American Civil Religion
American Civil Religion. It is not a defined religion or denomination, but a cluster notions about God that many Americans have come to accept rather uncritically. It tends to be rather syncretistic, meaning that it draws on a variety of religious expressions, faiths, along with human intuition and desire (what we would like God to be).
I’m not going to offer an exhaustive critique — that would be a whole book! But I do want to focus on one pervasive element: that salvation must be earned. Maybe I don’t need to be perfect, but I need to be pretty good, on balance, for God to accept me into that eternal reward. Of course, this idea isn’t uniquely American, but we have raised it to an art form. I believe it is antithetical to Christian faith, to following Jesus.
In Sunday’s Gospel lesson from Mark (click here to read it), we encounter a man who came to Jesus asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” After going through a few of the commandments, we learn that the man had done all these things, yet still didn’t think he was good enough.
Mark tells us that Jesus loved him (the only time we are told that about anyone in the Gospel of Mark) and that what remained for him to do was sell his possessions and give to the poor. In other words, as long as this world has a hold on you, you will not enjoy the wholeness, healing and salvation of God. For this man, that is what had a hold on him. We are told he went away grieving because he was wealthy and could not get give it up.
It is tempting to hear this as another legalism, another thing to do to be good enough, but I don’t believe that is what Jesus was saying. Eternal life and salvation are not just pie in the sky after I die, but rather about a life rooted in those realities here and now. The Civil Religion tends to see faith as being about what happens after I die, but Christian faith is very much invested in this life — about living in this world here and now in a way that is rooted in the heavenly kingdom.
Divesting himself of wealth is what this man needed to experience the fullness and joy that God intends for us now. This prescription was for this man. You may have a different prescription. Before you breath and sigh of relief, I think it is a prescription Jesus would give to many of us and you probably need it more than you think!
But the central point I want to make is that it is not primarily about earning a spot in the next life, but rather about living under nothing but the grace of God in this life.
Can we root out this vestige of Civil Religion and root ourselves in Jesus? Do you actually want to do that?
This column appeared in the October 10, 2021 edition of St. John’s eNews. Click here for the complete issue.
If you are reading this at a different time, you may click here for the current eNews.