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Civic Religion in a Divided Nation

When President Obama uses the Bible publicly as a basis for supporting gay marriage, that is fine. But when it is revealed that Amy Coney Barrett is a serious Catholic, she’s treated like a cult member. This kind of disparate treatment happens over and over in MSM outlets.- Denny Burk

Completely explainable once we understand that American liberalism approves of religion when it supports their policy outcomes.- Andrew Walker

These two quotes capture an ongoing complaint by conservative Christians. How is that a liberalism that claims the mantle of separation of church and state and finds itself in opposition to most of the religious right’s agenda (condemning the agenda as theocratic) go right ahead and celebrate religion in the public sphere when it is done by liberals and in particular Democratic politicians?

I think the complaint is a misreading of liberals. Let’s say there are two categories of liberals, one which focus on secularity, the other on an inclusive faith. They may share the same political ends but they don’t approach the religion the same. For secularists, they did complain about the uses of religion during the inauguration. And while such a view may have predominated in the mid 20th century until Jimmy Carter, past Carter, the view has fallen out of favor.

Which is to say that the Naked Public Square of John Neuhaus is no longer around. The center right won the argument. The predominate view on the left and right is that there is no public square that can be devoid of values. Nor can we ask people to be involved in such a square while forcing them to jettison their faith, cultural, and other contexts that forms them and their values.

The goal, instead is to bring the best values we have from our respective traditions into the public square. They should be mutually intelligible and that involves as much the responsibility of the religious as it does for the secular in the conversation. That is, we can’t remove the obligation of translation from either side. But real goods can come from this engagement. Of course to speak about the best, to speak of goods, is to make normative claims that there are better and worse values and policies.

If one follows the God of all humanity, then nationalism is not possible to hold. Our sphere of responsibility will include everyone who God is in relationship to. While Christian faith was used to justify walls, Muslim bans, and family separation at the border and while Christian faith was used to justify refugee resettlement, welcoming immigrants as vital parts of the American family and story, and supporting international agencies such as the World Health Organization, it is the latter that is more fitting to Christian faith.

This is to say that my opposition to Christian nationalism is not based on my opposition to faith. It is opposition to bad faith, to ones that harm people, that undermines the God of the whole, that undermines our responsibility to others. That is, it’s a theological and ethical claim. Not a plea for a “naked public sphere”. Not a plea for removing religious discourse. That could be seen as facing Andrew Walker’s censure but I’m not sure the force of his complaint.

Yes, I favor religious discourse that favors certain policies over others. I respect Rev. William Barber. I do not respect Rev. Franklin Graham. I favor religious discourse that seeks to address racial justice, poverty, climate change, refugees, immigrant justice, and wealth inequality. And I favor certain methods, such as Rev. Barber who tried to register people to vote versus Rev. Graham who sought to throw out millions of votes in the last election.

I’m going to guess that Chris Walker and Denny Burk are in the same boat but for a different set of priorities.

I believe our faith can provide a powerful antidote to the perils of political polarization. Specifically, I believe that focusing on the transcendent nature of God can help foster reconciliation among contending groups.- Mark Haas

It doesn’t look like we’re there yet. And yet I want to lift up the idea of civic religion. And this will have less to do with politics and more with how you construe the purpose of Christian faith. If it is to gather the “true believers” who have correct doctrinal views, then Christian faith can have little to do with a civic religion. If it is to be a ministry of reconciliation that sees every individual as a child of God, filled with God given possibilities, if we create a society where that can be played out, then it could be possible to have a civic religion.

A religion that reckons with the religious diversity of our nation. Which includes nones and the seculars. That includes LGBT folks, the spiritually eclectic and more. There is breadth enough in a civic religion that consecrates our national motto and purpose, “out of many one” and our democracy which makes that possible. But inherently it will be a pluralistic faith.

That is, there are not just better and worse policies. There are better and worse religious takes, that can support life in a pluralistic and democratic society or take away from it. People pointed to Biden’s Bible, the priest who offered a blessing, the mass attended by elected officials, the quoting of Augustine at the inauguration as civic religion. But I would offer that the faith articulated was most likely to be found in the poem, the Hill We Climb, by Amanda Gorman.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth,
in this faith we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption
we feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter.
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert,
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was,
but move to what shall be.
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free.

That will preach. Paula White will not. And that is not because of this or that policy view. It’s a basic difference on whether we see the whole world as where God’s redemptive purposes lie. It’s whether we believe that we can encounter God outside of the church, in the ordinariness and diversity of life. It is whether we believe that our faith is responsible for the whole, not just our group or that group.

Gordon Kaufman writes that the twin purposes of faith is to relativize our contingent loyalties and to humanize human existence. For Mark Haas, the first is evident, not the latter. But it is the latter that will find proof that indeed the disparate groups that make up this country have a home in it, that civic religion binds us to. And that means developing policies that build a shared country, not one that pits one part of the country against another.

We have four Christian ministries on the campus of MSUB. Three are dedicated to reaching Christian undergraduates to grow their groups and their members fidelity to their understanding of Christian faith. The one I work for is dedicated to the religious needs of the whole of the campus, for faculty, staff, for the mission of MSUB, for students whether Christian, none, or something else. That’s a different orientation, a small example of how faith can connect the whole or simply be another competing interest group. Ministry to the whole is civic religion.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings

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