At the FAMiLY Leadership Summit last Friday, former Vice President Mike Pence encouraged attendees to keep the faith. Considering the venue, an event hosted by a prominent evangelical organization and attended by conservative Christians, his encouragement is not surprising.
But his statement begs the question, faith in what?
“Keep the faith in the founders of this country and the timeless wisdom of the Declaration and Constitution. We need to be the movement that keeps our oaths even when it hurts. We need to be the party and the movement of the Constitution and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and rededicate ourselves to those American ideals as never before.
“Then we need to keep faith in Him who has ever been with the American people since the Pilgrims first stepped off Plymouth Rock this great state was carved out in the wilderness, who’s with us still today. Who says, ‘I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’
“I believe that if we will keep the faith – keep the faith that our highest ideals, keep faith in the American people, and renew our trust in him. There’s a future and a hope far beyond anything we could ask or imagine, because God has not done with America yet.”
What Pence articulated in his closing remarks during his speech is not Christianity, rather American Civil Religion.
What is American Civil Religion? Sociologist Robert Bellah in a 1967 essay, wrote, “While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith …few have realized that there actually exists alongside … the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.”
Gary Scott Smith writing for Christian History, remarked:
“Civil religion involves beliefs (but no formal creed), events that seem to reveal God’s purposes (most notably the American Revolution and the Civil War), prophets (especially Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln), sacred places (shrines to Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt; Bunker Hill; and Gettysburg), sacred texts (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address), ceremonies (Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans’ Day celebrations, and the pageantry of presidential inaugurals), hymns (“God Bless America” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”), and rituals (prayers at public events such as inaugurals and the beginnings of sessions of Congress and national days of prayer).”
Presidents, he noted, often serve as its chief pastors and priests.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Every nation needs values and tenants that hold its citizens together. There was a time when citizens on the left and right would agree on these shared values and tenants. Instead, we now see a growing fracture of disagreement as our society becomes more polarized.
Alexis de Tocqueville highlighted its importance in Democracy in America:
“Religion in American takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.“
Considering even at the time de Tocqueville traveled within the new nation, America even then was pluralistic. There was no official American Church, unlike what was seen in Europe.
Christians must recognize that American Civic Religion (or as Smith points out, is also known as “civic piety, religious nationalism, public religion, and the common faith.”) is not Christianity. Unfortunately, I have seen too much confusion between the two.
Take, for instance, Pence quoting Jeremiah 29:11. This verse is not a promise for America or individual Christians but the people of Israel in exile in Babylon.
Here’s the context of that verse that is so often misapplied:
“For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all of your heart. I will be found by you declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place which I sent you into exile,” (Jeremiah 19:10-14, ESV).
Can we draw some principles from this? Indeed, God is faithful to accomplish His promises. Those who seek God will find him (though as a Calvinist, I would be remiss not to point out that it is God who draws you to Himself). God does hear our prayer (the Bible confirms this in various places).
It is not some promise that America will be restored to greatness. I believe America is exceptional because of its unique (while flawed historically in practice) commitment to individual liberty and republicanism unlike anything seen at the time and even today. There is a reason people flocked to our shores and borders and continue to do so.
That said, the United States is not God’s chosen nation; there is absolutely no basis for that belief in scripture.
I appreciate the writings of the founders and our founding documents. I believe they had uncommon wisdom and were attempting an experiment never tried in human history. (You can’t really compare Athenian democracy or Roman republicanism with what the founders crafted.)
What I won’t do is place my faith in them. Yes, we need to follow the Constitution because it is a brilliant document that limits government. Yes, the Declaration of Independence echos truth when it proclaims our rights come from God, not the government. Neither, however, are the infallible, inerrant word of God. After all, the Constitution needed to be amended.
While we (writing to American Christians now) are citizens here, our ultimate citizenship is in heaven, not the United States (Philippians 3:20).
Our faith and hope are in the Lord Jesus Christ “who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:21, ESV). He is our true King. Everything else is secondary.
So common beliefs as a nation are important but civic religion is not biblical Christianity, and it should never be the object of our faith.