Fractured Patriotism

Stepping up to the platform at the Southern Baptist convention a few years ago, I surveyed a heaving sea of tiny American flags. Seventeen thousand delegates were cheering for the speaker just before me, Oliver North. A blend of Christianity and Americana is a staple in our country's heartland. On any Fourth of July, thousands of churches host God-and-country rallies. Evangelicals have been the backbone of America's civil religion: those virtues that bind a pluralistic society together. But now observers are asking: Is American civil religion still viable today? David Smolin of Samford University puts the question even more bluntly: Has America moved so far from what he terms "Christian loyalties and values" as to fracture our tradition of religious patriotism? Smolin cites abortion, where the Supreme Court has abandoned any notion of a higher law--whether divine law in revelation or human law in the Constitution. In Roe v. Wade, Smolin writes, abortion rights were based on the arbitrary will of judges and hence became "lawless." In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court went even further: It transformed abortion from an implied privacy right into an express liberty--and then defined liberty as "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, . . . and of the mystery of human life." But if laws can't interfere with an individual's beliefs about "existence" and "meaning," then laws can't cover anything at all. Casey undercuts the basis for law altogether. Even more disturbing, our political opponents argue that Christian involvement in public life is illegitimate. Liberal political theory contemplates a public square where all arguments rely on universal, publicly accessible reasons. But, as Smolin writes, religious beliefs rely on claims of divine authority not shared by all. Hence, Christians joining the abortion debate are denounced as "illegitimate political participants." They're considered "lawless" in the sense of operating outside the rules of the political system. This was the clear message of the Supreme Court's Madsen decision, in which the Court created a 36-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. As Smolin writes, "Abortion supporters demonstrating within the buffer zone were allowed to proclaim their message . . . [but] peaceful anti-abortion protesters . . . were arrested." If the historic link between faith and country snaps, Smolin predicts two possible outcomes: On one hand, "the religion will accommodate itself to the patriotism"--that is, Christians will turn a blind eye to America's moral decline and wave their flags anyway. Otherwise, Smolin says, "the patriotism will give way to the religion"--that is, Christians will withdraw from mainstream society into a "class of permanent exiles." An important historical precedent comes from Nazi Germany. Under admittedly far harsher circumstances, 139 German church leaders proclaimed independence from both the state and a co-opted church. The 1934 Barmen Declaration contained no political references. Instead, it asserted the independent role of the church in public life. The upcoming election will strain the faltering alliance between faith and patriotism even further. The Democrats are already committed to abortion rights. Any Republican candidate will be under enormous pressure not to rock the boat on Casey. If this happens, we may discover that we are closer to Germany's Barmen Declaration than to the triumph of the religious right.  


Chuck Colson


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