In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, I attended a seminar in New York for denominational representatives that was sponsored by the National Council of Churches. The seminar took up the question “What happened?” The national offices of many church bodies had received a rash of reports about congregational conflict as the Gulf War was debated in Congress, and as the war ensued. While mainline Protestant leadership wielded a hesitant voice about the war, many congregations found their members torn by this issue. Not a few pastors lost their pulpits because they questioned the war. Others stirred turmoil simply by suggesting that communities of faith ought to struggle with issues of war and peacemaking.

Now leap ahead to 2003. A post-9/11 administration entered into a second war with Iraq. A strong voice from mainline Protestant and Catholic leadership challenged the “justness” of this action. Our nation was becoming polarized, far beyond the scope reflected in popular media. Even before the war started, public protest against it across the country began to rival that of the early-1970s Vietnam era. This polarization remains, but it seemed less conscious and visible after the war started. What was going on in U.S. Christian congregations?

That story’s not in yet, but I suspect that not much has changed in the space of a decade. Congregations where accord prevailed between pastoral leaders and members probably sailed through this time relatively unscathed. For most, this accord would reflect that both clergy and congregation unreservedly accepted, for whatever reasons, the decision to wage war in Iraq. For a minority, this accord would encourage faith-based discussion and dialogue. For some of the rest of us, faced with polarized congregations, navigating our way through a myriad of emotions, loyalties, and opinions became a heavy burden. Why?

Conflicting Allegiances
In wrestling with this “why,” I have concluded that at least one major obstacle blocks the way to healthy dialogue and deliberation on issues of war and peace. Call it “the elephant in the sanctuary”—the elephant of civil religion; the identification of religious belief with the prevailing national ideology. In our day, that ideology is linked to the resurgent goal of empire. I refer here not to patriotism, our commitment to respect and protect the sanctity of the nation-state in which we live. Healthy patriotism is the expression of the citizen’s fundamental allegiance to preserving our nation’s core values: the “self-evident” truth that all people are “created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Patriotism nurtures within us the capacity to defend these values—even to the point of sacrificing our lives.

Yet, as Christians, we give primary allegiance to the one God of justice and love, revealed in Jesus Christ. This allegiance alone is the foundation of our ethical and moral conscience. When the qualms of Christian con-science and the claims of national patriotism come into conflict, we can get caught up in a highly charged emotional struggle. I suspect that such a struggle ensued in congregations that found themselves emotionally torn in the aftermath of Gulf War I. However, I would posit that it was not so much the tension between faith and patriotism but rather the complicating presence of our elephant, civil religion, that made constructive deliberation so difficult for churches.

The term civil religion, initially given visibility by sociologist Robert Bellah, denotes the sacred aura conferred on a nation-state, assigning to it a divine origin, a sense of divine guidance, and a promise of divine destiny. Civil religion is a feature of the meta-historical narrative, or bonding myth, of any nation; it becomes an integral part of a citizen’s socialization. However, when civil religion serves to embellish a nation’s historical identity with self-righteousness, and to legitimize an arrogant sense of superiority, it becomes a powerful influence almost impervious to critique. Because civil religion in the United States is expressed primarily through Judeo-Christian symbols, endowing national aspirations with the ultimate blessing of God, the distinction between civil religion and Christian faith can become fuzzy.1 When civil religion and Christian faith become virtually indistinguishable, a dangerous idolatry is set up and critical discernment is lost. Our elephant can be of immense proportions.

Imperial Aspirations
The situation is exacerbated, I contend, when the ideology of the state and civil religion embrace the aspiration to empire. Not so long ago the topic of American imperialism was a rare bird in the popular media. Today “Pax Americana” and its relation to our national interests and globalization are talked about in workplaces, living rooms, conferences, and classrooms. This conversation moves from the question of “what empire?” to “what kind of empire?” and, on a deeper level, from discussion of its values and aims to its incumbent responsibilities and its consequences in the lives of the poor and marginalized—in this country and throughout the world. This conversation is not new. The theme of empire has been incipient in our national mythos since the beginning of our colonial history, as a vision that God had bestowed a historic vocation upon this nation. It was to be a “city set upon a hill,” destined to be an example of justice to the world. This benevolent self-understanding has been part of our national psyche from the beginning.

The question today is whether we have moved dangerously beyond this noble vision. In a time when we are in a position to exert unprecedented military might throughout the world, we need to ask this question as citizens: Are we acting in consonance with our core values and the democratic intentions of our founding fathers and mothers? As Christians we need to ask: Will this present course enhance the quality of life for the global family, or will it bring more injustice and suffering to an increasing percentage of the world’s population, including our own? Civil religion has the ability to suffocate this important conversation.

Wouldn’t it be simpler for Christians to ignore the elephant? Isn’t it better to live in harmony and to avoid difficult issues? My friend the late John Cooper, Lutheran pastor, philosophy professor, and author, might respond this way: If we as Christians are not looking to our faith—our scriptures, traditions, and communities—to inform our ethical, civic, and political perspectives, and if our opinions and understandings are not developed and nurtured primarily within the community of faith, then we might have to admit that we have not taken our faith seriously. In fact, in light of theologian Paul Tillich’s definition of God as that to which we give our ultimate allegiance, we might find ourselves unwittingly worshiping false gods if our critical discernment does not emanate from the ground of our Christian faith. My appreciation of John Cooper’s insights finds them compelling. It may be difficult to face controversial issues, but if our faith does not inform our “being in the world,” the world, ever so gladly, will inform our “being in the church.”

Ignoring the Elephant
Preparing for study groups in the past year, I found myself rereading with new eyes the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor whose brief professional career corresponded with the rise of the Third Reich in Germany. A brilliant theologian, Bonhoeffer was a founder of the “Confessing Church” in Germany and the head of its underground seminary in Finkenwalde. His famous book The Cost of Discipleship was in part Bonhoeffer’s way of responding to the pressures of civil religion and the quest for empire that was in his time demanding unconditional
subservience to the idols “Vaterland, Volk, und Fuehrer,” which, taken together, represented the manifest destiny of the nation, the superiority of the race, and ultimate allegiance to the leader. Ignoring the elephant, and finally unable to critique its own seduction, much of the German church became captive to this idolatry.

In the face of this elephant run amok, Bonhoeffer asked: What does it really mean to follow Jesus Christ? Bonhoeffer was certain that the answer to this question could be found in the study of Scripture, in prayer, and in theological discussion of the meaning of discipleship within the congregation. He believed this context to be the only one out of which a Christian could address the “most urgent problem besetting our church: How can we live the Christian life in the world?”2 Martyred just before war’s end, Bonhoeffer wasn’t able to contribute personally to the theological tasks that awaited the church in the war’s aftermath. However, others picked up the question “What happened?” The sheer magnitude of the evil and destruction wrought upon the earth between 1933 and 1945 mandated a radical look at Christian scriptures, a reassessment of Christian theology, and a revisiting of the early church’s witness under the domination and persecution of the Roman Empire.3

Recovering Paul’s Language
In the course of this re-examination, many post-World War II theologians began to mine anew the Pauline language of “powers, principalities, sovereignties and dominations”4—providing terms with which to talk about the way institutions created for benevolent purposes can be corrupted. While Paul is clear that these “powers and principalities” have a potential for good within human affairs, he is also sure that such realities can bear a more insidious character. Pretending to serve humanity, they may enslave it; feigning service to a transcendent purpose, they may usurp God’s place. Taking on a life of their own, self-sufficient and divorced from the intent of their Creator, they can become idolatrous. “Isms” of every stripe have this potential. Classic examples in the 20th century are communism, as exemplified by Stalinist dictatorship, and fascism—the unrestrained collusion, as Mussolini defined it, of state and corporate power. Both ideologies offered themselves in civil-religious garb, seeking to mask their pretensions. Indeed, modern globalization, as shaped by market-driven global capitalism and reinforced by national self-interest and power, bears within it this potential if left unaccountable. The same potential holds for the church itself as an institution. The great Reformation motto, “Ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda” (the church reformed but always to be reformed), expresses an awareness that the church also is corruptible and in need of continual critique.

The Setting of the Sanctuary
Engaging the elephant in our sanctuaries, whatever size it may be, is a multidimensional task of discernment. Along with a study of Scripture and theological discussion, the congregational settings of worship and meditation also offer resources for this work. As an example, our Lenten meditations in my congregation this year focused on Colossians 2:14-15, in which Paul interprets the cross of Jesus as effecting not only the cancellation of the debt of sin, but also a “dethroning” of the powers and sovereignties—that is, exposing them and putting them in their rightful place. Lenten homilies leading up to Good Friday named idolatries found within the gospels—oppressive powers and principalities that Jesus had critically engaged, and that had everything to do with why he was crucified. It became apparent to us that these idolatries are alive and well today. Nor is it legitimate to simply dismiss them as political or social issues, outside the purview of faith—as the church sought to do during the rise of the Third Reich, with tragic consequences. I am convinced of the importance of recognizing that these idolatries are of a deeply spiritual nature, because they have to do with our whole life under the sovereignty of God. They are thus profoundly appropriate to the conversation of faith within Christian congregations.

Engaging our elephant will demand careful preparation and mindful leadership.5 However, without the desire of clergy and congregants to take this task seriously, talking with one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, we let the world inform our “being within the church” and lose faith’s capacity to inform our “being in the world.” Engaging the elephant can be difficult and painful, but we are ultimately stronger for it. Disagreement is to be welcomed. Our Christian faith invites us to venture into dialogue with one another, knowing that the presence of the elephant in the sanctuary is not an impediment that will be readily removed. However, at stake in facing the elephant is our consequent ability as Christians to engage the important issues of war and peace in a constructive and courageous way. If, as a people of faith, we do not carry on this important work in the context of our sanctuaries, where will it take place?

Suggested Readings

Dawn, Marva. The Unnecessary Pastor. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans; and Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 2000), pp. 79–119; and Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001).

Fuellenbach, John. The Kingdom of God: The Message of Jesus Today. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1995).

Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).

Weber, Hans-Ruedi. The Militant Ministry: People and Pastors of the Early Church and Today. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963).

Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992). The third of a trilogy: the other books are Naming the Powers and Unmasking the Powers.

1. Refer to the discussion of civil religion in Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), chapter 10.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 60.
3. Cf. Colossians 1:16 and Berkhof, Hendrik, Christ and the Powers, J. H. Yoder, trans. (Scottdale, Penn.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1962, 1977).
4. Research in the past half-century on early Christianity and Pauline theology includes, among other themes, three significant ones for our conversation: (1) the language of “powers and principalities,” (2) Pauline use of militant vocabulary, and (3) early understanding of the “kingdom/reign of God” as a dominant theme in Jesus’ teachings and the witness of the early church.
5. Talking Together as Christians about Tough Social Issues, a resource for congregational dialogue developed out of grassroots experience and research by the Division for Church in Society, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Chicago.