are: Violent secular activists, religious extremism, attacks on religious liberty, and the cultural climate of the USA.

First of all, we have to discuss the dual threats of left- and right-wing extremism. Both of these movements reared their ugly heads in the 2020. Racial riots occurred centered around the death of George Floyd and police violence as an issue of concern. In 2021 the Capital riot centered around the hotly contested 2020 presidential election, which showed some irregularities and statistical anomalies. 

Let us compare and contrast these events. At the capital riot 140 police officers were assaulted or injured, at the summer riots 2,037 police officers were assaulted or injured (RealClearInvestigations, 2021). The estimated damage from the capital riot was approximately $2.7 million (RealClearInvestigations, 2021). The estimated damage from the Floyd riots was somewhere between $1-2 billion dollars (RealClearInvestigations, 2021). Rioters at the capital identified with groups such as the proud boys, three percenters, and oath keepers. At the race riots the groups involved included antifa, BLM, and other radical groups. Both riots involved attacks on state and federal government facilities. Given these statistics, we ought to consider both of these anti-government, violent activities as threats to civil-religious nationalism. One group aimed to invade the capital building to attempt to stop a vote on legitimating the 2020 presidential election, the other sought to seek racial retribution by tearing down statues, taking control of parts of cities, and tearing down government facilities as well as police structures. Both of these groups pose a threat to civil religious nationalism because their ideologies have become so extreme, they resort to violence.

But I would like to make this important point, given the data, we ought to consider at this moment in history left wing groups as a greater danger to civil religious nationalism than anything being done on the right. Secular left-wing groups pose a clear and present danger through rampant violence which greatly exceeds the limited affects of the capital riot. It is also interesting to note that the capital riot was universally condemned by both sides along the political aisle, while the summer racial riots were encouraged and supported by many politicians, and blanketly supported by dozens of corporations which flooded funds and showered support on radical activist groups. Even now, the summer riots in media coverage are carefully swept under the rug, while in early 2022 two years after the capital riot, Jan 6th hearings were held that were blanket covered in prime time by key networks like ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and Fox News (Stelter, 2022). So, we see that secular activists like antifa, BLM, and other secular activist groups find generous support from public, business, social, and political spheres, and thus must be viewed as the prime and central threat to civil religious nationalism. When considering Christian nationalism, statistics seem to indicate that most Americans and even most Evangelical Americans do not hold Christian nationalist viewpoints (Jaradat, 2021). According to polls run by Pew Research Center (2021) to gage the impact of Christian Nationalism, “One of the biggest surprises in the survey came from the data on white evangelical Christians. Although this faith group is commonly associated with Christian nationalism and did show the highest levels of support for church-state integration, Pew found most white evangelicals believe the government should be secular. Just one-third of members of this group want officials to “stop enforcing separation of church and state” (34%) or declare the U.S. to be a Christian nation (35%).” But we should still consider insurrectionist forces in the country as a real threat, as well as the various expressions of the alt-right which were involved in the Charlotte, North Carolina riot, as well as conspiracy theorist groups like Q-Anon. These threats, predominantly from the secular left, but also from the conservative right find increasingly large megaphones for discussion and gathering on social media and internet websites, and other forms of online community.

Next, we consider attacks levied against religious liberty in contemporary society. According to The Christian Post, citing a 2017 report from The First Liberty Institute, attacks on religious liberty in the United States rose by 133% from 2012 to 2017 (Smith, 2017). Threats to religious liberty include events like mass shooting attacks on Christian churches (Denison, 2017), LGBTQ activists harassing Christian bakery owners (Justice, 2021) the case of a Houston mayor demanding pastors in the area turn over sermons for inspection (Starnes, 2015), the Obama administration’s legal actions against the Little Sisters of the Poor (Frohnen, 2015), and hundreds of other examples. Recently, the Equality Act has been proposed, but not successfully passed in the US Senate and House. This bill, many believe, would cause further damage to religious liberty in the United States, subordinating religious freedom to the demands of LGBTQ ideology (LoCoco, 2021). There seems to be a precipitous increase in religious liberty attacks in the United States, and we should keep a careful eye on these attacks, though they rarely appear in popular television news or secular newspapers, they are becoming more and more frequent in the United States. These attacks on religious liberty are a clear and present threat, well documented by various organizations, that show a danger of secular nationalism pushing religion and Christianity out of the public square gradually over time. And it’s important to note that Christianity remains the number one most persecuted religion in the world today (Bandow, 2022). These threats to religious freedom are not only local to the USA, but also present across the world.

Lastly, we consider the cultural climate of the United States. One of the chief threats to civil religious nationalism is the cultural climate of the United States at this point in history. We see an increasingly polarized culture in which we have two sides vying for power. And within that nexus of reality, we see disturbing trends like riots and violence. But we can’t ignore the secondary threats that exist as well, though not violent, they show trends toward that direction. We should consider well the concerns of cancel culture on social media, political correctness in public discourse, increasingly vicious news media hits on members of the opposing party/worldview, and the woke critical race theory-based agenda being promoted in Hollywood, the corporate world, public education, and social media.

The phenomenon of cancel culture has been brought to the forefront in the mob mentality of doxing ideological opponents on social media platforms like Twitter and Tik-Tok. It has happened hundreds of times, with the tweet history of various celebrities and politicians across the spectrum being scrutinized. Tweets are found that seem to proport racism or prejudice or illiberal viewpoints, and the person is harassed and mobbed, until they make a public apology (Mooney & Sherman, 2020). This sort of mob mentality that seeks to ruin the lives of those who disagree with them is certainly a danger to civil religious nationalism, should it seek to target religions or were religions to begin to practice cancelling those they disagree with.

Political correctness goes along with cancel culture in that a sort of central list of concepts and ideas is considered OK to talk about or have opinions on, but other topics and opinions are not acceptable, and people who bring up such opinions are viciously verbally assaulted and driven from public life. Often these attacks come in the news media from either side, one host on CNN lambasting one person for saying one thing, and another host on Fox News lambasting another person for saying something else. It goes back and forth in news media. This, like cancel culture, is a danger for the stability of civil religious nationalism where free thought, free ideas, and open practice of religion are central. Thankfully, we are seeing some limits imposed to these verbal lashings in the news media. For example, Nick Sandmann successfully sued The Washington Post for libel when they mocked Nick’s appearance in news coverage during a political protest. Nicole Eramo successfully sued Rolling Stone for libel over their coverage of her actions in regard to a sexual assault case. Also, Beef Products Inc successfully sued ABC News over their “Pink Slime” story about their products (Lucas, 2019).

Then we have also seen a slew of attacks upon the civil religious structure of the USA by a group of commentators and academics commonly considered “woke” claiming the USA is a fundamentally racist country, and the only solution to these ills is to tear down the structures of the nation and start over. These views are espoused by cultural commentators like Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Austin Channing Brown among others. We see these viewpoints increasingly making their way through culture and society, through the secular university system, and even into K-12 public education and the corporate business world. So the question must be asked: Can civil religious nationalism survive the new woke narrative about the country? Can civil religious nationalism survive concepts like the idea that the United States is fundamentally racist? Can civil religious nationalism survive the idea that all white people are racist? Can a civil religious nationalism survive the divisions inherent in telling all other races that they are being systematically oppressed by white people? These are the questions we may need to wrestle with in coming decades.

To conclude let us reflect on the best ways to preserve civil religious nationalism in the future. In the past civil religious nationalism survived and prospered in the United States because there was a fundamental unity found in a general religiousness of the population. In the present times, we see the various threats we have discussed rearing their ugly heads toward what little unity remains in the country. For civil religious nationalism to survive the future, secularists and the religious community will have to come together once again to affirm some level of shared vision for the future of the nation. If one side believes that the United States must be fundamentally transformed into something new, and the other side believes the United States must be fundamentally restored to its original traditional values, there can be little middle ground in those positions. But, with prayer, reconciliation, love, encouragement, hope, and finding a shared vision for the future, perhaps a new course can be plotted, of religious pluralism, robust civil liberties, responsible government, and a new cultural mindset of a shared vision of American religious and secular prosperity. Given the current climate, the American people will be hard pressed to find a way forward that merges religious liberty and secular progress into a common set of values, and a future vision congruous with both sides.


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