I am an atheist. Sure lots of people have heard me talk about God, write favorable things about God, pray and worship. And it was all sincere. Still I am an atheist. I’m an atheist the way the members of the early church were atheistic. Atheism was one of the central charges officials of the Roman Empire made against
Christians. They were vilified for “irreligiosities” and “sacrilegium.” Christians were regarded atheists because they rejected the gods of the state. They refused to honor the religion of the empire. The charge of atheism was at least as much – if not more – about politics as it was religious.
I am an atheist in the same way. I reject the religion of the state, the civil religion. This religion is expressed in the national motto “In God We Trust” which is printed on currency. It is found in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, “under God.” It is expressed in the incessantly evoked phrase, “God Bless America.” It is reflected in the claims of those who say that the constitution was inspired by God. It finds its way into speeches of politicians and proclamations of Presidents. This god is more form than substance, more decoration than an expression of spiritual depth.
Consequently, I can’t fret alongside those who fear that the word “God” will be dropped from the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t share the concern of those who worry that “In God We Trust” won’t appear prominently enough on coins. I have no investment in such things and wonder why any Christian would see them as important. I don’t believe in the god of flag pledges and national mottos. Such a god is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Civil religion is the façade of god that overlays the nation-state. It provides the justification, not just for the passion of patriotism, but for its more virulent expression, religious nationalism. Devotion to America and God are blended so that it is difficult to see where loyalty to one stops and the other begins. Americanism and Christianity – or a (per)version of Christianity – become two sides of one coin.
The most distinctive trait of the god I don’t believe in is the special fondness this god has for America. Don’t get me wrong. I have a special fondness for America. For me it is home. It is the land where I was nurtured since my birth, the land where my ancestors have lived for at least eight generations. But God does not share my attachment. What America is not is a chosen nation endowed with a special divine mission. It is not a nation with a God-given covenant and an exceptional role in history. America is not a nation guided by the providential care of God in ways other nations have not experienced.
A lot of people think otherwise. Nearly six of every ten residents in the United States believe that God has bestowed a special role on America. Among white evangelical Christians, over eight in ten hold this belief. This was revealed mid-November this year in a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in conjunction with the Brookings Institution. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that the god who has elevated America to a special place above the nations is the God of the Bible.
The study reveals something particularly disturbing about those many who do believe in this god of American exceptionalism: “Americans who believe God has granted America a special role in history are significantly more likely to say military strength rather than diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace, and to say torture can be justified.” Clearly the god they believe in has a propensity to support violent solutions to international problems and is less reliant on nonviolent approaches.
Because of all this, I remain an atheist. At least I’m an atheist insofar as belief in the god with a preference for America is concerned. On the other hand, I am convinced that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). This God saves by enduring suffering, not by inflicting it. I have an abiding faith in the God for whom every nation is as special as America and before whom all of them are “like a drop from a bucket and are accounted as dust on the scales” (Isaiah 40:15). The god of American exceptionalism is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ, despite the insistence of many devotees to this god.
The God who “so loved the world” (John 3:16) is a God who has never shown a preference for the biggest, the strongest or the richest. To the contrary, as Mary the mother of Jesus proclaimed, even as he was kicking about within her,
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God mysavior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-48b, 52-53)
These words certainly don’t point us toward the sort of god named in the motto of a global superpower or in the “God bless America” refrain or in the flag pledge. The ceremonial presence of the word “god” in national rituals and rhetoric is unimportant to me. Any devotion given to this god is misguided. The god of American exceptionalism deserves no faith or support from Christians. We need to be boldly atheistic toward this god so that
we might be utterly faithful to the God revealed in Christ for the reconciliation of the world.
Craig M. Watts in the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida, a member of the DPF Executive Committee and the author of the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Indianapolis: Doulos Christou Press, 2005).