THE ANONYMOUS GOD, The Church Confronts Civil Religion and American Society, edited by David Adams and Ken Schurb. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2004. 287 pages, notes. Softcover; no price shown. ISBN 0-7586-0819-5.
This book, edited by Concordia Seminary professor David Adams and Lutheran pastor Ken Schurb, contains eleven essays dealing with church/state relationships and American Civil Religion. The perspective is that of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. While the essays will have special interest to persons of that religious persuasion, others will benefit from studying them.
Pastor Schurb introduces the question squarely; is the god of Civil Religion and the God of Christianity the same, and, if not, how are they to be distinguished? Quoting from Senator Mark Hatfield and Robert Bellah, Schurb defines the book's goal, that of recognizing the force that civil religion exerts on American Christians. That force, he claims, is pervasive, persuasive, and often destructive.
David Adams begins with “The Anonymous God," one who is a challenge to the Christian God. He argues that this god, developed from Rousseau's 1762 "The Social Contract," has taken on a distinctive American flavor, with "manifest destiny," "American chosenness," and the "religious tolerance," resulting in a god with no name, a god that cannot offend, a cosmic Santa Claus.
The second essay, by David Liefield, discusses the Legatis of Athenagoras and the church/state precedents it established.
Cameron MacKenzie, a Concordia professor, next teams up with Ken Schurb in a discussion of the writings of Walther, Marty and Meade, all past Missouri Synod thinkers. This will be of slight interest only to non-Lutherans.
“In ___ We Trust,” by professor Joel Okamute, argues that American Civil Religion is an inferior "theology of glory" as contrasted with "true theology" (Theology of the Cross." He has harsh words for those who argue, in the events of 9/11, that "God was there, holding all who die and all who mourn." (page 159).
Next up is professor Ronald Feuerhahn's "Patriotism Gone Awry." His historical view covers 2000 years, culminating in criticism of the Reformed view of a "one kingdom" theology, one which has dominated America. (page 180) "This explains . . . why in America we so often confuse the civic and religious realms . . . we are a nation comfortable with syncretism . . . ." Feuerhahn holds that “true” Christianity, one that affirms, for example, the literal truth of Isaiah 45:5-6, must necessarily be an offense to those who hold that America must be theologically diverse. He claims that church leaders, offering advice to the state, are out of line. (Page 184) "The gospel is not spoken to the state because the state is not a community of faith." His conclusion is that pastors ought never participate in civic events in which other religious elements are mixed, for intolerance of error is to be preferred over love of neighbor. He appeals to Luther here, who wrote (LW 27:37 and 27:41) in part: “Love can sometimes be neglected without danger, but the Word and faith cannot. . . . Love . . . is often deceived. . . . We can be saved without love . . . but not without pure doctrine and faith.” The essay is one written by a person who is far too sure (in my opinion, of course) of his capability to discern biblical truth. Such is the fatal flaw of all fundamentalists - it appears they must really believe they have a monopoly on understanding the Almighty, and regard all who do not share their rigid views to be in error. Masters of ungrounded certainty, they too often present a Christianity that repels the honest non-Christian seeker, who sees the dogmatic proclamation of denominational differences as evidence that, since good and devout people are to be found in all of them, as well as in the non-Christian community, that Christianity itself must therefore be of little or no effect.
Illinois professor Alvin Schmidt next takes up a doctrinal sword against America's Civil Religion's new face, polytheism. While civil religion began with the Puritans as "Christian," it devolved to deism by the time of the Revolution, and morphed into polytheism about 1980. It uses generic words for its god, it never defines him, it magnifies the "American Way," it has its own saints, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, etc. and its own shrines, primarily in Washington, D.C. Its holy day is July 4 and it holds that the U.S.A. is a “god-favored” nation. Schmidt attacks the masons, the authors of the 1786 Virginia Religious Freedom Act, and even the U.S. Constitution (a hand offered to future polytheists). He concludes by arguing that "faith" is not to be equated with "religion." As an example, the phrase "Hindu religion," is OK; the phrase "Hindu faith" is without meaning. The word "interfaith," he says, is oxymoronic. He concludes with four scriptural arguments forbidding Christians from participating in civil religious exercises.
David Adams returns again with "The Church in the Public Square in a Pluralistic Society." Summarizing the preceding essays, he presents ten theses, all keyed to recognizing that American Civil Religion is the state religion, and warning Christians against it.
Two short essays conclude the book. David Adams writes about the tensions involved in being a Christian, the experience of living as "strangers in a strange land." He writes at length on "the scandal of particularity," and the need to not confuse the two kingdoms, the church and the secular realm.
Finally, Mark Sell writes on the two kingdom concept. It is best to read this essay first before engaging the other authors, for it is foundational to what they have to say.
I found the book interesting; it gave me insight into some of my Christian brothers with whom I have issues. I recommend it for reading; for acquisition by ASA members who are Lutherans.
John W. Burgeson, Rico Community Church, Rico, Colorado