Today is truly one of America's national "holy days." I am not saying this either as a form of judgment or of complete approval. It simple is what it is, a day to remember our national experience and the incredible sacrifice of our own to protect and defend this nation. I am grateful for the day myself. The tomb of the unknown soldier, seen at the left, still moves me very deeply every time I visit this site. I have friends who gave their lives for me and this nation. I respect and honor their sacrifice.
But I believe we who are Christians first and foremost ought to understand that this celebration is intimately connected to civil religion, a form of national religious expression that has nothing to do with the kingdom of God, at least not directly. It certainly has nothing to do with the Church and her mission to make disciples.
Civil religious expression, like all religious expression, has gone through numerous struggles in our history. After its prolonged birth period historians discerned several elements that gave us a sense of our “religious” core. A set of “sacred” scriptures emerged: "The Constitution” (1789), “The Declaration of Independence” (1776), and speeches by famous fathers of the land; e.g., Washington, Lincoln, FDR and even JFK and Ronald Reagan in the modern era. One American historian notes that we have “religious” (civic) holidays such as July 4th, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and even the much debated national recognition of Christmas, the most Christian of our holidays in spite of a huge modern connection of the date with commerce. Supreme Court decisions have also shaped civil religion, such as in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). Most of “these ‘core elements’ . . . . remain far distant from the realities of most citizens’ lives." But political leaders, and activist ministers, will stir up this form of national religion now and then through both words and profound symbolism. Today is such a day.
How does a missional Christian respond to such national religion? I, for one, intend to express a form of civic gratitude as I noted above. But I refuse to link all of this deeply and missionally with the kingdom of Christ on this earth or with his ordained purpose for the church. We must not confuse symbols like Memorial Day with the mission of the church, a confusion that is still all too common in America.
I am currently publishing a series on this subject as part of the ongoing ACT 3 Weekly articles that you can subscribe to for free online at ACT 3. Today the third article appears and there will be several more to follow. I believe that we need to understand how both political parties use this approach to try to unite our people. This is not a Christian Right issue, as I show in today's ACT 3 Weekly, but it also involves the rhetorical genius being employed by the current occupant of the White House as well. Christians ought to become more conversant with this social reality and understand civil religion for what it really is. If they do not see this more clearly they are very likely to equate Christian holiness with these national holy days, a mistake that is not without some major problems for our real commitment to the eternal kingdom.
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I went to an “American Celebration” last night at a local church. I would normally not attend because I react badly to morphed civil religion. I went because a good friend of my wife was singing.
The was clearly a civil religious service. We were asked to wave flags several times throughout the service and we all stood in reverence to the flag several times.
I understand part of this type of service. There were men and women that served in the military that were members of the church. It is right to honor their service (although there are many others that serve their country that are not often honored, teachers, social workers, etc.).
I am still conflicted about the service. I am concerned that many that were there would have had a hard time defining whether they were Christians first or Americans first. At the same time, I think it is completely appropriate to honor people that have served (although that really should be done at Vetern’s Day not Memorial Day).
Shaun Groves had a good blog post today about the fact that we need to be remembering the nearly 1 million men and women that died in US wars, not having parades and celebrations of “God Blessing America”.