Civil Religion in America


Over the past century, give or take, American society has evolved a few rules for talking about religion in public, the foremost of which are:

1. Don’t say your religion is better than someone else’s.
2. Don’t attribute others’ suffering to punishment by God.

But since their re-emergence in the cultural mainstream 30 years ago, evangelical Protestants have not been entirely with the program. It’s just hard for some of them to suppress the impulse to bear public witness to the superiority of their faith and signs of divine adjudication. So God doesn’t hear the prayers of a Jew and Katrina shows what happens to a city dedicated to letting the good times roll. And Tiger Woods should trade in his Buddhism for Christianity and Haiti made a pact with the Devil.

When such assertions are made, a lot of Americans are shocked, and there is widespread condemnation, including from some leading evangelicals. Most of us recognize that civility has its virtues, and we are loathe to give it up, whatever our theological convictions.