On civil religion and Glenn Beck

In the wake of his weekend rally, Glenn Beck kept up the drumbeat of criticism about President Obama’s religion, calling … Continued

In the wake of his weekend rally, Glenn Beck kept up the drumbeat of criticism about President Obama’s religion, calling it a “perversion” and saying that America “isn’t recognizing his version of Christianity,” which Beck characterized as “liberation theology.”

Despite critique of Obama’s Christianity, a recent poll showed that nearly 20% of Americans believe falsely that the president is Muslim.

Civil religion may be one of the few things less popular than Glenn Beck at Harvard. Two psychological conditions account for most of this fear and loathing. A combination of theophobia–the irrational fear of all things religious–and political dextrophobia–an unhealthy worry about the right side of the body politic–runs unchecked in the blood stream of such schools, disabling the open-mindedness normally prized.

The sad person so afflicted cannot see the difference between the Taliban now killing Americans in Afghanistan and the nice folk who gathered on the Mall in Washington the last weekend of August. Since the Taliban is motivated by religion and most Americans at the Glenn Beck rally were motivated by religion, they must be similar. This is akin to believing that a man being drowned is in the same condition as the man being offered a drink of water after a workout.

Beck’s group was so orderly that they would not even litter while at the Mall. From such folk terrorists are not made.

Oddly, the same phobias, having been acquired in graduate school, are rampant in many Christian college faculty lounges. Few things irritate Christian academics more than the lazy assumption they are all Republicans or political conservatives.

Yet in this case both the objects of scorn, civil religion and Glenn Beck, are good for the nation. Glenn Beck spent the weekend urging a return to the civil religion of his childhood and he was right to do so.

Christians who oppose civil religion often do so for good reasons. Some people do confuse civil religion with Christianity, but America is not the Church and patriotism is not the greatest love. History demonstrates that you can be a patriot, even a hero of the nation, and a bad man in your private life. Thomas Jefferson did good service, at times, to his nation, but he was a cad and a bounder in his private life.

What good is civil religion?

Civil religion will not save anyone from damnation in the next life, but it allows the damned and the saved to work together in this life. Civil religion is the minimum claim that my allegiance to the United States of America is under God. Civil religion limits the domain of the state to one area of my life. Washington is not my lord.

I am a participant, not a communicant, in the civil religion.

The American civil religion allows all the great monotheistic faiths to agree to disagree on the vital details of religion. Those important, indeed most vital, questions are left to the family, private society, and religious organizations.

You cannot, however, form a nation on the mere agreement to disagree. It was the genius of our founders, influenced by centuries of Christian historical experience, to find the minimum affirmation of loyalty that would allow both Christians and Jews (to use the historical example) to both be equal citizens of the state. We would limit government and keep it out of the family and vast swatches of private life. This would be the domain of family and church or synagogue. The government would demand our allegiance, but accept that this allegiance to the American ideal was limited to any decent man’s allegiance to Judeo-Christian values.

For this reason, the Constitution did not force Christians with an objection to “swearing oaths” to swear oaths to the state. For the same reason, the military rapidly developed ways for religious pacifists to serve the nation without bearing arms. Though inconsistently at times, civil religion allowed us to accommodate both minimal religious and ethical unity while allowing for diversity.

Eventually it allowed for secularists to also become full members of the commonwealth, because of the limitations placed on the power of the state. If they too would agree, for their own reasons, to Judeo-Christian morality, then we would tolerate their failure to agree to the foundations for that morality. For many Americans this was and is a close call, but tolerance where possible is always the right thing to do.

There are, however, two reasonable causes for worry about the sort of civil religion on display at the Beck rally. First, the aesthetic was cloying and too narrow to sustain a national revival. Second, conservatives always should worry about mass movements, because excellence can be lost and extremism bred.

For conservatives to achieve their goals, they will need to reclaim cultural and not just political leadership. For too long, they have given up on the arts, including popular arts, and been content not “to know much about art, though I know what I like.” This attitude does not encourage excellence or innovation in the arts. It does encourage false sentimentality, bathos, and ugliness.

Some critics of Beck obviously hate all sentiment, but the way to counter their soullessness is not through schmaltz. Both Wordsworth and Hallmark Greeting Cards produce poems about flowers, but Wordsworth did it well and Hallmark often does not. Artists can (and often have) become inbred so that they talk only to themselves, but conservatives will only encourage this if they refuse to elevate the tastes of their audience. Conservatives should encourage more Rembrandt and less Kinkade.

Conservatives are not afraid of experts and of knowledge, including in the arts. The Beck rally was often artistically trite and fell into simple audience manipulation, because it confused social conservatism with artistic “safety.”

What do I mean? Artistic snobs sniff at all popular or country music and Beck has good reason to ignore snobs. However, some pop music is bad music even if the audience of the moment happens to like it. This sort of stuff is unendurable to watch if you are not at the rally and sounds dated days after the rally has happened.

Beck and his crowd must find artists and craftsmen that will both encourage and challenge their tastes. Otherwise the ugliness and artistic falseness of the presentation will drive away potential allies and get in the way of making converts.

Finally, in any mass movement there is the every present danger of demagoguery and tyranny. Some opponents of Beck cry demagogue too lightly and fear theocracy every time a child draws a crèche in government schools, but even the irrational fears of a lover of liberty cannot be ignored.

Many people are mad and feel powerless. Conservatives know that this is the very time not to stoke fears or hatreds, but to calm them. No conservative wants a “revolution,” but thoughtful and gradual renewal of basic values. A virtue of the Beck presentation was that it centered on “faith, hope, and charity” and not on the “bad guys.”

Demonizing foes is very dangerous stuff. Nobody can avoid drawing distinctions or saying why they disagree with their foes, but the twentieth century is full of examples of this going bad. Beck worked hard to get this right, and did, but the danger still exists.

Traditional Christians know that Beck could never be “their leader” as traditional Christians, because he is not one. They know that America is not the “promised land” and that patriotism is not the only or even the highest virtue.

Most American Christians are thankful to live in a land where they can practice their faith. They wish for a government small enough to make social stability possible, because it does not make religious or philosophical decisions best left to families, religious groups, and societies. Beck mostly gets this and so, hard as it is for an academic to admit, Beck is mostly right.

John Mark Reynolds
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  • Counterww

    I agree with most of this for sure.Very good opinion.

  • areyousaying

    “theophobia” is a code word for fear of an intolerant, right-wing, racist, Glenn Beck Christian theocracy or Huckabee overthrowing the Constitution to replace it with his Leviticus cherry-picked version of “God’s Standards”We need more of it not that the “Christians” of Palin and Fox News have hijacked poor old Jesus to combine their religion with an old, white supremacist Southern political party.Their theocracy is coming to America with a bible opened to leviticus in one hand and a moose rifle in the other and Reynolds is one of their “pastors”

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