Another Look: Charles Featherstone on Civil Religion

With our recent discussion of the American civil religion that is rife in evangelicalism, especially at this time of year, I wanted to return to a couple of posts Charles Featherstone has written on the subject of American civil religion that I have linked previously.

In “The Problem of Modernity“, Featherstone’s jumping-off point is a PSA from the 1950s urging Americans to go to church because the world is in a chaotic state and in need of morally strong individuals and because church can be a place of comfort during difficult times in one’s life.  The focus here is entirely on the individual and the nation.  No mention of the Church, of God, or of Jesus Christ, except as an assumed but unimportant presence.  There is nothing distinctively Christian here as by that time Jews were full participants in the American civic faith.

In “Belonging…Or Not“, Featherstone critiques a David Brooks piece written in reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem.  Brooks’ big idea is that the national anthem is one of the rituals of the American civil religion that binds us all together as a people.  Failure to participate in this ritual undercuts the very thing which holds us together as a people.  Thus Kaepernick was basically biting off the hand that fed him because his actions undercut any sense of obligation that other Americans might have felt for him, and thus any platform by which he might have been able to agitate for social change.  Brooks’ argument fails to take into account that American civil religion is built upon exclusion of some class or other, and that for those who are excluded there is no possible repentance, sacrifice, or restoration to community.  You can say the Pledge of Allegiance, stand during the national anthem, etc. all day long, but at the end of the day you will still be excluded if the powers-that-be in American civil religion have decided that you are to be excluded.  There is nothing you can do to change this status.

In the end, American civil religion has no power to save.  It reduces us as the Church to a mere pawn of the state whose sole raison d’etre is to produce good citizens, not necessarily good Christians.  It tells an alternate story in which our story, the story of God’s plan to rescue a fallen humanity via Israel which reached its shocking and unexpected climax in the person of Jesus Christ, takes a backseat to the story of science and progress and democracy and America as a Christian nation.  It is distressing to see that civil religion has gained such a foothold in American evangelicalism, because it is causing us to forget our story, to forget who we are and whose we are.

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