Deism, Christianity, and the American Flag

Product DetailsGeorge Marsden’s Religion and American Culture is an absolute must read for Christians in the United States who are wrestling with the ever difficult question of how Christianity relates to the American culture.  Though some of our readers may disagree, for the past few years in my studies, I’ve come to the conclusion that America has a religious foundation rather than a distinctly Christian one.  Marsden says something similar.

He asks the question: how could the early Americans claim a religious sanction for the nation?  If some were solid Christians (i.e. the Puritans) and others were anti-Christian and/or Deists (i.e. Paine), how could they agree?  Marsden said they resolved this problem in three ways. (Note: I summarized the first and second points.)

1) Deist leaders (like Jefferson) argued that God had laws on which American rights were founded.  Christians could agree.  “Hence, official references to ‘God’ in American life, as ‘In God we trust,’ or ‘so help me God,’ could have this vague meaning.  (My note: so today every politician, from Mormon to Deist to Christian says “God bless America.”)

2) American civil and political leaders refered to America as the new Israel and called Americans chosen people.  In the 1900s, presidents of all stripes still called America the city on the hill.  This language was generic enough to please many different religious groups.

3)  “The United States was the first modern nation systematically to shift public veneration of the government from veneration of persons to veneration of the nation and its principles.  Soon the United States developed a set of rituals and symbols that bore a striking resemblance to traditional Christian rites and symbols but in which the nation itself was an object of worship.  The flag, like the cross in Catholic churches, was a sacred object.  Elaborate rules developed as to when and how it could be handled.  Pledges to the flag arguably played the role of crossing oneself in a church.  One pledged to a creed.  The nation developed holidays (holy days) and its own brand of saints.  George Washington, for instance, soon took on mythical qualities.  National architecture and shrines provided centers for pilgrimages and worship.  Some people have pointed out that three of the most popular shrines in Washington D.C. – those to Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy – have designs that would be appropriate symbols for each of the three members of the Christian Trinity (the transcendent obelisk for the father, the personal presence of the martyred champion of national reconciliation and charity, and the eternal flame, for the spirit of service to the country).”

Marsden explains a bit more.

“Such specific analogies should not be pushed too far, but the crucial practical test of a functional religion is ultimacy.  Here the nation, the model of the modern nation-state, qualifies.  The United States, like all modern nations, demands unswerving allegiance from its citizens.  It is to the nation in which one is expected to make the supreme sacrifice.  Therefore in American wars, national loyalty has always been demanded above church loyalty.  Presbyterians killed Presbyterians in the Civil War, Baptists killed countless Baptists, Methodists countless Methodists, Catholics and Jews killed fellow Catholics and Jews, and so forth.  This has been the practice of every war.”

These are some heavy paragraphs!  Here’s one of the last lines of the chapter, which I think summarizes it up quite well (and correctly): “The assumption at the time certainly was that religion, and especially Christianity, should be able to flourish in the republic without interference from the state.”

If these quotes got your attention, get the book!  It is rather spendy, I realize, but it is a solid book and should last awhile. I’ve loaned my copy out quite a few times and it is holding up well.

By the way, the above quotes were taken from chapter one.

shane lems

2 thoughts on “Deism, Christianity, and the American Flag”

  1. These are certainly thought provoking paragraphs, and it would be nice to read more, but for $53, you’re going to have to either let me borrow it or answer a few questions!

    – The first two paragraphs are fairly straightforward, but it seems like Marsden takes a giant leap in the third. Does he really leave no room for distinction between respect and veneration? Must solemnly honoring great leaders be equated with elevating them to godhood? There certainly are people who idolize patriotism, but millions of Americans (and countless other nationalities for that matter) have been able to adequately differentiate between patriotic and religious expression. Does he offer a solid treatment on how a Christian ought to relate to his country?

    – He seems to present a another false dilemma in pitting national loyalty vs. church loyalty. Isn’t an enemy of the state an enemy regardless of his church affiliation? Were Christian Nazi’s (or better phrased- Christians serving in the Nazi Army) less of a threat than any other type of Nazi? By studying Augustine’s Just War Theory and prayerfully considering his duty, can’t a Christian soldier be simultaneously loyal to the church and the state even if he was called to engage a member of his own church?


    1. Thanks for the comments, CW. I’ll have to let you borrow the book – but if you destroy it, something may happen to your little goats! Ha!

      What Marsden was doing was showing how patriotic and religious expression became (become) blended so closely they were (are) at points almost indistinguishable.

      Also, this is sort of a colligate textbook on religion in America, so he doesn’t really offer positive pastoral advice – it is descriptive, not prescriptive.

      Sometimes there isn’t a false dilemma b/t national and church loyalty. Acts 5.29 comes into mind, for example. If the nation declares war, I don’t think that makes it OK for Christians to kill Christians. Granted, we live in a fallen world were some issues are almost impossible to sort out, but Christians killing Christians not the way of the church, that’s for sure. Maybe this sort of proves the point how quickly loyalties get mixed up.

      Speaking of loaning you a book, I’ll also have to let you borrow Hatch’s “The Democratization of American Christianity.” If you think Marsden tosses the funiture around, wait until you read Hatch!



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