American Idolatry

In-God-We-Trust-SlideThough the First Amendment has established what is commonly referred to as the separation of church & state, the state nevertheless promotes its own brand of civic religion—a religion which is fundamentally incompatible with the Christian faith.

American civic religion features a nationalistic deity: “And the God of public religion is sometimes spoken of as a God bound to the American nation, in Jefferson’s words, “As Israel of old.”[1] While religion has been recognized as playing an essential function with respect to the welfare of the state (serving as the “glue” of society),[2] the Founding Fathers were very careful to avoid defining this religion or its god too specifically. Jon Meacham writes,

“In the public business of the nation, however, it was important to the Founders to speak of God in a way that was unifying, not divisive. “Nature’s God” was the path they chose,[3] and it has served the nation admirably. Despite generations of subsequent efforts to amend the Constitution to include Jesus or to declare that America is a “Christian nation,” no president across three centuries has made an even remotely serious attempt to do so… [Public religion is] a habit of mind and of heart that enables Americans to be at once tolerant and reverent—two virtues of relevance to all, for the Founders’ public religion is consummately democratic. When a president says “God bless America” or when we sing “America! America! God shed his grace on thee,” each American is free to define God in whatever way he chooses.”[4]

Civic religion uses religion to serve its own ends. Since civic religion is designed, in part, to provide a (unified) national identity, in the American context, this requires a vague, pluralistic (and plastic!) god, one who can accommodate the religious sentiments of every citizen. [5] To put it in theological terms, American civil religion strives to be as ecumenical as possible, encouraging the view that we all really worship the same God, just under different names.

One of greatest dangers of American civil religion is the general belief that this anonymous god is pleased with all good citizens (works righteousness), which can give a false sense of security to non-Christians. Benjamin Franklin stated his own creed in this way, a view he shared with many of the Founders (and a view no doubt held by many today):

“I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever sect I meet with them.[6]

While civic religion may have a positive function in society (promoting morality and unity) and even encourages belief in a god, it nevertheless remains idolatrous. Christians should absolutely fulfill their vocations as citizens by praying for their leaders and attending to the concerns of the state, but not in such a way that they confuse the Two Kingdoms (Church and State). A healthy separation between Church and State is necessary to the welfare and proper functioning of both—a fact taught by our Lord (John 18:36; Matthew 22:21) and affirmed by the Founders.[7]

Luther was “quite confident that human rationality could and often would find a good set of positive laws and upright customs to serve a society—no matter how many or few Christians lived in it.”[8] For Luther, any effort at creating a theocratic Christian nation represented a confusion of the two kingdoms, nor did he regard Christianity essential to the proper functioning of the state (as the above quote demonstrates).[9] Since the law of God is written on the heart, we “by nature do what the law requires” (Romans 2:14–15), whether Christian or not. Jefferson agreed: “The virtue of atheists must have had some other foundation [other than religion] than the love of god.”[10]

By contrast to the generic god of American civil religion, the Christian God—that is to say, the One True God, who is not anonymous, but has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is concerned with the welfare of humanity well beyond American borders.

He is a jealous God, intolerant of the worship of false gods. The First Commandment requires exclusive allegiance to the Trinity. He does not want any other gods “before [His] face” (Exodus 20:3). That is to say, God does not want any other gods anywhere in His presence, or in the presence of His children, for that matter. Christians are to flee idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:14; 1 John 5:21), to have nothing to do with false gods, including the idolatrous god of American civil religion.

God warned Solomon to avoid marrying idolaters because they would turn his heart away after other gods (1 Kings 11:2). When the presence of false gods is tolerated, they quickly become familiar and entice the heart to worship. This was certainly the case for Solomon (1 Kings 11:3–4), and it remains a danger today as well.

UnderGod01This means that Christians cannot stand side by side with Jews and Muslims in addressing the anonymous god of American civil religion. We should avoid giving a false witness to God’s identity by singing to this nationalistic, generic deity (e.g., “God Bless America”)[11]. Ceremonial deism such as we find in the Pledge of Allegiance is, at best, meaningless. For those who believe in different gods to come together and participate in polydox prayer vigils is an act of syncretism (and therefore a violation of the First Commandment). Anything that deliberately suppresses the truth about God (as is the case in American civil religion) or treats Him as one god among many should be avoided. As David Adams writes,

“As Americans we may (and do) have to tolerate the worship of other gods within civil society, but as Christians we violate the First Commandment any time we tolerate or encourage the worship of other gods in the presence of Yahweh. The only possible conclusion upon reading the Word of God is that the people of God must not be a party to any activity that encourages or promotes the worship of other gods.”[12]

[1] Meacham, American Gospel, 22

[2] In the minds of the Founders, the need for religion or belief in a god was considered essential for the good of society.

[3] The Declaration of Independence refers to the American deity in four ways: “Creator”, “Nature’s God”, “the supreme judge of the world,” and “divine providence.” There is no mention of any deity in the Constitution.

[4] American Gospel, 23.

[5] Since monotheism has predominated in the American religious consciousness, rather than add multiple gods to the American pantheon, it is common to speak of one ‘god’ in very vague, lowest common denominator terms.

[6] Isaacson, ed. A Benjamin Franklin Reader, 376–378.

[7] A fact which is also borne out in history. The papacy is a prime example of what happens when the Church meddles in the affairs of the state. See also Article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology (Of Ecclesiastical Power).

[8] Kolb, “Christian Civic Responsibility in an Age of Judgment,” Concordia Journal 19 no. 1 (January 1993): 20.

[9] This is not to deny the importance of evangelism. Those who participate in American civil religion often do so under the guise of evangelism, when in fact participating in civic religion couldn’t be any more unevangelical as it compromises the Christian witness. Mere engagement with the world is neither evangelical (“mission” work that is limited to doing acts of mercy; showing up at a civic event; so-called “ministry” of presence) nor an end in itself with respect to the mission of the Church.

[10] American Gospel, 29.

[11] As a fundamental expression of (idolatrous) American civil religion, the phrase (and song) “God bless America” is best avoided by Christians. The attempt to co-opt such an essential expression from another religion would be akin to borrowing the term “Allah” for God in an effort to “baptize” it for Christian use. Such language is so intricately tied to idolatry as to make it beyond use for Christian purposes.

[12] The Anonymous God, 238.


American Idolatry — 21 Comments

  1. Dear Pastor,
    Where did you find the poster of the teacher and two children?

    I have often said that I don’t want prayer in public schools. People look aghast at me when I say it. When I tell them I don’t want to have to listen to a muslim, atheist or any other type of prayer other than a Christian one with a proper beginning and end over a PA system they stop and think. I graduated from a great public high school and I prayed a lot those four years and no one every stopped me.

    Great post by the way and Happy 4th of July!

    In Christ,

  2. @Diane #1

    I couldn’t agree with you more and thank you for your kind words. I found the picture through a basic Google Image search. There was a time when people would have resonated with its message; now it almost comes off as satire. Happy 4th to you, too!

  3. Eric,

    Yes, American civil religion is idolatry. One more reason to get those flags OUT of the sanctuary. Yes, prayer in schools should be reserved for the kids just prior to tests and not lead by some heterodox or false religion based teacher or principal. Appropriate are prayers for the nation and its leaders that they may be led to conform their governance to godly precepts in church. Zwingli is the guy who tried the theocracy thing in Switzerland. Didn’t work then, won’t work now, never will work this side of heaven.

  4. Although not the first person to make the suggestion, the Rev. George MacPherson Docherty recommended adding “under God” (borrowed from the Gettysburg Address) to the Pledge during his February 7, 1954, sermon, as President Dwight Eisenhower sat in Lincoln’s pew at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Eisenhower acted on Docherty’s suggestion, and the next day, February 8, a bill was introduced and later passed by Congress and signed into law by Eisenhower on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.

    No doubt Rev. Docherty agreed with Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 statement, “Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.”

    Perhaps we could drop “under God” and go back to the original 1892 Pledge written by Baptist Socialist minister Francis Bellamy, with our children giving the original “Bellamy salute,” which was dropped in 1942 for obvious reasons.

  5. When people who identified themselves as Christians settled in America, they were often escaping state run or formalized religions in Europe that had become ceremonial and less faithful. They wanted religious freedom. Idolatry of our country was not the focus of emigration. It was the idea of freedom to live, work, worship, and have some sovereignty over political affairs. We, as Christians, can be nationalistic, but God must be our first loyalty.

  6. To be honest I feel we should stay the Lord’s prayer in the public school. This prayer is one of the most important prayers for the Faith. It’s sad many people feel that doing prayer in the public school is unconstitutional. For decades America aloud children to pray together in the schools. Now that great idea is dead. Sorry for making this comment kind of sad my fellow Americans.

    p.s. Happy 4th of July day.

  7. Interesting article, as it makes me think there might be another angle to the pledge than the one I’ve always assumed.

    I’m not familiar with Eisenhower’s Presbyterian preacher’s sermon, but since the guy was likely some shade of Calvinist, it’s probably a safe bet the employment of “under God” stemmed from a Divine Sovreignty kind of thing – something no Lutheran could object to.

    Had Ike instituted the phrase after returning from a Freemason or UCC event, I think the point of the article would have nailed it and I’d stand with the JW’s and no longer say it.

    (Being a Southerner, I still chafe at the word “indivisible” more than “under God.”, but that’s for another blogsite.)

  8. If someone sneezes nearby, should I refrain from saying, “God bless you” if that person is not a Christian (or I just don’t know)?

    Or what if the situation is reversed — I sneeze and a non-Christian says to me, “God bless you”? Is it appropriate for me to say, “Thank you”? They may, in effect, be praying for the intervention of a false god, and isn’t every false god a manifestation of Satan? How could I honestly thank someone for that? What’s the best response?

  9. @Carl H #8

    Or what if the situation is reversed — I sneeze and a non-Christian says to me, “God bless you”? Is it appropriate for me to say, “Thank you”?

    Do you know a non Christian who says, “God bless you!” after a sneeze?
    {And isn’t this, just a little, off topic?} 🙂

    To pick a nit, shouldn’t the response
    to a Christian blessing you be, “Amen”?

  10. @Carl H #8

    That’s an interesting thought. Your scenario is a little different from the topic I raise in the article, as “God Bless America”, “In god we trust”, etc. are all expressions that are inextricably bound to civil religion and its idolatry. The logic of my argument would suggest refraining from speaking the words “under god” in the pledge; there is historical precedent in that it wasn’t originally part of the pledge. I’m not comfortable even paying lip service to the god of ceremonial deism since that god isn’t the Trinity. Any god who can be whatever you want him/her/it to be is not the One True God. But I digress…

    When someone sneezes, I don’t usually invoke God in response. I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong to, but it shouldn’t be done lightly or without regard for why you’re doing it. Who knows, maybe that’s a new evangelism strategy (you heard it first here, folks!) Bless those who sneeze, then proceed to divide Law & Gospel right there in the grocery store! When someone offers me a blessing, I think it’s appropriate enough to thank them- if not for theological reasons, for their acknowledgement of my condition.

  11. @Marc L. #7

    “I’m not familiar with Eisenhower’s Presbyterian preacher’s sermon”

    Here is Rev. Docherty’s sermon, “Under God,” preached at New York Presbyterian Church on February 7, 1954.

    The “sermon” shows that even in 1954 Christian preaching was at a low point, at least in Washington, D.C.

  12. I agree with all the sentiments above but like everything else in a parish, one has to go about most changes slowly (like the flag, God Bless America songs, etc) with teaching and patience unless they want to live in a box on the street with their family.

  13. I absolutely won’t say the ‘pledge’. No way, no how. My only allegiance is to our Lord. I wish our country well, I think I am a good citizen, but this republic does not get any fealty from me.

    I’ll be a total unpatriotic curmudgeon: I’d love to NOT see the US flag up by the altar. Why is it up there? :/

  14. @Elizabeth #12

    Once upon a time, Elizabeth, there was this entity called the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Missouri, Ohio and Other States (except all that was written in German). German was also the predominant language of the liturgies, hymnals and the Pastors’ sermons.

    Eventually, there was a War (two, actually) which had the US and Germany on opposite sides. The “Anglos” cast aspersions on the loyalty of the German speakers, so it was deemed politic to put a US flag in the chancel to demonstrate that the worshipers were indeed loyal citizens of the country.
    Then, too, men of German descent were drafted and the congregation considered the flag a declaration “in support of the troops”.

    (The last couple of decades have seen a gradual removal of that flag from the chancel to the nave, at least, and from there to the Sunday school room. It really does not belong in the chancel, but you may have to wait till you can drape it over the casket of the last WW II veteran and bury it with him.) ;\

  15. WHAT!?!?!? You unpatriotic commies!!!


    Seriously, I do agree. I know far too many people (and I know this because I used to be this way myself) who equate American political conservatism with Christianity, and as such they’ll subvert doctrine for the sake of American theism (see Glenn Beck). We far too often turn unity into the all-encompassing, overriding dogma for the sake of numbers, instead of trusting the God who calls us to doctrinal faithfulness regardless of how many or how few others stand with us.

    And we forget that this America is not our final home.

  16. Thanks for the info, Helen…very interesting.Veterans or no, I’d still dearly love to see it removed. Gov’t buildings, schools…sure. Church, no.

  17. Well, that’s a start. I wonder…did the early believers fly Roman banners at their meeting places?

  18. @Alan Turley #18
    You would not serve in the armed forces of the USA? On behalf of all us LCMS veterans I salute you.NOT! @Elizabeth #12

    There is a place for everything. The place of the US flag is not at the altar of our churches, especially not since last week.

    I grew up in an era when women were not recruited. That said, most of the boys and men I went to school with did serve. Uncles, cousins (and a son) have been in the service at various times and in all wars since the 1930’s.

  19. being a veteran I have a deep affection for my country, but I must agree that the US flag has no business being displayed anywhere in the sanctuary let alone at the alter.

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