|When God and Country Collide: Civil Religion as a Source of Conflict for US-American Evangelicals|
|On the face of it, by fusing God and country, civil religion – described by the Robert N. Bellah as the transcendent dimension in U.S.-American political life – seems to overcome the believers’ conflicting loyalties to both, a dilemma already stated in the Bible. Yet, as the proposed paper argues, debates within the evangelical community testify to the continuing problem of conflicting loyalties – culminating in the question whether civil religion proves that America is “God’s own country” or if evangelicals are the last bastion of true believers in a country ruled by false religion. Civil religion thus became a source of conflict for evangelicals.
While evangelicals like Carl F. H. Henry – theologian and former editor of Christianity Today – emphasized the Christian heritage and values in US-American history by pointing to the Christian values inherent in political documents and the undergirding of the American way of life by Christian ideas and morality, dissenting voices saw the interweaving of religion and politics more critical, calling it a watered-down religion at best, and idolatry and false religion at worst. Some saw themselves on a slippery-slope from emperor worship to persecution, conjuring up drastic examples from the past: “Much of today’s civil religion […] is the same religion against which the Christian’s fought when they refused to burn incense to the emperor’s statue, and which the German evangelicals resisted when Hitler formed his state-controlled German church” (W. Stanford Reid, Eternity, 1973). Others, yet, warned against civil religion because it drew on religious authority to justify political goals thus abusing both religion and democratic principles, and tricking people to support wars and “un-Christian” policies. As evangelical senator Mark Hatfield warned: “The more I observe contemporary America, the more I read about the history of the Church, and the more I study the Scriptures, the more I sense how dangerous it is to merge piety with our patriotism” (Hatfield, Post American, 1973).
Starting with the appropriation of the term civil religion in the 1970s, the analysis of the fervent discussions within the evangelical community voiced in evangelical magazines indicates a growing concern over the use and abuse of religious language in political settings reflecting an overall struggle over who gets to speak with the authority of religion. Discussion ensued about the meaning and consequences of civil religion, especially in regard to questions of separation of church and state, religious freedom, the US-American national character, and evangelical religious identity. This paper focuses on evangelical reactions to civil religion, highlighting the conflict it caused within the evangelical community.|