Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Glenn Beck and Civic Religion

Normally, I wouldn't give Glenn Beck the time of day in a blog entry. I wouldn't because he really is the television equivalent of a shock-jock and I'm not really interested in ill-informed polemic. However, I was reading an article from Christianity Today talking about Beck's Washington D.C. rally and come across a discussion of Beck's 'Black Robe Regiment' This 'regiment' consists of 240 clergymen of various strips, mostly evangelicals, who support Beck's call to defend liberty in America. The article goes on to quote a Sojourner's blogger, Valerie Elverton Dixon, who identified this venture as an exercise of civil religion which she saw as a form of idolatry. Strong language that, but, perhaps, accurate. I, too, worry about civil religion because of what we've seen in history.

Of course, civil religion meant, to Christians, the traditional pagan rites which so permeated Greek and Roman society. These rites sought to appease gods who were generally not well-disposed to humans, so had to be made happy by regular sacrifices. If one didn't appease these gods, the result was, potentially, disaster to the city and to its citizens. This perceived risk was a large part of why Christianity was so threatening to the Romans and Greeks. Christianity took away people who should be, before anything else, keeping the gods happy and the city safe. So, should any disaster of whatever magnitude happen, it was natural to blame Christians because they weren't doing their duty by their ancestral gods; thus, explaining the hostility of the gods who brought about the disaster in the first place. The world was simply too dangerous to fool around which such things as new religions which suppress the worship of gods who had, at least, tolerated the existence of human communities for centuries.

Add to this, the practice of Emperor worship which began in the East shortly before the birth of Christ and expanded in the centuries following. Here was a much more blatant connection of the state and religion, so the stakes for not sacrificing reflected very badly on one's loyalty to the Roman state.

Of course, there were skeptics in the Greek and Roman period; individuals who didn't really believe in the traditional cults or even Emperor worship. Sometimes these critics might even question the existence of said gods, but, with only a few exceptions, very few of them refused to pay the standard attention to the civil cults. A large part of this was prudence, but, also, loyalty to one's community seemed to dictate participating in the communities religious festivals and rites as a form of loyalty to the city/state. One might seek to explain the mythological stories behind these cults using allegorical and other interpretive methods, but one still participated, if only to foster communal feelings.

These approaches to civil religion, of course, are easy to dismiss as mere superstition or hypocrisy. Yet, Christianity's record as a civil religion is not necessarily free from problems. In my last entry, I referred to the legacy of Constantinianism which, in many ways, represents the conversion of Christianity into a civil religion. This is particularly striking under Constantine, who openly supported Christianity, but still issued coinage which had blatantly pagan symbols on it and who put off his baptism (and, thus, membership in the Church) until the last minute in order to avoid post-baptismal sin. It remains influential for centuries as it became, first, politically, then socially expedient to claim Christian status in the Empire. The depth of these 'conversions' can be questioned, but their ubiquity cannot.

Now, don't get me wrong. The Constantinian impulse was, in the first place, a reaction to a unique theological conundrum at the time of Constantine; namely, how does the Church deal with a Emperor who was sympathetic to its aims. Understandably, after the persecutions of the late 3rd century and the 'Great Persecution' in the early 4th century, Christians were disinclined to reject the overtures coming from Constantine. So, it became necessarily to try to define a Christianity which could serve both as Gospel and as a civil religion.

The problem with this impulse is that it tends to lead to a flattening out of our hope that Christ will return to set the Creation to rights and put an end to death) and the identification of those hopes with the fortunes of the state. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Eusebius of Caesarea, the first and, arguably most influential theorist of Constantinianism saw Constantine's reign as a kind of foretaste of Christ's reign on Earth. Given how hard pressed the Church was during the 'Great Persecution', I think we can all sympathize with the sheer relief experienced by the Christians of the Roman Emperor when Constantine came along and, not only declared toleration for Christians, but even began to favour them. Yet, in their relief, one wonders if Eusebius et al realised that they were created divided loyalties by identifying Constantine too closely with Christ and the fulfillment of the hopes of the Gospel.

And, so, one wonders about this latest exercise in civil religion. Does the 'Black Robe Regiment' necessarily understand that what is at stake is their identification as the Church as distinguished from their loyalty to the American state? Does their loyalty as Americans trump their Christian hope? I trust not, but the blurriness of the picture created by this 'regiment' should cause us all to worry. Whose Second Coming are we waiting for? Christ's or America's?