At the Altar of Patriotism

Richard M. Gamble September/October 2023
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The outsized influence of ‘civil religion’ and what it means for Americans today.

In 1863, prominent Unitarian pastor Henry W. Bellows preached a rousing war sermon to his New York congregation. He called the sermon “Unconditional Loyalty,” and he meant every word of it. He warned his congregation against the treasonous implications of criticizing the Lincoln administration at a moment of national crisis and thereby undermining its God-given authority. The nation’s survival was at stake. Its fate rested on the president’s shoulders. Even the Constitution itself ought not to stand in the way of any means necessary to deliver the union from dire peril. This was a “sacred” cause. It demanded absolutely loyalty. To that end, Bellows exhorted his congregation to “make a religion of patriotism.”

Bellows’ sermon soon appeared as a pamphlet distributed by the thousands to the Army of the Potomac. His other wartime work also reached beyond the pulpit. Bellows helped lead the U.S. Sanitary Commission, charged with aiding the soldiers in the field and their families back home in practical ways. Reflecting on the task of the Sanitary Commission several years after the war, he told members of the Union League in New York that the organization’s aim had been to “purify and strengthen the imperilled nationality, and help to make America sacred in the eyes of the living children of her scattered States.” “Nationality” was the common word in mid–nineteenth century America for what today we call “nationalism.” Whether Bellows’ efforts should be called religious nationalism or nationalist religion or simply a populist form of political theology, they amounted to a vigorous proclamation of American civil religion.

The phrase “civil religion” may not conjure up a distinct idea as a name for something we ordinarily experience as Americans and as Christians. Nevertheless, we often confront the phenomenon in both our politics and our churches—in all kinds of politics and all kinds of churches, not just liberal or conservative, on the left or on the right. Americans seem quick to spot its presence in the politicians and preachers they disagree with and slow to see it in themselves. But it needs to be seen wherever it is.

The venerable Oxford English Dictionary (OED) helps clarify things a bit. According to the OED, “civil religion” has been used since its first appearance in English three centuries ago to denote “a religion, or a secular tradition likened to a religion, which serves (officially or unofficially) as a basis for national identity and civic life.” That seems straightforward enough. And it matches what Bellows was doing in the 1860s and 1870s. But when “religion” is attached to “civil,” is it being used in a metaphorical sense? Do we mean that some words, deeds, and beliefs have the binding power of religion but do not in themselves amount to a religion? For those, like the sociologist Robert Bellah, who did so much to spark interest in civil religion in the 1960s, civil religion was a real religion because through its stories, heroes, rituals, holidays, ideals, monuments, and pageantry it functioned as a real religion. If that is true, then that’s reason enough for Christians to be cautious about embracing it.

Definitions help organize our thinking and help us conceptualize and categorize complex subjects. But people don’t go about their everyday lives walking around inside of watertight definitions. In the case of “civil religion,” the definition must give way to the real-life experience of a lot of people over the course of centuries living in different places and under different circumstances. Definitions “leak,” as one of my favorite historians was always quick to point out to his readers. Historical experience is messy and maddeningly disobedient to our attempts to make it behave according to our notions of how things must have been in the past. That complexity is what makes history so interesting and instructive. If our goal is to understand and explain civil religion, then we must be ready for it not to conform to our imposed categories and rules.

A Tale of Complicity

The history of civil religion as practiced shows that it is a product of both church and state. That might seem obvious, but some have disputed this claim by appealing to a narrow definition of civil religion that sees it only as emanating from the civic side of civil religion, only from public officials and not from the clergy. As the example of Henry Bellows shows, such distinctions break down in practice and under the microscope of history. Was it civil religion when President Eisenhower decided to give his public support to the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance but not civil religion when the Washington, D.C., pastor Eisenhower heard one Sunday morning advocated the addition? The sermon, a tour de force of cold war civil religion, was arguably more plainly civil religion than anything Eisenhower said or did.

Americans boast of their Constitution’s “separation of church and state,” but in practice their churches and their government mix themselves together all the time. Ministers, congregants, theologians, and denominational publications on the one side, and local, state, and national officeholders and aspirants on the other side, have routinely done so. And they have done so, not because the United States has a tax-supported established church like Britain, but because they volunteer to do so. People make choices. They have purposes. It is true that the U.S. bureaucracy tried directly to mobilize preachers, congregations and their funds, whole denominations, and religious periodicals to prosecute war, especially in the total wars of the twentieth century, but it is also true, and perhaps more significant for the understanding of civil religion, that churches have mobilized themselves. Civil religion has primarily been not something done to them but by them.

What is especially striking in Bellows’ Civil War sermon are the ways in which this pastor used his sacred office for an almost exclusively political message: his appropriation of Scripture for the purposes of earthly war (in this case, of Isaiah 9:6: “And the government shall be upon his shoulder”); the intensity of his determination to mobilize his congregants for the Northern war effort; his voluntary subordination of the work of the church to the purposes of the state; his admonition to make a religion out of patriotism (really, out of nationalism), and finally, to make America itself sacred.

The justice of the Union cause from 1861 to 1865 is not the question here. The point is to watch American civil religion in action and to recognize that it is human-made—made by all sorts of people in all sorts of times, places, and circumstances. Indeed, civil religion is not distinctly or exclusively modern, or American, or Christian, or conservative.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were quite adept at it. Polybius and Livy praised the “ancestors” for their wisdom in creating the rituals of the civic cult to keep the masses obedient and moral and to bind them together as a cohesive and successful empire. Augustine made Rome’s pagan “civic religion” one of his main targets of ridicule in The City of God. He condemned the poets and playwrights, priests and philosophers for sustaining Rome’s pretentious claims to God’s prerogatives. We ought not to push Augustine further than he intended. Demolishing the follies of Rome’s pagan civic religion is not the same thing as ruling out of order all mixing of religion and politics. But Augustine remains a sobering and oddly neglected theological check on civil religion.

Civil religion was also key to the romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century in Europe, South America, and the United States. It was a tool of nation building. And it was controversial abroad and at home, especially the use of fragments of Scripture as if the promises to ancient Israel and to the New Testament church had been made to America and had proclaimed its mission. Some have defended civil religion as a necessary and indeed inevitable means to national unity and cohesiveness. Some have said that we are “stuck” with it. If that is true, then the only choice we face is to work for a better civil religion in place of a worse one. We may have reached the point in America that we feel forced to choose between competing civil religions, that the old civil religion is decayed and has lost its power to unite us as a people. Such a revival of civil religion might be part of the solution to the nation’s increasing fragmentation.

All that might be true, but are Christian churches likewise “stuck” with civil religion? Must they too observe the rituals of civil religion? Are they too called to be part of the nation’s solution to the nation’s problems?

Guarding the House of God

Clear thinking about civil religion requires that we think clearly and biblically about the nature and purpose of the church. The church has been called to a mission that only it can fulfill. The gospel is uniquely given to the church and not to any other institution. It has been entrusted with the Scriptures, with preaching, teaching, and evangelism, and with protecting and defending the faith. It ought to guard jealously that unique calling. It ought to remain vigilant against impostors and against flattery from those who want the church to be tame, safe, and cooperative. Christians ought to keep watch that their churches’ public worship and witness not serve the purposes of other institutions. They can do little or nothing to stop public officials from appropriating the gifts that God in Christ Jesus has given the church, but they can guard what has been entrusted to them, avoiding confusing the things of God and the things of Caesar, remembering that Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world, and also bearing in mind that Christians wrestle not against flesh and blood but wage spiritual warfare with spiritual weapons.

One hundred years ago Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen warned Christians of his generation that “the warfare of the world has entered even into the house of God.” By “the warfare of the world,” Machen meant in part the recent mobilization of the churches during the First World War. He somewhat obliquely referred to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Julia Ward Howe’s militant 1861 hymn that had been added to the back of the Presbyterian hymnal during the Great War, linking the Union cause in the Civil War to America’s intervention in Europe in 1917.

More generally, Machen meant the perennial problem of the relationship between the church and the world. “Is there no refuge from strife?” he asked. He feared the consequences of bringing the noise and tumult of earthly conflicts into what ought to be the haven of rest of the church.

To my mind, Machen’s warning gets to the heart of the problem of civil religion for Christians. For those who don’t see it as a problem, and for those who see it as a positive good, my concerns will not carry much weight. But for those with nagging doubts about the government’s appropriation of bits and pieces of Christian language, doctrine, and identity and Christianity’s own baptism of the nation and its story, they should know that there are reasons, biblically sound and theologically orthodox reasons, for being attentive to any sign of the world’s political, economic, social, and ideological warfare entering the church, especially into the worship of the bride of Christ. Moreover, it is distressing to think that someone’s patriotism would be questioned in light of his or her reluctance to incorporate the national flag, anthems, patriotic songs, and national holidays in worship. It has always been possible to love Jesus and love America and know the difference. The Christian’s “unconditional loyalty” belongs to God alone.

Article Author: Richard M. Gamble

Richard M. Gamble is the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander professor of history and political science at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative and serves on the editorial board of Humanitas, a publication of the National Humanities Institute. His most recent book is A Fiery Gospel: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Road to Righteous War (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2019).