The discussion around civil religion lately has become very interesting. A slew of good books have come out recently (including Walter A. McDougall’s The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest and Philip Gorski’s American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present) that take up this question from different angles and advance both our understanding and appreciation for this American institution and its function in our polity. Too often we caricaturize civil religion by either beating it up or making it a golden calf. The new books and debates are taking a more measured assessment of this American phenomenon.

Evangelicals of different stripes have been weighing in on the question, too, with striking consistency. Mark Tooley, Joe Carter, John Piper, and John Wilsey have all taken a remarkably similar position on civil religion, patriotism, and Christian faith. Call it cautious patriotism, critical citizenship, or whatever other catchy slogan does the trick, but we ought to denounce the alignment of America with God’s salvific work even while appreciating the many blessings that America and its ideals have brought to us and the world.

Russell Moore’s Erasmus Lecture for First Things last year was something of a watershed moment on this issue. It brought together many of the sentiments that had been brewing within evangelical circles for a while but had only been expressed from the left, and not by a major figure with such clarity and bluntness. There is one point that bears keeping in mind in this discussion going forward. Even though we are now seeking to distance ourselves from civil religion, we should seek to understand what it was and what it does.

Civil religion is parasitic. It requires actual religions in order to work. American civil religion, though it takes many forms both good and bad (or healthy and unhealthy, if you prefer), came about as a compromise between American Protestantism and the government. That’s it. It was not a compromise between government and “religion” (that awful nebulous term) or between government and various streams of Christianity and other faiths (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Judaism, etc.). It was a Protestant way to solve the thorny problem of state churches that took for granted the future and dominance of Protestantism in American society. And, historically speaking, the solution was ingenious, if flawed.

Whatever you think of American civil religion, Protestantism was the fuel that made it go. When you lose the fuel, you lose the benefits that have accrued to American society because of it. And the benefits were substantial, even as we are now appreciating the costs, too. One of the most significant and underappreciated benefits was the unity it generated. It provided a shared set of morals and duties that had broad tacit support and adherence. Cicero often wrote about the civic “bonds” (vinculum) that held Rome together, and for America our civic glue was Protestantism. Tocqueville, insightful as ever, described the Protestant consensus this way: “all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man.”

I say “was” because it is no longer. The question we must ask going forward is how we intend to replace this consensus that is disappearing before our very eyes. Civic bonds cannot be formed through the structures of government or by making society more democratic. In fact, the drive towards freedom and equality often “levels” (to use Kierkegaard’s apt phrase) or grinds down the communities and norms that are necessary for democratic life. Our commitment to liberty and equality flow from moral assumptions that were rooted in Christian faith. And even if one did not share this faith, they were content to borrow from it. But now many of our elites imagine we can manage our society without drawing from this well. Abstract rights-talk or the project of liberation has only deepened our divisions.

This question becomes even more pressing when it comes to acting internationally. When summoned to arms, Americans acted with a united sense of purpose because there was a shared sense of community and ideals that they were living out and defending. Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a book entitled Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order that offered a series of policy prescriptions for strengthening America’s domestic hand in order to better address international problems. Yet the more pressing problem we face that cannot be addressed with policy is putting our civic and moral house in order. If we do not find a new way to bind us together in shared civic bond with a common moral vision, our ability to act in the world will be greatly diminished.

The two contenders on offer in each party are not up to the task. Bernie Sanders’ recent denunciation of a government appointee because he believed in the exclusivity of Christian faith demonstrates the progressive civil religion. Diversity and inclusion are its founding principles. Affirmation and self-realization are its guiding principles. Accept all, reject none, affirm identity, live your best life now.

Sanders’ secular progressivism is the twin of conservative nationalism. This is the piety of mom, apple pie, the flag, and America as the providential country uniquely established by God and in some special covenant relationship with God akin to Israel. Perhaps they are both an iteration of the same human tendency to coopt Christianity for political ends. Christians should reject both options because both are deeply defective, if not heretical, even as they echo bits of the truth.

The only way forward on this issue, as far as I can see, is to maintain a critical distance from the temptations and abuses of civil religion while also affirming its necessity in American life and politics. If we only bash civil religion, we fail to appreciate the good and important work it does in American politics and society. And yet, we must always maintain a clear distinction between the uncompromising demands and loyalty we reserve for the King of kings and the relative demands that are placed on us as citizens sojourning towards that heavenly city. The relationship will always be fraught, but we should not, therefore, think we can opt out.

Though civil religion will never be quite satisfactory to orthodox believers, it is a necessary part of American politics, and especially for galvanizing and binding the country together to undertake important work in the world. At key moments in our history, civil religion played a vital role. Whether at the founding or the Civil War or World War II, it allowed the nation to unite in the face of great adversity around ideals beyond national interest. FDR’s rallying call to America to lead the battle against Hitler and Imperial Japan would not have had the same effect if he had not invoked the divine. Invocations of democracy and freedom shorn of appeal to their transcendent moorings are not enough to motivate and bind the nation around our common ideals. Their power lies in tapping into the deepest well spring of action for most Americans—religion.

A chastening of the excesses of civil religion is salutary and healthy, but we must be cautious lest we undermine our own ability to act abroad, especially when our leadership and power is required.

Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and St. Augustine of Hippo.

Photo Credit: East Iron Hill Community Church. By Phil Roeder, via Flickr.