After Jerry Falwell Jr. said, “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them,” I posted a quick response on Facebook. After seeing it my wife looked at me and said, “You’ve been a lot more political lately.”
I suppose I have, and there’s reason for that.
I believe we are coming to a fork in the road where the Civil Religion of America will distinguish itself from biblical Christianity. In one direction it will be Country and god; in the other Jesus and Church.
America’s politics have always had an awkward marriage with religion. A perfect example is Thomas Jefferson’s removal of anything supernatural from the Bible. It’s a picture of America’s love of a pragmatic faith that, with the little help from God, aids our achievement of the American Dream. The common sense moral values taught by Jesus influenced Jefferson, but when you remove anything from the Bible that contradicts reason you also remove the divine.
Not all of the founding fathers believed like Jefferson, to be sure, but Jefferson’s adoption of Christian values into his down-to-earth, utilitarian faith lives on in American Civil Religion. With the Constitution as the sacred text, the founding fathers its saints, and common sense individualism its sanctified goal for humanity, our civil religion offers an attractive religious alternative to Christianity. When it comes to American politics, one needs an immense amount of discernment to distinguish between religious sounding talk and actual Christian talk.
This is exactly why Jerry Falwell Jr.’s comments are so concerning. As the president of one of the largest Christian universities in the country, whose motto is “Training Champions for Christ,” we should expect a better reflection of Christian values. Notice, his statement talks of preemptive violence that “ends those Muslims before they walked in.” Let’s be clear, this is not the way of Jesus. In the Kingdom of God, violence does not defeat violence. The cross of Jesus unmasks the false power of violence to bring about peace by defeating evil in a show of weakness. We may be allured by the promises of power; hopeful in the force of military general. But do not be mistaken, this is not Christianity.
Civil religion glorifies violence as the means of bringing salvation to its adherents. Christianity glorifies the slain lamb who gave himself up for the world.
If it was just one instance where one person said one wacky thing, then okay. But Falwell’s statement was meant with cheers. Not only that, but we have Donald Trump, who says his favorite book is the Bible, saying we should discriminate against Muslims, keep them out of the country whose First Amendment is the freedom of religion, and give them special I.D.’s. It’d be nice to chalk those comments up to a xenophobic outlier, but it’s hard to make the case that he’s an outlier as one of the leading GOP presidential candidates. Too many people are trying ignore him, brushing him and his rhetoric under the rug by claiming he won’t win. Whether or not Trump wins is beside the point. Thousands upon thousands of people support him, meaning they believe Trump is speaking for them. He is saying what they believe. That should frighten the hell out of us.
As Christians, religious liberty is important to us. But be clear, if the government can discriminate against one religion, it can distinguish between all religions. If there is not religious liberty for Muslims, there is not religious liberty for Christians.
Civil religion allows distinct religions to exist insofar as they submit themselves to the greater religion and worship according to its rules. Christianity does not deny the uniqueness of Christ. Instead, it exalts his uniqueness, and worships Jesus as the one who rules from whom all authority comes.
But again, we don’t just have the glorification of guns, and we don’t just have a crotchety old man spouting off hatred for a major religion. We also have the active demonization of a people who are fleeing terrorism. Governors across the nation have worked to block refugees from coming to their states out of fear. As Christians called to help the widow and orphan, to welcome the stranger, and to love our neighbor as ourself, blocking refugees in the name of security isn’t a cut and dry answer. We cannot simply abandon these clear teachings of Jesus because we are scared. Is it scary to welcome the stranger? Yes. But it comes with the possibility of immense joy. For in entertaining strangers we might entertain angels. We might learn wonderful things, make beautiful friends, be blessed in ways that we never imagined, and find the Kingdom of God is near.
Civil religion is not interested in the stranger. It is not interested in love of neighbor. Civil religion is interested only in love of country; which, as a utilitarian faith, must serve the individual.* Christianity seeks to love the world, and in doing so, point to the one who so loved the world that he gave his only Son.
This is why it seems like I am being more political.
But if I’m being more political, it is only because I desire to live the politics of the Kingdom of God. If I’m being more political, it’s because I do not want to stand idly by as the lines between civil religion and Christianity are blurred. If I’m being more political, it’s because I believe we are in a moment where Christians have to stand and proclaim with whole-hearted conviction that Jesus is Lord. Not Caesar.
*The second half of this thought was pointed out to me by my friend Brian Stone.