Civil Religion and The Powers That Be

Popularly known as the “Muslim Gandhi,” Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988) led hundreds of thousands of Pashtuns in nonviolent resistance to the oppressive British colonizers in India, suffering greatly as a result.  For him, nonviolence was integral to any authentic practice of Islam:

There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence.  It is not a new creed.  It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca, and it has since been followed by all those who wanted to throw off an oppressor’s yoke” (quoted in Johansen, Robert C. “Radical Islam and Nonviolence: A Case Study of Religious Empowerment and Constraint among Pashtuns” in Journal of Peace Research [vol. 34 no. 1: 1997], 60).

Khan appears as Mohatma Ghandi’s loyal confederate in the 1982 Richard Attenborough classic, Gandhi (played by Dilsher Singh) but his story is largely untold in Western lore.  He was a principled leader-by-example who spent nearly thirty years as a political prisoner and whose followers suffered hundreds of fatalities as the British occupiers tried in vain to provoke them to violence.  So why is Ghaffar Khan relatively obscure in the Western narrative of Islam?  Why do warlords, terrorists, tyrants, and freedom fighters dominate the image so many of us have of Muslims?  Part of the answer might be that the Powers That Be are sustained by the concept of a militant Islam, an identifiable Enemy, a violent Other.  Politics of fear, theologies of scarcity, and narratives of adversity help to entrench various powers at the expense of a holistic picture of Islam.  Robert Johansen, of Notre Dame’s Kroch Institute for International Peace Studies, writes:

Political and religious leaders interested in maintaining their own power take no interest in reminding people that [Khan’s resistance movement] existed, because if enough people knew about their successful deeds against the odds, similar deeds might happen again: People might be faithful to a new understanding of their religious tradition, act boldly for liberation, reject the violent modes of action and leadership that benefit elites while injuring common people, and transcend narrow identities that both political leadership and institutionalized religion have fundamentally encouraged” (Johansen 68).

Ghaffar Khan will never be beatified in American civil religion, an institution loosely based on (Protestant) Christian ideals, American pragmatism, Enlightenment philosophies, quasi-imperialist nationalism, free-market consumerism, and historical-political revisionism, all couched in a strange mix of Christian and Constitutional vocabularies.  Civil religion has many temples, not the least of which are religious sanctuaries.  In fact, civil religion is one ideology which has been largely successful at transcending the denominational and political fissures in the American ecclesiological landscape (though, to be fair, not without significant resistance).

Civil religion, in its Christian instantiation, appropriates the story of the Church through the matrix of American ideals.  The distinction between what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be an American becomes hopelessly confused.  People profess, “The Lord is my Rock and Salvation” while placing their actual faith in national militaries to earn and sustain their security and freedom.  The subliminal political narrative – that to be a good Christian one must be a good American (and its more reactionary correlate, that to be a good American one must be a good Christian) is at the root of this hybrid meta-narrative which has coopted the Church’s ability to tell her own story, to form her own disciples.  The first decalogical prohibition is against idolatry (Ex 20:3).  Jesus warns that his followers cannot serve two masters (Mt 6:24) and that not even family (Lk 14:26) can be more determinative than discipleship.  Paul concludes that for those baptized into the Church, the dividing lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and gender are dissolved (Gal 3:28).  Faith, hope, and love – not materialism, patriotism, and culture-centrism – characterize Christians.  A famed ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, provocatively illuminates the extent to which civil religion has infested American Christianity in a talk for Princeton’s Forum on Youth Ministry:

I assume most of you are here because you think you are Christians, but it is not all clear to me that the Christianity that has made you Christians is Christianity. For example:

How many of you worship in a church with an American flag? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.

How many of you worship in a church in which the fourth of July is celebrated? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.

How many of you worship in a church that recognizes Thanksgiving? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.

How many of you worship in a church that celebrates January 1 as the ‘New Year?’ I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.

How many of you worship in a church that recognizes ‘Mother’s Day?’  I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt” (retrieved from Vox Nova).

The soteriological effects of blending of American and Christian language, history, and ideals are beside the point of this article.  Rather, there is another problem.  American pluralism is based on a pragmatic conversation in which people representing diverse perspectives gather to share their views, each helping one another to adjust, clarify, and grow through this interaction (cf. Mouffe, Chantal . The Democratic Paradox [New York: Verso, 2000], 91).  The more authentically Christian the Church can remain, the more she can contribute to the pluralistic discourse which shapes American life.  The less American religious institutions mimic national ideals and the more they are guided by what is good, holy, and prophetic in their rich traditions, the more both the Church and the State will benefit.  Civil religion engenders and endorses cultural enmity like the rift between “Islam” and “the West;” authentic religion celebrates adherents like Ghaffar Khan and transcends the rivalries upon which the Powers That Be depend.

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2 thoughts on “Civil Religion and The Powers That Be

  1. A very thought-provoking piece indeed – I certainly need to investigate Abdul Ghaffar Khan more (although I’m profoundly sceptical that, if more people knew about him, “similar deeds might happen again” – Johansen seems to commit a common error and overstate the power and flexibility of non-violent resistance, but perhaps more on this at another time).

    I have two questions, which may well stem from my ignorance of the history of Christianity or from a misunderstanding of your post – much of this is new ground for me.

    It seems to me that you suggest that while modern American Christianity has been, as you put it, “infested” with American “civil religion”, and has therefore become “inauthentic”, there was at some time, and is available to us today, some more “authentic” Christianity which is less “infested” with cultural considerations. This strikes me as unlikely. Is it not the case that Christianity itself was founded in a cultural context, and that that cultural context “infested” it as much as our current one does? And is it not the case that all texts, religious or otherwise, must perforce be viewed through the “matrix” of whatever time and culture we happen to experience.

    We can hope for no culturally-neutral “view from nowhere” from which to get a “true” reading on the bible, for example – the very first biblical scholars read the text (and the “text” of Jesus’ life) through spectacles forged in their own contexts, did they not? And it may well be their view was every bit as nationalistic as ours, and perhaps more-so. So, I suppose I’m asking, what makes one form of Christianity any more “authentic” than another and, if it does, does that mean it is any better?

    This leads to my second question, because it further occurs to me that the “infestation” you describe, although it may infuse “bad” things like “cultural enmity” into “authentic religion” (although it seems to me there is plenty of THAT to be found in most religions’ founding texts, and at all points of their history), it may also infuse quite wonderful things, like the very respect for pluralism you describe, which has not always been a part of Christian practice. Women and gay people probably have a lot to thank the “civil religion” for, for forcing, essentially, churches and religious practices to be more welcoming to them, and are we to say this is a bad thing?

    A lot, I know, but as I said – you provoked my thinking!

    P.S. Many thanks for introducing me to “soteriological”. As a sesquipedalian writer it is most delightful!

    1. James, thank you very much for your insight. Your two questions are very helpful and seem quite interrelated. I do think that there is something of a “religious ideal,” though this may be more a confessional or philosophical statement than anything which can be demonstrated through source criticism and historical reductionism. I do not mean to suggest that religious institutions, free from cultural expectations, have had a long and spotless history of social activism and progressivism (embodying this ideal) prior to the rise of the American nation-state. Partly this is because – as you correctly point out – such institutions have always been culturally located (and have always been handy tools for political and economic forces seeking metaphysical justification for their self-serving agendas), but partly this is because of just the inverse: religious traditions have absolutized their own texts, forgetting the historical contexts both of their authorship and their readership. For this reason, traditions have much to learn from contemporary society – about, for example, the gender and sexuality issues you raised. But in this case society serves as a mirror, not a role model.

      The Pauline baptismal formula to which I made reference has been telling the Church for two millennia that in Christ there is no longer “male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Pluralism is at its best when it offers a mirror to the various interlocutors; it is at its poorest when it demands – explicitly or implicitly – the assimilation of those involved. I think Paul’s analogy of the Church being one body with many parts is apt also for a pluralistic society. In a body, each organ has a specific role to play; when all the organs are functioning the body is at its best. Paul asks, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” (1Co 12:17). I think that civil religion makes traditional religions not into a surplus of eyes, but into undifferentiated cells (I am NOT trying to introduce the stem cell controversy here!), such that the body suddenly has no ears and no eyes.

      So yes, I agree with you completely that religious institutions, practitioners, and appropriators of text have dropped the ball through the ages – if they ever had it in the first place. Certainly the larger society has a lot to teach these traditions about values of equality, freedom, and justice (which happen to be American values). But if the way through is assimilation to civil religion, the traditions will forget their prophetic voices to challenge society when it goes wrong, as when rage and bloodlust cause nations to march to war. A number of Christian churches made a liturgical shift in the wake of September 11: instead of singing the traditional Doxology after receiving the offering, they began singing “God Bless America” (incidentally, many Major League Baseball stadiums substituted “God Bless America” for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch). This nationalistic hymn continued during the drive to invade Afghanistan, then during the push to invade Iraq, and many still continue this practice to this day. Certainly, I want society to hold up a helpful mirror to the religious institutions when the latter express instincts toward prejudice, injustice, or intolerance. But I also want these institutions to be available to challenge and transform society when society falls victim to militarism, commercialism, or individualism. I feel that civil religion renders both processes unnatural and difficult.

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