On Christmas Eve of 1914, the unthinkable happened. Soldiers from opposing armies defeated warfare itself to celebrate the birth of Christ. While using fictional characters, Joyeux Noel depicts the historical events of World War I that actually occurred in multiple places along the front. But when the commanding officers learn what happened, we see a clash of religions, of two very different versions of “Christianity”: Biblical spirituality and civil religion. This clash continues today, and we need to identify this false faith in order to overcome it, especially in the current controversy regarding refugees.
So, what is civil religion? Wikipedia explains that many “use the term civil religion or civic religion to refer to ritual expressions of patriotism of a sort practiced in all countries, not always including religion in the conventional sense of the word.” In this way, civil religion is a belief system that supports one’s state, while Biblical spirituality centers on God, resulting in a love for all.
Joyeux Noel overflows with Biblical spirituality. We see it in people making peace as they are drawn to worship, both in their initial Christmas carols and when they celebrate mass together. We find it in the medic, Father Palmer, who testifies, “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.” And we see it in transformed lives, in soldiers who cannot allow harm to come to their “enemies”.
Civil religion enters the story through a bishop. While the mentioned priest tends to the wounds of a soldier, the bishop meets, rebukes, and discharges him. Shortly after, he gives his sermon to the new British troops:
“The sword of the Lord is in your hand.1 You are the very defenders of civilization, the forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade, a holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you, the Germans do not act like us, nor do they think like us, for they are not like us, the children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advance armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill everyone of them so that it won’t have to be done again. The Lord be with you.”
What do we learn about civil religion?
First, we see that civil religion makes your nation the savior of the world rather than Christ. The bishop does not appeal to God in prayer for freedom and justice through the redemption of oppressors. Rather, he appeals to an army to kill. In this way, he denies the essence of the Good News of Jesus, as he says that the world is saved through violence, not love and mercy. He completely misses the point, despite the fact that God had just done the miracle of transforming hearts all along the front to love their enemies.
Second, it creates an us-against-them mentality, and it does so along national lines, co-opting Biblical terminology like “children of God”. Scripture uses the this term in two ways. It refers to all people in Acts 17:28,29, and it also references those who are adopted into God’s family by trusting in Jesus as their Savior.2 But the bishop applies this term to their nationality.
Lastly, civil religion drips with hypocrisy. It accuses “the other” of violence as justification for violence. The bishop specifically criticized the Germans for killing civilians before he exhorts the army to genocide, killing “good and bad”.
Civil religion is a powerful force in America, and it has been for a long time. It is found in Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural address, when he refers to the government as “the world’s best hope.” Lincoln, Reagan, Obama, and many others have repeated the refrain that the United States is the “last best hope.” And while it makes for a stirring speech, it’s actually heresy according to Biblical spirituality. Recently, this thinking has led to wars and nation building, again revealing the violent outworking of civil religion.
Most recently, it reared its ugly head in Trump’s executive order regarding refugees and in people’s support of it. How could anyone possibly fear those fleeing a war zone and close doors to the world’s most vulnerable?3
People become deceived by the hypocritical bishop, “they do not act like us, nor do they think like us.”4 Civil religion justifies locking people up in detention centers, keeping families apart, or sending children to war zones because some of them might be dangerous.
Even if refugees were more dangerous than the American public, which they are not, civil religion prioritizes national security over compassion to those who need it. At first glance, this might seem reasonable, even virtuous to protect one’s nation. But for those who claim to follow Jesus, we must follow the priorities of Biblical spirituality. Both Old5 and New Testaments clearly and strongly call us6 to welcome the foreigner, most certainly if they are in need.
Whether American or not, whether Christian or not, we must all ask the question, “How have I adhered to my nation’s civil religion?” To make sure we do not make the same mistakes as the bishop, ask yourself:
- Have you justified violent acts by the government?
- How do you view foreigners compared to your nationality?
- What have you criticized in political opponents, foreign or domestic, that you can give “good” reasons for when your side does the same?
How could your answers to these questions affect your stance on refugees?
Thankfully, the “world’s best hope” is not our governments, but Jesus Christ, and as we trust Him and acknowledge our faults, He can free us from our civil religion to love everyone. Free of fear, let us love our country by resisting and protesting our government’s injustice, even as the soldiers did on Christmas of 1914.
- Starting the sermon, the bishop quotes Matthew 10:34 horribly out of context, “Christ our Lord says, ‘Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace but a sword.’” Unfortunately, many take it out of context, including Christians trying to justify their civil religion or others claiming that Christianity is violent. In actuality, Jesus was telling his disciples that others would persecute them, and that they should not expect a peaceful life, but one of rejection for their faith. ↩
- Although the latter may still create an us/them distinction, it does not say that we are good and they are evil. Instead, it reminds us that we are forgiven, and that God calls us to share with others the message of forgiveness. ↩
- Some might defend this, saying it’s just to ensure “extreme vetting”, but many refugees have already waited two years for vetting that any honest person would call “extreme.” See FAQ #2. ↩
- Some might defend the executive order, saying that it it draws an us/them distinction over religion, not nationality, (which would only be partially true.) Though it is intellectually honest to acknowledge that Christians and Muslims have some different spiritual beliefs, it is Islamophobic to make an us/them distinction between Muslims and Americans, as though they are mutually exclusive. ↩
- Some readers might be wondering if the Old Testament depicts a civil religion, and I argue that it does not, though the line is thin. While it is true that God had chosen the people of Israel for a purpose and given them His law, there is always the larger story of God’s redemptive plan for the world. It is not through military conquest, but through the birth of a promised Messiah. When God first chooses Abraham to father this nation, He says, “In you all the families of the Earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Prophets continue to speak of a global vision. Far from supporting the state, they continually rebuke nations, both Israel as well as neighboring countries. At the same time, we see civil religion in the false prophets who tell the king and populace what they want to hear. ↩
- Now, one may accuse me of civil religion, saying that I am merging the nation’s responsibility to welcome the foreigner with the Church’s responsibility. Not so. From Amos 1, we find that God expects all governments to welcome the foreigner, as He judges pagan nations for deporting an entire population. Even if the responsibility lies with individual citizens, Christian or not, how can people welcome foreigners if the government limits their entrance or deports them? ↩