A Discourse on Civil Irreligion

Libertarianism in general and LewRockwell.com in particular can be frustrating things with which one's time can be spent. But for serious seekers of truth, justice and peace, their studies and writings offer enough gems of wisdom over time to make efforts to continue to read them well worthwhile. One such gem was offered to us by Lew Rockwell himself in his article of December 31, 2004.

My understanding of what Lew was trying to say with his piece is that liberty in America today is equally or even more threatened by Big Government Conservatism than it is by Big Government Liberalism. One of the main reasons why this is true is that the former is much more nationalistic and militaristic than the latter. This is important because nationalism is often used to mask militarism, although the reverse has not and cannot ever be the case.

To a very large extent, nationalism is a corruption of patriotism. It substitutes love of country with the worship of the nation-state as a civil religion.

Last year William Inboden published an important article, "One Cheer for Civil Religion?" in Modern Reformation Magazine. He pointed out in this piece that civil religion is as old as both the church and the state themselves. Inboden quotes the eighteen-century historian, Edward Gibbon, regarding his thoughts on civil religion in ancient Rome: "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful." If we substitute the word "politician" for the word "magistrate" Gibbon's observations become equally true in America today.

How religious – or irreligious – were America's founders? Inboden sketches a history that runs from the Pilgrims, to the Civil War, through the Cold War and into the present age. The "city upon the hill" that John Winthrop saw the Pilgrims creating in America was not a Christian nation-state, or even a nation-state at all. The Pilgrims sought to form a new Christian community that would be a beacon upon which the eyes of the English Church would be transfixed. Winthrop and the Pilgrims retained and were proud of their English citizenship for all the time their community existed in America.

Unfortunately, the Pilgrim's original mission to form a distinctive new religious community in America failed miserably. It was their descendents that decided to make America a new nation. In Inboden's words, "rather than being founded as a distinctively Christian nation-state, the birth of the United States came as almost an accidental by-product of a failed Christian community."

This did not keep our founding fathers (or should we say, "founding magistrates") from giving birth to American civil religion at the same time that they gave us the Declaration of Independence. When the first Congress solicited ideas for a national seal, both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin suggested a depiction of God drowning Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea to convey the theme of God granting liberty to his chosen people – in this case, Americans rather than the Old Testament Israelites.

But even Jefferson and Franklin cannot blur the distinction between American civil religion and biblical Judeo-Christianity. The latter acknowledges God's revelation as its true authority and pledges its ultimate loyalty to God's name. Nor should any of the national flags placed in sanctuaries found throughout America confuse these priorities and loyalties.

In the modern era, the Cold War did much to restore the notion that Americans were a people chosen by God to lead the fight against Godless communism. The presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower is instructive in this light. Over the eight years of his administration, Eisenhower did the following:

  1. Just after having been inaugurated as president, Eisenhower was baptized for the first time in a public ceremony at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
  2. Before one of his inaugurations, Eisenhower made an unprecedented offering of his own prayer at this ceremony.
  3. He had his cabinet meetings open with prayer and instituted the National Prayer Breakfast.
  4. It was during the Eisenhower administration that "In God We Trust" was adopted as the United States' motto and began to be printed on the nation's currency.
  5. It was also during this time that the words "one nation under God" were added to America's pledge of allegiance.

The American experiment with limited government was and is unique in the world's history. But the bible unequivocally places God in authority over all nations and governments. More importantly, it is by virtue of a person's allegiance to this God rather than the country that he or she resides in that makes all the difference in a truly religious sense.

Considering how civil religion in America grew during the Civil War, it is ironic that Abraham Lincoln got this last point right when he said that "Americans are an almost chosen people." But the word "almost" makes all the difference in the world.

Nationalism as the worship of a nation-state as a civil religion is a false faith. It represents chasing after idols. When nationalism is used to mask militarism and imperialism it is worse than a false faith. It is the gravest of sins that can only be forgiven by a truly loving God.

I wish everyone a Happy Lew Year and Godspeed in your efforts on behalf of truth, justice and peace. In 2005.

January 3, 2005