Does Christianity make a good civil religion? First-century Rome certainly didn’t think so. And Jesus himself instructed his followers to separate the things of God from the things of Caesar, a distinction no pagan Roman was ever forced to make. In some sense, Jesus created the problem of church and state, and Christians for two millennia have had to live with the consequences.
But not everyone has been content to live with the tension inherent and inescapable in the dual citizenship St. Augustine wrote about in The City of God. For a time, the early church hoped the Emperors Constantine or Theodosius would bring Christ’s kingdom to earth through their godly political rule. Centuries later, modern political theorists developed their own ways of reconciling the earthly and heavenly kingdoms.
In the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau longed to recover the unity of state and cult known in antiquity. The Genevan philosopher wrote in The Social Contract that every state required a religion at its base. But, he charged, “the Christian law is at bottom more injurious than serviceable to a robust constitution of the state.” He singled out Catholicism for “giving men two legislative orders, two rulers, two homelands.” In Rousseau’s judgment, this dual citizenship contemptibly “destroy[ed] social unity.” The modern unitary state required a more instrumental Christianity, a “religion of humanity” that focused man’s attention more on his homeland in this world than on the life to come. To this benign faith Rousseau allied a “civil religion” whose dogmas affirmed belief in a providential God, assurance of reward and punishment in the afterlife, and a spirit of tolerance.
Modern American evangelicalism has its own way of reconciling church and state. It imagines an ideal American founding on Christian principles, blames the nation’s decline on secularists, and mobilizes politically active believers to “reclaim” America as God’s chosen land. It sees no inherent conflict between America and the gospel. Christianity is safe for America’s political and economic order. In fact, a return to the Bible’s wisdom and morality would automatically heal the nation and secure its bright future. No one need choose between allegiance to Christ and allegiance to America.
Guided by these assumptions, The American Patriot’s Bible attempts with breathtaking audacity to synthesize Americanism and Christianity. Into the complete text of Scripture itself this new edition of the Bible inserts quotations from famous American statesmen, soldiers, preachers, and scientists testifying to their high regard for God and His Word. Not content to leave it at that, this Bible also draws parallels between the sacred narrative of Scripture and the American experience. Every book of the Old and New Testament opens with an inspiring reflection on the alleged similarities between God’s people of old and America today. Some of the parallels, such as Washington as the national Moses, have been commonplace in pulpit and political rhetoric for over 200 years. Others, such as Franklin Roosevelt as America’s Nehemiah, will come as a shock, especially for anyone who expects this Bible to have a narrowly right-wing political agenda. Indeed, the book goes out of its way to be nonpartisan, ecumenical, and racially inclusive. Its message is more populist and nationalist than conservative. Its heroes range from Lincoln to Kennedy to Reagan.
The editor, Richard G. Lee, serves as founding pastor of First Redeemer Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch in metro Atlanta. In the summer of 2009, his church hosted a “Restoring America Conference” featuring Oliver North and David Limbaugh among other Republican activists. Reverend Lee’s Bible seeks, in his words, to show “the ‘strong cord’ of the Bible’s influence that runs through the colorful fabric of our nation’s past and present.” No one can reasonably deny that the Bible profoundly shaped America’s colonization and national development. The evidence is everywhere. But Lee and his research staff have chosen that evidence with a template in hand that led them to find exactly the useable past they needed and nothing else. And they searched Scripture in the same way, finding a Christianity of power, moralism, and worldly success, not one of persecution, cross-bearing, and division.
The story that emerges from Lee’s editorial notes is straightforward and reinforces the familiar Christian-America framework. This whole project would collapse without that framework. America was founded on a “Judeo-Christian ethic” drawn from the Bible. Until relatively recently, principles taken from that ethic dominated America’s schools, politics, and culture. Under assault by secularists who have obscured the role of religion in American history and misappropriated the myth of separation of church and state, the nation has declined morally. The Bible must therefore be returned to its central place of authority in American life in order to restore the nation’s moral fabric and reclaim its special calling from God to defend freedom at home and abroad. The phrase “one nation under God” best sums up what America once was and what it will be again if enough concerned Christians rally to the call for political action.
The publisher’s marketing strategy makes the message plain. Its advertising campaign is slick and aggressive. The Bible’s website (www.americanpatriotsbible.com) features a short promotional video that has to be seen to be believed. No satire is possible. To the accompaniment of stirring music, three pairs of pictures fade slowly in and out of view. The first set shows Adam and Eve and then George and Martha Washington followed by the caption, “First Families.” The second shows Moses and then Abraham Lincoln followed by the caption, “Freedom Fighters.” (In a delightful faux pas, the producers picked an engraving of Moses about to shatter the two tablets of the law.) The third outdoes the first two by showing Jesus with his disciples at the Last Supper and then the delegates of the Continental Congress followed by the caption, “Founding Fathers.” Just in case anyone has missed the point, the video ends with the words, “Sometimes history repeats itself.”
How the history of redemption and the history of the United States supposedly come together is the whole point of The American Patriot’s Bible. It combines the two seamlessly. But its account of the American past is highly selective. It has no room for inconvenient facts. To be sure, the editor and his staff report truths about American history. But they don’t tell the whole truth. To their credit, they avoid the many spurious quotations often ascribed to the Founders by less than scrupulous partisans of “Christian America.” Famous Americans really did say these things about the Bible, Jesus, and Christianity. But they said much more.
Just a few examples show the misleading results that come from this Bible’s method of “proof-texting” its way through American history. By including profiles of both Samuel F. B. Morse and Pope John Paul II, The Patriot’s Bible suggests a harmony in American Christianity that never existed. Morse helps illustrate Numbers 23:23, the source for his famous exclamation “What hath God wrought!” during the first successful telegraph transmission. But the editor remains utterly silent about Morse’s career in the 1830s as the author of bestselling exposés of papal plots against American liberty. Naturally, the historical Morse would muddy the waters. It just wouldn’t do to include a box quoting his alarm about swarms of Jesuit-inspired immigrants: “Americans, you are marked for their prey, not by foreign bayonets, but by weapons surer of effecting the conquest of liberty than all the munitions of physical combat in the military or naval storehouses of Europe.” Such divisiveness ruins civil religion.
Likewise, the full-page account of the Pledge of Allegiance inserted into the Old Testament book of Ruth explains how it came to be written in the 1890s and that the phrase “under God” was added during the Cold War with President Eisenhower’s blessing. This is all true. Nowhere, however, does it mention the inconvenient fact that the Pledge’s author, Francis Bellamy, was a socialist and a rabid nativist who wanted to limit immigration to certain “pure” races.
Yes, Alexis de Tocqueville really did say, “there is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains greater influence over the souls of men than in America.” But he also said, immediately before that quotation, “in the United States the sovereign authority is religious, and consequently hypocrisy must be common.”
Tom Paine did indeed quote from the Bible in his Revolutionary War tract Common Sense. But the freethinking Paine also wrote The Age of Reason, a book meant “to show, from the Bible itself, that there is abundant matter to suspect it is not the Word of God…” In 1797, he summed up his debunking of the first chapters of Genesis by saying, “If this then is the strange condition the beginning of the Bible is in it leads to a just suspicion that the other parts are no better, and consequently it becomes every man’s duty to examine the case. I have done it for myself, and am satisfied that the Bible is fabulous”that is, built of fables.
And yes, Thomas Jefferson did in fact more than once praise Jesus’ “moral precepts” for their “purity.” But he also edited an infamous version of the gospels that removed all references to Jesus’ miracles and ended not with the resurrection but simply with his death and burial in the tomb. It is true that Jefferson valued the social utility of Jesus’ ethical teachings, but he compared the effort to uncover them in the gospel accounts to finding “diamonds in a dunghill.” He also denied Christ’s divinity and called Paul “the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” The editor’s introduction to the book of Romans quotes Woodrow Wilson instead.
These quotations do not prove the opposite of the thesis embedded in The American Patriot’s Bible. They do not prove that America was invariably bigoted, racist, hypocritical, and anti-Christian. Instead, they show that the full record simply cannot give the editor the kind of America he so earnestly wants. There is no golden age of Christian America waiting to be rediscovered and reclaimed.
The logic of The American Patriot’s Bible relies on more than a selective memory. It also depends on a particular kind of exegesis and application of Scripture. To make this story work, somehow we have to get from ancient Israel to modern America. The New Testament writers began the practice of applying biblical Israel’s calling to the church. Peter, for example, in his first epistle calls the church God’s “chosen people” and “holy nation.” It has been common, therefore, for the church throughout its history to read Old Testament passages about God’s “people” in light of its own identity as the realization of God’s true Israel. This appropriation of Old Testament language still offends devout Jews, who object to what they see as the wholesale theft of their identity by Christians. That offense is unavoidable, but the proponents of Christian America take the next step and apply God’s covenant promises to the United States, a leap that offends more Christians than one might expect.
Why this confusion of the church and America matters becomes clear in how The Patriot’s Bible uses promises like the one found in II Chronicles 7:14: “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” The Patriot’s Bible reads these words as addressed to America as a once Christian but now backslidden nation. Applying “My people” loosely to America means that God’s people can claim the promises made to Israel just as surely as if they were made to the United States. Repentance will bring healing to the nation. The Patriot’s Bible claims that the book of Second Chronicles offers nothing less than “a model of national spiritual renewal.”
Publication of The American Patriot’s Bible ought to provoke a much needed debate in the United States about the church’s right relationship to civil society. This Bible may become a landmark in that debate, clarifying the issues as never before, forcing people to recognize the degree to which Americanism has penetrated Christianity. An Augustinian perspective may help frame that conversation. In Book XIX of The City of God, the Bishop of Hippo explained in which areas there can be peace and in which there must be conflict between the earthly and the heavenly cities. Christian and non-Christian have a common interest in earthly peace, good order, and the “necessaries of life.” But in matters of worship, Augustine wrote, the Christian was forced to “dissent” from the earthly city. The limits of the common life had been reached. The Christian was forced “to become obnoxious to those who think differently, and to stand the brunt of their anger and hatred and persecutions…” Praising piety and faith in general alongside remnants of the historic Christian faith, The American Patriot’s Bible combines the things of God and the things of Caesar at the very point where they most vigilantly need to be kept apart. When the City of Man sets up Americanism as its faith, the Christian is forced to dissent.
There is another problem here. Why nationalize the Bible? A nationalized Bible would seem in effect to reverse the story of redemption. At the core of Christianity is a message that the gospel of salvation is flung wide open to all peoples regardless of nationality, race, or language. The day of Pentacost made that truth clear. While Christianity has inevitably taken on national accents as it has encountered culture after culture over the past 2,000 years, it is a universal faith. Why, then, take that transnational faith and fuse it with an earthly Caesar and empire by setting it side by side in pages of Holy Writ with a particular nation’s history and identity, as if Christianity belonged to Americans in a special and intimate way not true of other people? This Bible by its very existence distorts the gospel. As Augustine says in The City of God, the “heavenly city, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages…”
Beyond what the editor and the publisher intended, The American Patriot’s Bible is deeply American. It takes to a new level the remaking of Scripture into a marketable consumer good, a trend underway in the United States since at least the invention of the modern steam press in the early 19th century. (See R. Lawrence Moore’s Selling God.) It also exemplifies the irony of American Protestants, who adhere to the sufficiency of Scripture for faith and life yet find the unadorned text of that Word not so sufficient after all. And finally, it provides further evidence of how theologically ill-equipped one dominant strand of American Christianity has been over the past few hundred years to know how to sojourn in America, how to conceive of the United States as part of the City of Man and of the church as a stranger in a strange land.
Rousseau’s name appears nowhere in The American Patriot’s Bible, but thanks to this publishing venture his tame Christianity and unifying civil religion have now found their way into the pages of Scripture itself. Hopefully the publishers have misjudged the taste of their target audience. If not, then perhaps robust sales will provoke American Christians to reacquaint themselves with Jesus’ problem of church and state.
Richard Gamble is author of The War for Righteousness and is at work on a book about how America became the “city on a hill.”
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: [email protected]