Glenn Beck may well be right. We could be on the verge of a revival in the land. At Beck’s recent event, Restoring Honor, he called for a national return to God. But is it what it seems on first blush?
Americans are accustomed to hearing God-talk and biblical themes as props for nationalistic grandstanding. So Christ-followers who live in the United States should not be surprised by the God-tinted sermon of Glenn Beck. The Restoring Honor rally was American civil religion on parade, an eye-opening reminder of the American ethos regarding politics and religion, which always make easy traveling partners in spite of that persistently sought separation of church and state.
A revival is what we need, according to Beck, but what is likely to be revived?
We can certainly appreciate Beck’s desire to renew our national sensibilities with integrity and nobility. However, his bold appropriation of quasi-biblical rhetoric to serve that end seems questionable. As an example, T-shirts available for purchase on his website feature the words “faith,” “hope” and “charity,” each paired with a likeness of one the nation’s Founding Fathers.
It can be easily argued that America’s brand of nationalism has its own liturgical piety with practices designed to celebrate and support the nation in sermonic declarations, salute-worthy symbols, soul-stirring songs and legend-laden narratives.
Nationalism’s primary impulse is always self-preservation, its central agenda the protection of the state. To accomplish that, nationalism will leverage the meaning, message and medium of any entity in service to that agenda. The church and the gospel of its Lord are not exempt from this co-opting.
Nationalism flourishes under the banner of civil religion, which develops when a nation-state seeks validation from the prevailing religious orders for its establishment, protection, sustenance and ambitions. It propagates itself through a cross-pollination of the stories, symbols and celebrations of the religious groups and nation-state, setting the stage for a national history with the character of sacrosanct myth.
In order for civil religion to flourish, the willing participation of the predominant religious institutions is necessary at some level.
Whatever civil religion’s value to the common good, it tends to favor the nation over religious faith since the nation by nature continually seeks center stage. Under civil religion, Christ’s followers may experience dissonance between what they understand to be biblical and what civil religion supports as religiously valid.
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The gospel of the kingdom of God, which always calls worldly empires to account, may be perceived as a threat to any nation – the United States included. And the church’s concept of its core identity and mission erodes when it seeks to make use of state-craft in fulfilling its duty to the Lord’s eternal kingdom.
The rub comes when identifying which God it is we’re talking about in American civil religious conversations. Such conversations and the perpetual lack of clarity are constitutionally protected. Yet our collective perception of America’s God regularly falls short of a biblical understanding of God encountered in Jesus Christ.
The zeal and affection stirred by nationalism produce a vigorous civic spirituality. While Jeremiah, Paul and Peter call upon God’s people to seek the good of the land, pray for its leaders and honor its laws, John cautions his readers to test the spirits and urges vigilance against false prophets. Any spirit that does not affirm that Jesus Christ is from God, he writes, is not of God and is to be resisted.
The truth about Jesus Christ is the proverbial line in the sand over which the world’s empires have generally hesitated to step. And Christ is not likely on call for attempts to engage him in the service of just any agenda. In fact, he is singularly committed to his Father’s cosmic redemptive enterprise.
I’m not attempting a summary judgment here of Beck’s politics, or even his religious convictions. After all, the notion of a shot of good old revivalism is appealing given the state of the union and the mounting challenges facing America in this 21st-century world. His popular political infotainment persona aside, it’s tempting to be glad somebody stood up and said something – even if it’s Glenn Beck and even if it was not quite what many of us think the nation really needs to hear.
I am, however, suggesting that as the body of Christ in the United States, the church needs to recognize Beck’s fervent plea for what it is – and isn’t. A call for America to reinvest in a nationalistically pious practice it is. A call to the nation for bowed knees before Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father it is not.
Rob Hewell is an associate professor at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark.