Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Caesar's Church, Part 2

In response to reader TW's comment from a couple of posts ago: this one.

Where to start, on the relationship between church and state in America? To begin, it is probably useful to say exactly what "church" I'm talking about. By far the most prevalent church in the U.S. is that of what I'll call the American Civic Religion. The American Civic Religion (ACR, for short) is not -- to say the least! -- based on the New Testament, in terms of its theology in general and its soteriology in particular. The ACR seems loosely based on the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, as interpreted by the strict principle that God grades on the curve, and that a heavenly destination is assured, as long as I can identify a reasonable number of people who sin more spectacularly than I do (Hitler is useful for this purpose) and rich people who buy fewer Girl Scout cookies than I do (Martha Stewart bats well in this spot in the lineup). In the ACR, everybody is like an American driver. Almost every American driver describes himself as a better-than-average driver; similarly, in the ACR, almost everyone is convinced that he's a better-than-average person. And since God, like a kindly high-school teacher, grades on a generous curve, no one who's better than average has anything to worry about, in terms of lakes-o-fire vs streets-o-gold.

The "A" in ACR is very important. To the extent that we learned our ACR catechism (by osmosis, more or less) in the government schools, we worship a composite deity, which I'll call "Godduncountry." We don't consciously think of him by that name, or in that way; but that's who we, as a matter of practical fact, believe in. If you're as old as I am, you can remember how the teacher, in the early elementary grades, started out the school day by leading the class in recitations of the Lord's Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. It was a basic assumption of life, for all of we young catechumens in the ACR, that the reason why America was manifestly the Greatest Country in the World was that Godduncountry was on our side, while the Russkies and Chicoms and Krauts and Japs were having to make do with Marx and Mao and Adolf and Hirohito. And obviously they weren't much of a match for Godduncountry.

Godduncountry was the explanation for what might otherwise have seemed prohibitively unlikely: that we just happened to have been born in the only country in all of human history that was, always had been, and always would be completely in the right about everything. Well, maybe that's not quite fair; there seemed to be some grudging acknowledgement that Indians had been treated a little shabbily, and the African slaves may have had a complaint coming, too. But those injustices were safely in the past, and those who had actually perpetrated them had already gone on to their eternal reward. We could afford to be big about these things. After all, nobody's perfect, and even those slaveowners and Injun-hunters had still been above-average people, and Godduncountry grades on the curve, right?

I interrupt this post now to hope that I'm not sounding too smug about the ACR. I have no reason to be; after all, I've spent the large majority of my life as a faithful son of the ACR, serving Godduncountry gladly. But I was wrong to do so.

The trouble with Godduncountry is that he's an idol. He isn't really there. We made him -- not so much with our hands as with our thoughts. And the real God, the living God of the Bible, is not an enthusiast for idols. As He said in Exodus 20, verses 2-7:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.

It is, I think, entirely bad enough that children in the government schools are made (more or less) to recite the so-called "Pledge of Allegiance," the work of a socialist and Baptist minister in 1892. It is and was intended to be political propaganda (" ... one nation, indivisible ..." is obviously a position on secession, the propriety of which the Founders took for granted). But, even more invidiously, it is a pledge of allegiance. Ultimately, how many allegiances can one person give? Only one. The only way we can bear a Biblical allegiance to God, and to the flag "and the Republic for which it stands" is if we somehow know, in advance, that the two can never conflict. God and country must be one and the same: Godduncountry. The thing is patently ridiculous. Can anyone look at the history of the USA, or any other nation, and see an identity of that nation with the God of the Bible? The biblical God is unchanging. But, according to our laws, right and wrong are in a continual state of change; they flow freely -- mostly downhill, of course.

The recitation of the Pledge is an act of worship to the idol Godduncountry. And when my church displays the Stars and Stripes up front, in what is supposed to be a service of worship to God, and we're asked to recite the pledge to an idol ... well, I get a little hot about that. I need to be elsewhere, if that really must happen.

C.S. Lewis, in one of the Narnia books (The Last Battle), writes of a deception in Narnia in which the Christ figure, Aslan the lion, is merged with a demonic false god called Tash. The Narnians are assured that all modern, enlightened thinkers know that Tash and Aslan are just two names for the same god, whom they call "Tashlan." When the real Aslan turns up, he's not amused. I'd just as soon that Tashlan -- or Godduncountry -- stayed out of my church.


TW said...

I think you make some very good points, particularly on the Pledge and its origins. I am much inclined to agree with your sentiments concerning it, but again I think keeping things in the proper perspective is imperative. If a person's devotion is truly committed to their country in a godlike manner then they have crossed a line that should not be crossed. They have in essence deified a nation and perverted what I will call a "noble loyalty" that is required for unfettered day to day operation as well as the ultimate survival of any nation to the act of worshipping a false idol.

A slogan that I first became familiar with in my Marine Corps days was "God, Country, and Corps" and the order of that listing was applicable to the priority one should apply to them as well.

While we may "render unto Caesar" what is Caesar's it must ultimately take a back seat to what is Godly for a Christian. If you stop and think about it, paying your taxes may be rendering unto Caesar, but it is also could be considered paying tribute or even a form of worshipping of a false idol.

"Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s." With that statement it seems to me that Jesus has provided us with the means to survive the complications of this world without exempting us from the rewards of the next.

The Enlisted Oath

I, ________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same. That I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

Every enlisted person entering the U.S. military is required to "render unto Caesar" his allegiance as pertains to Caesar's interests in this world. While at times Caesar's interests in this world may be at odds with God's, it is up to the individual to ultimately decide and act accordingly.

Fortunately we live in a country that is not a theocracy, it is much easier to keep what is Godly and what should be rendered unto God more easily separated from what is Caesar's, of this world, and therefore rendered unto Caesar. One of the great things about Christianity is that we have the free will to do as we please and make our own choices. At times making the right choice can get a little sticky though. I don't think our differing perspectives on this matter is salvation dependent. Do you?

Anonymous said...

Woah, we really do think alike ... although you might be a bit more sarcastic than I am, and I didn't think that was possible.

I'd add only that you said one of the things you'll never hear a card-carrying ACR member say: "I was wrong." Repentance is not part of the theology.

BTW, I AM a better-than-average driver. When I was younger and dumber, I used to drag-race a '63 'Vette at the local track every Sunday.