17 Oct

Oliver O’Donovan on civil religion (and other forms of cultural captivity)

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/17/13

“ . . . the Gospel may raise serious difficulties for an order that conceives itself as democratic . . . ”

“Civil religion is a corruption to which the church is liable when it enjoys a close co-operation with the state. It is not a matter of serving the interests of government solely — civil religion can flourish in opposition, too — but the interests of the state at large, bolstering its legitimacy, supporting its political philosophy, inculcating virtues, both active and passive, which are useful to the political constitution of society. And not everything that the church may say or do along these lines is to be disapproved of. It is when this line of thought has become autonomous, cut loose from its evangelical authority, that it distorts the witness of the Gospel. ‘Never mind how you vote, just make sure you go to the poll!’ Messages like that delivered from the pulpit are the archetypal civil religion of modern democracy. They maintain the appearance of political neutrality, while actually suppressing important possibilities for Christian criticism: that the Gospel may raise serious difficulties for an order that conceives itself as democratic, that the Christian population may need to send a message of disapproval not to the governing party but to the political classes at large, and so on. Jaques Ellul waged periodic campaigns against voting; they deserve at lease a respectful mention in the annals of Christian political witness.
     “However, civil religion is only one manifestation of a more general temptation: that of accommodating the demands of the Gospel to the expectations of society. Any successful mission will leave the church inculturated; any inculturated church is liable to lose its critical distance on society. Forms of prophetic criticism may persist, but they become increasingly intra-mural, taking up those causes which were controversial anyway rather than finding deeper grounds for evangelical challenge. Echoing political controversy, rather than calling its grounds in question, is the sign of a Babylonian captivity which cannot be avoided by purely constitutional precautions. The end of Christendom has not, in fact, resulted in a freer and more independent-minded church. Much Christian enthusiasm for ‘pluralism’ has less to do with a relation to the state than with the church’s yearning to sound in harmony with the commonplaces of the stock exchange, the law-courts and the public schools. . . . And the only precautions we can take are theological. To the extent that the Christian community is possessed by its Gospel, it will be be protected against social conformity.” 

— from Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 225f..

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