I am currently publishing a series of articles on the Christian Right, the history of the American jeremiad and civil religion. Today, June 16, another installment should be posted on our ACT 3 Website before the day is over. This series is available as a free subscription and/or as a podcast.
The central point that I have made in previous articles in this series is that a major part of our American religious identity is rooted in the unique role the jeremiad has played in our culture. It has served as our unique grand narrative by which we indict national sin. If you are deeply influenced by the American jeremiad you will tend to see America as a prodigal nation. The particular jeremiad the Christian Right offers is simple: American has fallen and faces certain destruction unless we repent! One Christian Right advocate notes that we once enjoyed a favored place in God’s economy but now says “the encroaching forces of secularism” deeply threaten us. These secular forces will eventually take away our Christian freedom and threaten “the extinction of the Judeo-Christian values."
What I think is generally missed by people committed to the particular jeremiad of the Christian Right is that this same American story is employed on both the Left and the Right. Senator Robert Byrd (D–W.V.), to use just one example, has observed almost the exact same national tragedy that the Christian Right regularly employs to gain support for its cause. But Senator Byrd is an avowed opponent of the Christian Right. Byrd believes that the United States is “experiencing the best of times materially . . . the worst of times spiritually." And Byrd points to the gratuitous public displays of sexuality and violence, the denigration of religion in the legal and public spheres, and the crumbling of the American family as clear evidence of a “general decline in morals throughout the nation." But Byrd clearly does not endorse the Christian Right agenda. He never has and never will.
There should be no serious debate that a profound cultural shift has taken place in America. The question is whether or not these jeremiads, and the way the Christian Right has used them, are the best way to address these cultural problems. I have my serious doubts and this series is an attempt to demonstrate what is wrong with this narrative. It profoundly confuses Christianity with America by using concepts like covenant and election to describe our national journey and unique relationship with God. It is built on bad theology and leads to made statecraft in the process.
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Perhaps every Christian who is going to talk about Christianity and politics should read Saint Augustine’s “The City of God.” I think this would go a long way in preventing people from too closely identifying God’s will with national well being. After all, Theodosius made Xianity the official religion of the Empire, and outlawed paganism, and yet that didn’t providentially prevent the Vandals from sacking Rome.
In the end, God’s ways are above our ways.