Strange Bedfellows: Christianity and Republicanism

Americans have long been accustomed to think of the values of religion and the values of republicanism as supporting each other. The bitterness of the Civil War, for example, was due at least in part to the intensity with which both North and South defended conflicting visions of “Christian liberty.” To this day, the Pledge of Allegiance—by conjoining “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all”—testifies to a resilient intermixture of religious and republican vocabularies. The long American habit of uniting these value systems has dulled awareness of how strikingly original the new nation’s “Christian republicanism” actually was. In fact, among a panoply of exceptional things about the American founding, one of the most unusual was the commitment by almost all religious people in the new United States to a distinctly republican vision of public life. This American position was unusual, not only by comparison with English-speaking contemporaries in the late eighteenth century, but also because almost all observers outside the United States assumed that republican thinking contradicted the principles of traditional religion.

For the writing of theology in the American environment, this confluence of republican and Christian allegiances was critical. What the Puritan canopy had once supplied as a boundary for theology, America’s republican Christian convictions would provide for later generations. To illustrate the singularity of this context for theological formation, it is useful to cite comments by Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he visited the United States in the 1930s. Bonhoeffer saw everywhere the presence of popular republican assumptions: “America calls herself the land of the free. Under this term today she understands the right of the individual to independent thought, speech and action. In this context, religious freedom is, for the American, an obvious possession.” To Bonhoeffer, it was especially noteworthy that “praise of this freedom may be heard from pulpits everywhere.” It was even more noteworthy what he took this freedom to signify: it “means possibility, the possibility of unhindered activity given by the world to the church.” For a history of American theology it is important to see why Bonhoeffer thought the Americans he observed at church in New York, New England, and the South were making a mistake. To Bonhoeffer it was not axiomatic that a republican exaltation of freedom merged smoothly with Christianity. Rather, he held that “the freedom of the church is not where it has possibilities, but only where the Gospel really and in its own power makes room for itself on earth, even and precisely when no such possibilities are offered to it. The essential freedom of the church is not a gift of the world to the church, but the freedom of the Word of God itself to gain a hearing.” In fact, he even thought that the American fascination with freedom might presage a decline—”a church which is free in this way becomes secularised more quickly than a church which does not possess freedom or possibility.” His conclusion was that “freedom as an institutional possession is not an essential mark of the church,” since “whether the churches of God are really free can only be decided by the actual preaching of the Word of God.”

Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, 54-55.

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Filed under Christian Education, Christian Living, Christian Thinking, Church History, Culture, False Gospel, God, Religious Nationalism, Theology, Worldview

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