Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

I have just begun reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and in describing secularism, Taylor made an observation that struck me as incredibly pertinent to contemporary Christian politics:

“Churches are now separate from political structures . . . Religion or its absence is largely a private matter . . . Put in another way, in our ‘secular’ societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God, that is, coming to a point where the crucial importance of the God of Abraham for this whole enterprise is brought home forcefully and unmistakably. The few moments of vestigial ritual or prayer barely constitute such an encounter today” (1).

Taylor doesn’t bother to offer support for his claim that “religion or its absence is largely a private matter,” which testifies to the fact that most scholars view this as common knowledge. But is it?

When I reflect on American politics, I can’t imagine it without religion. Any presidential candidate who hopes to win office must be a Christian, preferably a Protestant with regular church attendance. The Christian Right is still, despite the Bush setbacks, a powerful political movement, as can be seen in groups like WallBuilders or political voices like Glenn Beck who assert that America is (or ought to be) a Christian nation by design; or candidates like Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain who publicly announce that God told them to get into politics. And even the severe derision and mockery of Christianity voiced by liberals and atheists testifies to the centrality of religion in American politics. So, is Taylor wrong? How can it be true that you can “engage fully in politics without ever encountering God”?

The key is in the last clause of the quote: Most manifestations of Christianity within American politics amounts to little more than Taylor’s “vestigial ritual or prayer” — empty religious gestures meant to appeal to certain patriotic images of a Christian Nation. But what is ironic is that it is precisely these empty symbols that Christians often defend vigorously.

Take two recent examples that I have seen posted on Facebook:

In case you haven’t heard, during his Thanksgiving address, President Obama failed to thank God, which lead to a widespread outcry from Christians and conservatives. Of course, as ABC reports, Obama did thank God in his Thanksgiving proclamation earlier in the week, just not in his address.

Similarly, I saw a friend recently post on Facebook that the White House was going to ban Christmas Trees this year. The exhortation of this post was that we must stop our President from ruining our nation by removing God. Naturally, this story is untrue, there will most certainly be a Christmas tree at the White House, but the sentiment — the general fear that Obama is a closest Atheist or Muslim, bent on destroying the religious foundation of our country one Christmas Tree at a time — was telling.

But, imagine if Obama hadn’t thanked God in an earlier proclamation and had banned Christmas trees and that the word “Christmas” was banned by every retail store in America (another popular Christian fear this time of year), how would that change things? Is our country any more Christian because of our President’s Thanksgiving address or holiday decorations or because of the language retailers use?

Perhaps, but I doubt it. And yet, these are the very issues which Christians are often so emphatic about, these “vestigial ritual[s] and prayer[s].”

My admonition is that the Church ought to be more devoted to creating a culture where God is encountered in politics as in all of life, rather than expending so much energy defending empty symbols.


  1. Great article, Alan. Glad to see you’re reading A Secular Age–should provide content for plenty more articles, I’m betting.

    As a person who is directly connected with a non-partisan ministry to elected officials on Capitol Hill, I feel very conflicted about some of the issues mentioned or alluded to in this article. I’ve heard so many direct, reliable accounts of wonderful Christians doing wonderful things in Washington, but most of it, almost by necessity seemingly, goes on “behind the scenes”–or, is not reported by the media. This is either because what is done is not deemed worth reporting, or because what is done avoids being reported on out of fear of backlash. They feel it is better to maintain the good they are doing “on the ground” in Washington, than to go public for no good reason. I would surmise that there is much “subversive orthodoxy” going on in the corridors just beneath “the public” surface.

    I’ve also been very suspicious when the ministry I work for supports things like retaining our national motto, “In God we Trust.” But, I’ve found that they’re equally suspicious of folks like Wall Builders, and do not believe we are, or ever were a “Christian nation” in any genuinely formal sense, at least. That doesn’t seem to me to be the motivation for a lot of people. Rather, it has to do with the real fear of what will happen if God is totally expunged from the public arena, or, it’s a genuine fear of the fact that a secular society cannot sustain itself on its own accord. I don’t think government officials are necessarily invoking God’s name out of fear of the Christian right, but mostly out of the understanding that we need something transcendent that can be foundational for our modern creeds of individual liberty, prevention of suffering, and the dignity of every rational agent. I think a lot of people recognize that we post-hegelian romantics actually can’t have our Christian ideals without our Christian dogma.

    So I guess my question is this: given the secular, pluralistic society we live in, what would a more genuine public proclamation of faith look like? Or, as an example, what exactly makes the content of Obama’s original Thanksgiving proclamation “empty”? I’ve actually found some of Obama’s Christian-related statements very genuine in a number of ways. What would a Christian witness look like on Capitol Hill, given these cultural conditions? And, is a genuine public proclamation invoking “God” necessarily an implicit rejection of God’s having revealed Himself in Christ?

    I don’t ask these questions rhetorically; I’m wrestling with them, myself.

  2. It’d just be nice to have genuine Christian voices in politics without the follow-up sex or corruption scandal.

    Also….today, I read about a political blogger’s wife who died suddenly. It was heartbreaking. The comments to his blog post about his wife brought tears to my eyes because it was every kind of people coming together to comfort someone most of us haven’t even met in person. To offer their condolences and many many prayers. The blogger describes himself as classical liberal – not all liberals are atheists and not all atheists are liberals. America is made up of many people and I’m kinda tired of people trying to pigeonhole everyone into neat definable boxes.

    Faith in politics does exist. It just doesn’t need to be constantly flaunted by giant flag pins, prayer events in huge stadiums and mentioning God in every single speech or sound bite. God desires a penitent heart and a life lived in service and sacrifice, not just burnt offerings and rituals. The fact that Christians in this country (liberal or conservative) regularly bear false witness against President Obama & President Bush without breaking a sweat or even having the humility to apologise when shown their error is evidence enough that it doesn’t matter a person’s true faith because only the “right” kind of faith matters in politics. Citizenship confusion indeed.

    Here’s the link to the political blogger I mentioned:


  3. Carol,

    I love what you said here: “The fact that Christians in this country (liberal or conservative) regularly bear false witness against President Obama & President Bush without breaking a sweat or even having the humility to apologise when shown their error is evidence enough that it doesn’t matter a person’s true faith because only the “right” kind of faith matters in politics. Citizenship confusion indeed.”


    I wrestled a bit with how to word my claim about the role of religion in American politics. At first I wrote, “Nearly all manifestations of Christianity within American politics amounts to little more than Taylor’s ‘vestigial ritual or prayer,'” then I changed it to “most manifestations.” And I also considered “Many.” It’s always so hard to talk in generalities, but on certain issues it’s necessary. So, thanks for mention these behind-closed-doors manifestations of religion. That brings a helpful balance to the discussion.

    As for Obama’s words being empty, I’m not sure my word choice was helpful. Perhaps if we take “empty” to mean, “That which can be filled by so many things that it ceases to carry any communicative meaning.” In other words, thanking God is so easy to do in a Thanksgiving address, and has such a tremendously low cost to him (financially, politically, practically), that it might only tell us that he understand that as a president he is expected to thank God.

    Now, I’m not saying we should judge Obama’s prayers or dismiss them. But what I do think is that when these symbols are absent we shouldn’t be troubled. We aren’t really missing much.

    The alternative proclamation of Faith is a costly one. For example, if Obama refused to use the standard political practices of equivocation and deception and uncharitable speech in his political campaign in the coming election, that, to me, would be a meaningful proclamation about how the Gospel is radically counter-cultural. And it would be very costly. Of course, he might merely use a charitable rhetoric of politics merely to deceive voters, but it would still be a powerful testament. It would be an action, as opposed to mere words, it would be costly, and it would not be simply following the standard politics.

    Does that help? This is certainly something that I’m wrestling through myself.

  4. Alan – thanks, I’m thankful to contribute, however little.

    I liked how you responded to Nick’s comments. It got me thinking some more about politicians and their faith.

    So much of politics seems like theatre. I’ve heard the term “political kabuki” used to describe say a budget negotiation or judicial appointments and I think it’s quite apt. It’s like politicians are expected, on both sides, to preen and to grandstand at certain moments and/or on certain issues. It’s like a weird almost pre-determined chess game.

    Wouldn’t it be great if a politician could just say “Yes, I’m a *Insert religion here*. What would you like to know about my faith?” And be actually ALLOWED to tell the truth.

    But that doesn’t happen because the American public expects a certain answer and they expect a certain performance by the President to demonstrate his (Protestant Christian) devoutness – Thanksgiving address thanking God, “God Bless the United States of America” after every speech, “In God We Trust” being the national motto, Christian nation, one nation under God….etc etc.

    That’s why we see the GOP candidates trying to out-Christian each other even as they try to be the biggest, most genuine Conservative in the room. It’s quite the spectacle. On the other side of the aisle, we have Democratic pols who are trying to out-Liberal each other by being as inclusive as humanly possible to avoid the same kind of backlash from their own party as the Republican pols are avoiding. Which is why I think a lot of the time, President Obama waters down his Christian speaking in speeches. He’s got to walk a fine line in order to keep the Presidency from being swallowed by scandalous headlines every day. Too much and the Left accuses him of pandering to the Religious Right. Too little and the Right accuses him of being a secret Muslim or Atheist. He must go to bed every night with a massive migraine from all the political pretzel-ing he has to do all day long. Same with every other President before him, I’m sure.

    I would LOVE it if Presidents and politicians would literally just be allowed to be REAL. But if they did all say what they really meant (within reason, of course and not say, to incite violence or something like that) – the political punditry would all swoon and reach for their smelling salts. So much of the Presidency rides on these opinion makers and I don’t think it should always be like that.

    Which is why I love to watch the British (and my home country, Australia) parliament’s Question Time, where the Prime Minister literally takes questions from the opposition, unscripted, and is expected to deliver robust and informed answers/debate. Wouldn’t that be great to see in the US? I think so. Then each public official would actually have to be learn their job and the intricacies of the policies that they are advocating. Instead of all this preening and posing and swanning about on the political stage when anyone who has watched politics long enough can pretty much guess the ultimate outcome or the next move.

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