American Civil Religion. Yes, It’s a Real Thing

It wasn’t until I was in seminary twenty years ago that I learned about our American civil religion. Like a fish that doesn’t know it’s in water, I had never seen all the ways our American patriotism has morphed into religious-like beliefs and behaviors. Now that I see it, I see it everywhere.

The concept of “civil religion” describes how a society marks as “sacred” some of its beliefs, symbols and rituals. It explains why we place our hands over our hearts, remove our hats and stand in reverence in the presence of our red white and blue sacred symbol and our holy hymns.

Civil religion explains why it is so important to us to determine who belongs; who is in and who is out. Like within the three Abrahamic religions, there are eternal discussions about what it means to belong; what it means to be a “real” Christian, Jew or Muslim. Within these religions, there have always been differences of interpretation; some literalist and exclusivist, others non-literal and more inclusive. Those same challenges have also existed within the American civil religion since our earliest days.

President Obama, in the tradition of President Lincoln, widened the circle of belonging in America. Presidential, prophetic “sermons” calling for equality, equity and grace sometimes called us to repentance and sometimes challenged us to live up to the lofty ideals of our own “religious” texts. The pushback was immense.

A recent essay by Benjamin Marcus and Murali Balaji looks at some of the ways the current president is reshaping our American civil religion.

In the early part of his administration, Trump promoted certain beliefs, behaviors, and communities of belonging, in an attempt to “reestablish” a so-called golden age when it was easier to define who was, and was not, American.

While his attempts to create in-groups and out-groups have reflected the particular way in which he tried to appeal to voters during his presidential candidacy, he follows a long-standing American tradition of imagining and sustaining an American civil religion based on beliefs, behavior, and belonging.

“Beliefs, behavior and belonging” represent classic religious values that have become woven deeply into the fabric of our American society. While the line can be porous between the categories of “sacred and secular” in discussions like this, when people defend their particular beliefs, behavior and belonging with religious zeal, when they consider those who hold different understandings as heretics, then I suspect they have crossed the line and have become zealots for their own rigid orthodoxy of American civil religion.

To be fair, I see tunnel vision fanaticism across the public and political spectrum these days. But, as a Christian minister, I especially loathe the unholy marriage of Christianity and American nationalism.

The recent surge of ethno-nationalist rhetoric is the manifestation of a civil religion that inextricably connects American exceptionalism with white, Christian communities committed to the expulsion of immigrants and the establishment of “law and order.”

Civil religion can relate to an experience grounded in certain communal identity markers, implicitly linked with geography, class, and race.

My own understanding of my Christian faith is that the authentic community of the Christ explicitly and intentionally transcends “geography, class and race.” The call of the Christ calls us into a communion that is so much larger than any of our small, human categories. A communion so large and wide, it even transcends any of the names we use to define us and divide us.

If Americans are going to continue the long-standing tradition of ascribing to a civil religion, then I recommend that our civil/sacred understandings of beliefs, behavior and belonging more accurately reflect the ideals of our civil/sacred texts.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Find the full essay by Benjamin P. Marcus and Murali Balaji here.


Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She is national secretary for Coffee Party USA and contributes regularly to the Join the Coffee Party Movement Facebook page.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.


The Rule of Law: A Challenge for my Conservative Friends

I read an article around Mothers Day about an effort in Philadelphia to raise bail for moms who had been incarcerated for quite a long time just because they were too poor to raise $500 for their bail money. Here they had been sitting in jail for several months, separated from their children, unable to work to support their families, awaiting their trial. These were people who had been accused of crimes, but not tried, convicted or sentenced. Because of this bail out effort, they were released to go be with their children for Mothers Day and await trial while taking care of their families.

As I read through the comments that some people made about the article and the Mothers Day effort, I found myself both sad and angry at the arrogance of these rule of law advocates who thought this crowd funding project was immoral or illegal. Why on God’s good earth would anyone object to that?!

I’m having some conversations with my conservative friend, Janie, about the rule of law. She is not one of the above arrogant complainers (and she cautions me not to judge all Conservatives based on the Internet comments of some. Point taken.)

But I keep asking: where are the other calm, rationale, compassionate Conservatives?

Where is the conservative outcry when police officers overstep the bounds of the law? Police violence has been well documented recently, and violence against our Black and Brown brothers and sisters is rampant.

Where is the conservative outcry when white business owners side step the rule of law in order to hire undocumented workers and then abuse and mistreat them? The trafficking of immigrant women and girls is a huge and ugly shadow side of American life. A recent class action suit even claims tens of thousands of immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are being subjected to a modern day slavery.

It seems all too clear that our society’s persistent, pervasive racism is a factor in their silence.

Liberals also believe in the rule of law; of course we do. We all want to live with appropriate rules that provide order and safety within our society. But progressives see clearly our American penchant for inequity. Inequality because of race, because of class, because of financial situation… Justice has never truly been blind in this nation. That’s why the liberal critique is so important, because it names that weakness and challenges our nation’s failures to live up to our promises. It names and challenges our lack of grace.

Law that is not balanced with mercy is not justice.

I hear some of my conservative friends complain because they don’t hear stories about moderate Muslims speaking out against radicals that use the cover of their religion to perpetuate violence. I keep responding to those accusations out of the abundant and easily accessible evidence to the contrary.

But where is the conservative outcry against blatant and violent abuses of the rule of law? Maybe there are conservative voices speaking out and I’m just not hearing very much of it. I challenge my conservative friends to prove me wrong.

If religious liberty is to be a foundational tenet in America, then it must be religious liberty for all. If the rule of law is to be a core principle by which we order our society, then it must be applied equitably and compassionately to all. If we say America is about “liberty and justice for all,” then we must make sure that “all means ALL.”



Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She is national secretary for Coffee Party USA and contributes regularly to the Join the Coffee Party Movement Facebook page.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.

Charlotte and Janie Talk about Rule of Law and Immigration

Janie and Charlotte were best friends in college. They still maintain a good friendship even though Janie grew to the “Right” while Charlotte grew to the “Left” and now have some very different perspectives on politics, culture and theology. Charlotte and Janie have begun talking about their differences in a shared blog. You can find their earlier conversations here.


I mentioned recently that I often hear Conservatives talk about “rule of law” and I asked you to help me understand what that means to you. I appreciate what you said in our last conversation about “rule of law” and “rule of men.” I can see we have a lot to talk about here (especially your reference to “making law from the bench…” I’m chomping at the bit to get to that one!)

But here is your statement as it concerns our topic of rule and law and immigration: “Sidestepping or ignoring the law altogether, as when immigration laws are not enforced, leads to confusion, suspicion, and cynicism…” I get this. But what about discretion when it comes to applying the law? That is and always has been common practice. How does one negotiate the grey areas?

You know my husband is an attorney so he deals with the law all the time. I serve as a CASA volunteer (Court Appointed Special Advocate) for children and I appear in court regularly to speak on behalf of my precious kid-clients who have been removed from their homes. Here in my little county in northeast Texas, I am proud to count the chief of police, sheriff, judges and prosecuting attorneys as personal friends; most are classic rule-of-law Conservatives and I respect them and trust them.

All the Liberals I know are conscientious, law abiding citizens. Many of us Liberals see clearly the devastation of crime and want to live in a safe and ordered society. No Liberal I know wants open borders. So I wonder why it feels like Liberals and Conservatives are so far apart in this discussion. Why do I feel like Conservative “rule of law” folks have trouble balancing rules and grace?

Believing in and abiding by the rule of law does not negate our human responsibility to act compassionately toward others. Supporting the rule of law in our society can advocate for equitable sentences and rehabilitation – not simply impose retribution. I’ve been encouraged by some bi-partisan efforts to reform our criminal justice system and was sorely disappointed to see this current attorney general revert to discredited, hard line approaches to punishments. Such harsh applications of the rule of law will never improve the lives of real people who have made mistakes and are willing to do the work to turn their lives around.

So now, back to our topic of immigration and the rule of law. It is widely known that President Obama directed ICE officials to use discretion when taking undocumented persons into custody. The current president has reversed this approach and has unleashed (what I call) “bullies with badges” on hard working people and their fragile families. There are too many real-life stories about the chaos this tactic is causing; every day it seems another heartrending story comes out. I mention only two.

Here is one: a father on his way to the hospital to pick up his newborn son was arrested by ICE agents. What will this young mother and her children do now?

Here is the other story I know you have criticized yourself: Iraqi immigrants, mostly Christians, are being targeted for deportation in several communities.

From the article: “It’s not clear why the removal orders fall mostly on the Christian community, though they appear to stem from an agreement between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, with Abadi for the first time agreeing to waive travel documents so Iraqis could be deported from the United States to Iraq.

In exchange, the president dropped Iraq from the list of predominantly Muslim countries where immigration to the United States was suspended…”

(Here is another article from the conservative National Review about the Iraqi Christians: “Enforcing current immigration law is not a justification for inhumanity, and there is no other description for sending a group of men and women almost certainly to their deaths…”)

Bullies with badges, under the direction of this current president, are applying a rule of law toward the most vulnerable among us without wisdom, discretion or compassion; this is inhumane. It is also un-American. (By the way, where is the Conservative outrage against the businesses and corporations that thumb their nose at the rule of law by hiring undocumented residents in the first place? There’s another conversation for us.)

I am not alone in voicing my concerns about how the current administration is using – and misusing – the rule of law concept. Read here an article about the Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice in California who used her annual State of the Judiciary address to argue that the administration’s immigration crackdown is actually challenging the rule of law.

So my question rephrased: Is there room for grace within the Conservative understanding of “rule of law”? And my second question for you as a fellow Christian, how does your faith inform your political beliefs on this issue of rule of law and immigration?


Of course there is room for grace within the conservative understanding—you just cited two conservative sources (National Review and World magazine) in defense of your argument. And as you mentioned, I already agree with you about the Iraqi Christians, and I agree with you about many overreaches by ICE and other federal agencies regarding non-citizens.

Grace doesn’t override the law—the law defines grace. Without law there would be no grace. What I mean by “rule of law,” and what I assume many Conservatives more thoughtful and knowledgeable than I mean, is that the law must remain as a standard even when tempered by mercy. A good judge will consider motives and extenuating circumstances when handing out sentences, but the crime must be acknowledged. Even in the Old Testament, “the age of law,” mercy was the law’s constant companion. And in the New Testament “reign of grace,” Jesus reinforced the importance of obeying the law and that “to whom much is given, much will be required.”

Bending the law in order to extend mercy does not destroy the law. Sidestepping or overriding the law for political or material advantage does destroy it, or at least severely weaken it until it doesn’t mean much. And we see that on both sides: Democrats want votes, Republicans want cheap labor. Americans all along the political spectrum hire undocumented workers and pay them under the table. Disregard for the Rule of Law has got us into this situation, where hastily-written, opportunistic rules override Constitutional law. I call it the “power of attorneys” (meaning no disrespect to your husband!).

President Obama caused a flap in 2014 when he issued an executive order that basically extended amnesty to about four million immigrants who were here illegally. The order didn’t stand up to court review, but President Trump’s more recent travel ban did. It was determined that, constitutionally, a president does not have the power to do what Obama did, but he does have the power, in the case of hostile or threatening nations, to do what Trump did. That doesn’t mean that Trump was right—the first order was ill-conceived and way too hasty, and the second one a little better. But the basic idea, of suspending travel from certain problematic countries for 90 days while reviewing current policies, seems reasonable enough.

I would like to see all our current policies reviewed and brought in line with a much more orderly process. Not just for the sake of American citizens, but also for the sake of prospective immigrants in other countries who are receiving mixed messages. Basic immigration policy should not swing wildly with every new administration. As I said before, I’m willing to compromise—general amnesty for those already here (not counting criminals) in return for border security and better vetting practices such as E-verify. (Many, many conservatives are in favor of that—I’m not sure which conservatives are “thumbing their noses” at hiring undocumented residents, unless they own farms or factories, and in that case the nose-thumbing would apply to liberal owners as well.)

If we could come to some agreement about what immigration law should be, and what the threat of unrestricted immigration actually is, that might be a start. Peter Beinhart, an unabashed progressive, takes his political peers to task for not recognizing the issues in this Atlantic article. If I answered your questions about rule of law, might this be a place to go next?


I just read this Atlantic article last week and was planning to send it to you! So yes, I think Beinhart’s critiques would be a good conversation piece. I want especially to hear more about your thinking on the topic of assimilation.

In the wrap up in our other conversation on immigration, you said this: “What some of us fear—and actually this is not a great fear of mine, but I can see why it’s a matter of concern—is allowing in more immigrants, ‘legal’ and not so much, who do not subscribe to American ideas and want to change it to something else.”

In Peter Beinhart’s article, The Democrats Immigration Mistake, he says this: “Promoting assimilation need not mean expecting immigrants to abandon their culture. But it does mean breaking down the barriers that segregate them from the native-born. And it means celebrating America’s diversity less, and its unity more.”

Beinhart’s comment makes sense to me. I “preach” quite a bit about unity in diversity. (Here’s a recent blog.) But I wonder what you mean when you say Conservatives fear that immigrants are trying to change America to “something else.”

Something that really concerns me is how the current climate in America is fraught with such vitriol and violence and, I have to say, many of the ugly anecdotal stories we hear are coming from the Right. Too many closet haters now feel permission to act out against any who do not look like the stereotypical white Christian. Why does diversity cause such fear and anger in people? And how is unity possible when there is a fundamental rejection of our inherent diversity?

As I said at the outset: I believe Liberals and Conservatives can find much common ground in this discussion and I think yours and my efforts at this back-and-forth/give-and-take are demonstrating this reality. But where are the other calm, reasonable conservative voices? How can you help us progressives find more Compassionate Conservatives like you who can be our conversation partners?

Anyway, yes, let’s talk about Peter Beinhart’s ideas in The Atlantic article. You start.


Okay—back atcha soon.


Janie B. Cheaney blogs at Gobsmacked by Life … sometimes

Janie has published six novels for teens. Her historical fiction is especially well done with solid research, engaging characters and great writing.  Janie’s J.B.Cheaney Facebook page is a fun and helpful author resource.

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She is national secretary for Coffee Party USA and contributes regularly to the Join the Coffee Party Movement Facebook page.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.


Photo Credit: A group of women react as they talk about family members seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents during a rally outside the Mother of God Catholic Chaldean church in Southfield, Michigan, U.S., June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

All You Need is Love

June 25, 1967. It was fifty years ago that the Beatles recorded this iconic song. I was 16 at the time and I can still sing all the words and croon my way through all the musical transitions.

1967 was the ‘Summer of Love.’ The chaos of 1968 was building but it had not erupted yet; we still held on to some innocence and hope.

All you need is love. Love is all you need.

In 2017, it’s tempting to add love to our list of fantasy thinking from our childhood, right up there with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Love seems a flimsy response to the shock and political chaos we are enduring. It sure doesn’t seem like love is all we need to deal with the terror, violence and never-ending war of this 21st century.

But I’m going to argue that the Beatles were on to something. Continue reading All You Need is Love

Charlotte and Janie Talk About Immigration

Janie and Charlotte were best friends in college. They still maintain a good friendship even though Janie grew to the “Right” while Charlotte grew to the “Left” and now have some very different perspectives on politics, culture and theology. Charlotte and Janie have begun talking about their differences in a shared blog. You can find their earlier conversations here.

Janie: So here’s what happened: I threw you a short list of topics, and you chose this one. Thanks a lot!

Seriously, I haven’t said a lot about this subject because I don’t keep the figures and stats on hand (figures and stats tend to fall out of my head anyway). But it strikes me that a lot of people who debate this question do so on the grounds of broad principles, not precise numbers, and broad principle is where it starts anyway. So I can do that.

As you suggested, we may have area of broad agreement here. So let’s see—as a way of opening the discussion, which of these statements would you agree with?

  1. No nation in the history of the world has been more open to immigration than the United States.
  2. The Statue of Liberty symbolizes the mission of the U.S. to offer a home to the homeless, a new start for the destitute, and a shelter for the oppressed.
  3. Legal immigration is not a problem, but illegal immigration is, and can become an even bigger problem.
  4. Sanctuary cities are in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
  5. The rule of law is a casualty of our incoherent immigration policies.

I realize some of these statements can be interpreted different ways, and some of them can be qualified on a scale of 1 to 10. Feel free to throw some statements and/or questions my way, too, and we might choose the most contentious as a way to start.

Charlotte: This is what you get for letting me choose the topic. Ha! You are very welcome! Continue reading Charlotte and Janie Talk About Immigration

Jesus Wept

Just so you know, these words are from the shortest verse in the Bible. From the story of Jesus grieving at the graveside of his good friend Lazarus.

But there is another moving story about this passionate man that comes to mind as I read the news these days. As that story goes, Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem, not on a prancing war steed, but rather on the back of a humble donkey. The crowd cheered, hoping he would be the one who would overturn the Roman occupiers. Instead Jesus carried a Roman cross to his own execution just a few days later while this same crowd jeered. In the days between the two processions, it is said that Jesus looked across at his beloved city and wept.

When Jesus approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day … the things which make for peace!

If only.

A bomb ripped apart the diplomatic district in Kabul, Afghanistan. They say over 90 people died and more than 400 are wounded. Many are women and children.

Another bomb blasted a concert hall in Manchester, England. 22 people died and over 100 are wounded, many of them teenagers with their moms.

Three Good Samaritans were slashed by a white supremacist on a Portland Oregon commuter train. Two died and the terrorist railed on defiantly about his patriotism. Continue reading Jesus Wept

I Once Was Blind But Now I See

These words, of course, come from the beloved hymn, Amazing Grace. Most of us have heard its famous melody, either in church or in a funeral chapel. Or maybe your favorite version comes from Willie Nelson or The Three Tenors or Mahalia Jackson or Judy Collins or Aretha Franklin or Elvis.

Remember back in 2015, when we were grieving the horrific murder of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and his little Wednesday night Bible study group at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston? And then remember how we took comfort at President Obama’s moving eulogy, wiping tears as our Pastor in Chief broke into song:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see!

You also may have heard the story behind the poem. It’s a story that will “preach” (as we preachers like to say), but it’s also a story that has captured the imagination of cinema and Broadway.

John Newton, as the story goes, was raised in England by a devout mother but in his youth he chose a life of drinking and brawling and then as crew on slaving ships between West Africa and England. Once, while carrying its horrific human cargo, Newton’s ship sank and his near death experience drove him to faith. He eventually became an Anglican priest and wrote the words of this poem for his New Year’s Day sermon in 1773.

The powerful themes of repentance and redemption and grace remain as crucial to us now as they were to John Newton.

America’s original sin of white supremacy and racism still haunts us, hinders us and holds us back from true greatness.

Continue reading I Once Was Blind But Now I See

Counterproductive Progressivism

I recently blogged an apology to Conservatives, admitting we Liberals all too often do not live up to our stated ideals of tolerance, open mindedness and generosity. The push back was immense. Quite a few disagreed and disagreed strongly; however, their conversation was civil and reasonable. Several other Liberal readers made my point for me though; their comments were filled with name calling, profanity, and ridicule.

More than a few Conservative commenters thanked me for the blog since they have been blasted by some of this “progressive” regression simply by stating their opinions in cyberspace discussion threads. Disagreement is not the problem. I’m much smarter whenever I’m forced to rethink and articulate my argument in the face of an opposing viewpoint. But insults are always a problem. We Progressives don’t like it when the name calling comes from the Right; so we absolutely ought to disavow it whenever it comes from the Left.

Such Liberal intolerance is counterproductive.

We are shooting ourselves in the foot. Continue reading Counterproductive Progressivism

An Apology from an Embarrassed Liberal to my Conservative Friends

Some time ago, I wrote my apology from an embarrassed Christian to my non-Christian friends. Liberals loved it. But I’m guessing my Liberal friends are not going to embrace this letter so quickly. We’ll see.

I help admin the Coffee Party USA Facebook page that invites discussion across our differences. The page has a large following and one of my tasks is to monitor the comments. (This responsibility is particularly ironic given my past refusal to ever, ever, ever read and engage cyberspace comments!) The Coffee Party Facebook effort is committed to civil dialogue around important issues of our day. Some posts generate hundreds of comments and most often, the conversation is intellectual and respectful.

But then again, all too often, the conversation devolves into childish name-calling.

I’m embarrassed to say that (all too often) some of the worst offenders are my fellow Liberals. Continue reading An Apology from an Embarrassed Liberal to my Conservative Friends

It’s None of Your Business. Except When It Is

Some years ago, a speaker at my seminary told us bluntly: “What God is doing is none of your business.”

I was appalled. And my reaction reveals that (yes, I admit) I do have some control issues.

Sometimes we religious folks are tempted to think we know who God does and doesn’t love, what God is up to and what God thinks about every situation. It’s an idolatrous temptation that Anne Lamott warns us against:

You can safely assume you have created god in your own image when your god hates all the same people you do.

Of all people, religious people ought to acknowledge divine mystery. We should have learned by now that God never has and never will fit into any of our boxes. What God is doing really is none of our business. Continue reading It’s None of Your Business. Except When It Is