Civil Rites

Sundays’ op-eds often have sensitive fingers on the pulse of the American religious scene. A piece by Tom Deignan in Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger raised a very interesting point about civil religion. Civil religion is, loosely defined, the acting out of religion in a civil-political forum as a cheap form of nationalism. We do it because it works. Noting that a presidential candidate denying the divinity of Christ in the twenty-first century would be engaging in political suicide, Deignan rightly points out that many earlier “Protestant” presidents would—and did—do just that. He notes that Taft, a Unitarian, came outright and said it. No matter the protestations of the Neo-Cons, the founding fathers were Deists, not believers in Christ’s divinity. Thomas Jefferson went as far as to excise all the miracles from his version of the New Testament. The idea that religio-politicking is business as it’s always been done is a myth.

And what a persistent myth it is! Many Protestant denominations trace their ancestry back to founders who believed that they were closer to the apostolic faith than the next guy. They legitimately believed their faith was the original, intended by God, Christianity. Thus it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be. Only it’s not true. Religion was purposely written out of the Constitution of the United States with the Bill of Rights declaring its freedom the ideal. What presidents believed hardly played into the concept of their fitness for national leadership in the early days. Now little else seems to matter. Deignan rightly wonders why Mitt Romney is so tight-lipped about his Mormonism. Could it be he fears what critics might say about devising a national budget through rose-colored glasses? Surely his vast personal wealth belies that concern.

So what was the original Christianity? On this point the Bible is amazingly unobscured; early Christianity was Judaism. Jesus was called “Rabbi,” and his teachings weren’t too far distant from Hillel and others near his generation. Paul of Tarsus, who pointed the nascent religion towards its evolution into Catholicism, was also Jewish. Following his faith in resurrection, some early Christians moved into the direction of eventual ritualism. The fancy hats of the papacy, it is fair to say, were never in the minds of Jesus or Paul. Not even Peter. Modern religions, even the primitivist movements, cannot reclaim the Christianity of the first century. That religion does not fit into a world of Internet, cell phones, and automobiles, let alone presidential candidates with wealth befitting King Herod. Let’s just grow up and admit where we are.