In the United States, religious, political, and social life has been structured by a public/private binary. Oftentimes, religion is understood as private and politics as public. This framework informs a religious/secular binary and carries important implications for the structure of American life. Particularly affected arenas include church-state relations; religious discourse in public life, including prophetic protest and religious nationalism; sexual regulation and the politics of morality; and norms of civic and civil discourse.
Real politics and consequences attend the definition of terms like “religious,” “secular,” and “pluralist.” Many observers have called the United States a secular, pluralist nation and, simultaneously, the most “religious” nation in the “developed world.” The perceived incongruities or affinities among these labels betray fundamental assumptions about religion and its place in public life. When public figures invoke the language and imagery of “civil religion,” for example, they may be understood to sacralize the public sphere or bring religion into the public or treat the nation’s “shared” symbols with a religious reverence. Although pluralism, as both a demographical description and a progressive goal, has been broadly championed amid growing religious diversity, certain groups, ideas, and practices have nevertheless remained excluded from the realms of public secularism and private (proper) religiosity. The politics are messy and often subtle, but the consequences can be stark. In these ways and more, American life has been shaped by the entwined concepts of secularism, pluralism, and publics.
Heath W. Carter
Social Christianity is a heterogeneous tradition that has been cultivated by a diverse array of American Christians who shared in common an intuition that the source of social problems is more exterior than interior to the individual. Social gospelers have contended, in word and in deed, that sin infects not only individuals but also systems and structures; that salvation is not only personal but also societal; and that therefore participation in the struggle for a more just society is, for Christians, not so much optional as essential. This distinctly modern tradition first emerged in the antebellum period, but was overshadowed by older, benevolent, and bourgeois modes of reform until the early 20th century, when it gained a stronger foothold in both the institutional churches and the worlds beyond their walls. Social Christianity’s influence was never more formidable than during the New Deal era. It was during those pivotal decades, which saw the rise of a robust welfare state as well as of massive, faith-infused labor and civil rights movements, that social gospelers left their most lasting mark on American society. In the late 20th century and early 21st centuries, the tradition’s influence would decline precipitously, in no small part due to the success of a multifaceted backlash against social gospel ideas and movements. The rise of the modern right signaled, for social gospelers of all different kinds, a return to the wilderness.
American reformers have always put religion at the heart of their protest movements. They have invoked divine law and the word of God, ignored expediency and pragmatics, and acted on behalf of a transcendent truth. Nearly all major progressive reform movements have drawn on religious belief as they envisioned a new society. In particular, the American prophetic mode has been crucial to the reform tradition. American reformers in nearly all of the country’s reform movements of the past two hundred years have used the prophetic mode. But of the major reform movements, abolitionism and anti-lynching were the most thoroughly infused with religion. Abolitionists drew on the imagery of both Revelation and the Old Testament God of war, infusing their performative martyrdoms with apocalyptic imagery. They depicted Christ as the warrior of Revelation and Christ as the son of the Old Testament vengeful God, transforming the abolitionist martyr into the abolitionist messiah: a portent of divine judgment. Anti-lynching activists echoed and revised abolitionism’s Christ-like sacrifice for white America’s soul and created a series of black Christs that restaged the passion play for the Jim Crow South. This reform rhetoric, displaying the same righteous anger as abolitionists, met the religious imagery of racists head-on and turned anti-lynching’s calls for social change into a sacred text. At the heart of both major movements, which laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and for the Black Lives Matter movement of the 21st century, was a messianic martyrdom that countered the religious justifications for slavery, lynching, and white supremacy.
John C. Blakeman
Issues of church and state are an important element of American religious history and politics. Church–state issues frequently concern the extent of government regulation over religious groups and individuals, and they address fundamental issues, from the constitutional limits on government regulation of religiously inspired conduct to state and local government zoning of religious congregations and property owned and used by religious groups.
Space is often a part of church–state issues. Beginning with early debates over religious liberty in the Puritan colonies in the 1600s, and again during the American Revolution and framing of the U.S. Constitution between 1775 and 1790, spatial conceptions of the proper role between church and state, and between government and religion, are prominent. Two fundamental thinkers on American religious liberty, the Puritan minister Roger Williams and the constitutional framer James Madison, illustrate this dimension of church–state relations.
Disputes over space, church, and state are often resolved by the court system through litigation, or through the political process. Such disputes often stem from government policies and regulations that affect how a congregation or religious group uses its own property. For instance, zoning and other municipal ordinances may affect and burden how a religious group uses its property and even interfere with a group’s religious mission. Religious beliefs may compel a congregation to use its property to engage in charitable works, yet it may be prohibited from doing so due to government regulations on how its property can be used. Or when a congregation seeks to expand its facilities to attract more members, or even build a new worship center elsewhere, it may encounter government policies that regulate its ability to do so.
Other disputes over space arise when government regulation of public property affects a religious group’s use of it. For example, some religious groups stake a sacred claim to land or other space owned by the government. However, government regulations concerning how the land is used might interfere with a group’s ability to act upon its sacred beliefs. In some cases, religious groups may seek to use public property for religious purposes and activities, such as the display of a religious symbol or for proselytizing to the public, and government policies may prevent that in order to avoid violating the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion in the First Amendment.
A final view of space and church–state issues is more conceptual and less grounded in tangible space, land, and property. Some religious groups seek a more abstract, intangible space between them and government regulation. Groups such as the Old Order Amish that seek to separate from the world will erect a buffer space between themselves and government regulation, so as to preserve the purity, and sanctity, of their way of life that is inextricably linked to their specific religious beliefs.
The megachurch is one of the most recognizable and characteristic religious spaces in the modern United States. Super-sized, consumer oriented, and blandly contemporary, megachurches have become popularly identified with a host of middlebrow American cultural stereotypes. Yet these congregations have proven themselves to be a leading force in the practice of contemporary evangelicalism, their numbers, average size, and evangelistic reach growing dramatically over the past forty years. Building on nearly a century of experimentation, modern megachurches have hit upon a highly successful formula for attracting and retaining attendants. Through a careful calibration of worship style, sermonic messaging, institutional identity, and programming offerings, their market share has swiftly multiplied. As a result, megachurches now dominate the practice of contemporary Protestantism, setting new standards for how a church should look, sound, and feel and establishing the mantra of “church growth” as the widely adopted aim and purpose of modern ministry.
Spatial strategies have been at the core of these growth efforts. Megachurches draw explicitly from the architectural idioms of contemporary shopping malls, corporate complexes, sports arenas, and television studios as a means of making themselves immediately familiar and inviting for the average congregant. They provide a great array of on-site amenities and specialized interiors to appeal to diverse constituencies who may be searching for different attributes in a church home. Choice is therefore incorporated as a spatial principle, permitting attendants to self-design their worship experience and opt in to the level of commitment they feel prepared to offer. Megachurches also typically take an aggressive posture toward their spatial milieus, treating their immediate environs as an active mission field. They regularly deploy lay volunteers to canvass local neighborhoods and encourage members to network on behalf of the church. They encourage the pursuit of new member growth, even if it comes largely from congregational switching rather than recruitment of the “unchurched.” Megachurches thus tend to dominate the religious ecology of their suburban habitats, outcompeting smaller churches for members and money.
Research on the megachurch subculture has primarily been conducted by sociologists and ethnographers, but a bevy of commentary by theologians, ethicists, historians, and journalists has emerged to supplement that social scientific focus and place the megachurch in wider context. Within that growing literature, four lines of inquiry frequently recur: What defines and differentiates the megachurch? What are the historical and cultural sources for its formulation? What explains its rapid rise to prominence in the modern moment? And what does the rise of the megachurch represent for communities of faith, for both insiders and outsiders to the movement? In the round, the varied answers to these interrogations paint a picture of a hotly contested institution, whose definition, origins, and meaning are debatable. Yet there is little doubt that the spatial strategies of megachurches, so frequently admired, imitated, and condemned, can help us address these questions and therefore merit further exploration and understanding.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, or the Apocalypse of John, has been extraordinarily influential in Christian life and theology. For example, because of the many hymns sung by the heavenly host, Revelation has, like Isaiah 6:3, been particularly influential on liturgy and also music, for instance, the setting of Revelation 5:12, “Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain,” in Handel’s Messiah. It is one of two biblical apocalyptic texts (the other being the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible). Apart from the opening words, a dominant theme of Revelation is prophecy, and its imagery emphasizing what John “saw” on Patmos suggests that the form of prophecy in the first century
In Christianity, theological language must be understood against the background of the multifaceted semantic field of Logos. “Logos” (as “word” and as “linguistic reason”) is used in multiple contexts: (1) Trinitarian theological (John 1:1); (2) creation (Gen. 1:3) and revelation-theological (Jesus Christ “the Word of God” [ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ]: Rev. 19:13); and (3) soteriological-eschatological (“Word of Life,” 1 John 1:1). These references are mediated through the philosophy of language’s concept of “translation” (Johann Georg Hamann) and the idea of divine condescension into human language.
In Luther, religious language as the language of the Bible is to be understood on the one hand by its character as a living address to humankind and on the other as an immediate confession of the believer in spontaneous reaction to it. In biblical language, the Word of God, conveyed in human terms, comes closer to us than we do to our own selves and transforms our earthly existence to the goal of everlasting life.
Theological language is intellectual interpretation and conceptual reflection on religious language with a theoretical aim—in other words, its intent is to reach an agreement about itself under the conditions of the overall context; it concerns the truth of religious language and texts.
Because Luther—linguistically aware to the highest degree—recognized the specific distinctiveness of biblical language, and of New Testament language in particular, his writings contain an abundance of differentiated reflections on the state of appropriate theological language. The Word of God in our human language requires theology to have a “different” or “new” logic (and philosophy) in its articles of faith. All traditional philosophical terms and logical forms of judgment and conclusion must be “translated” into Christianity—even, for example, the concept of the human being and of the Word itself.
In particular, the unity of God and man in Christ compels a new sort of language or way of thinking. The imaginative form of spatial prepositions (such as “in”) must be rethought in determinate negation. In God, opposites coincide.
Because God’s Word is directed against the self-conception of the sinner before God, it comes to humankind essentially in the twin linguistic structure of “Law” and “Gospel”; these categories also define theological language in a specifically Reformation sense.
New Testament language, in its fundamentals, is eschatologically oriented. Hence, categories such as “substance” or “essence” (essentia) must be rephrased on the condition that nothing has already been defined, and everything is still developing. Luther undertook this with an eschatology of the Word of God.
As Luther shows in the case of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “This is my body …,” the new logic is a genuinely linguistic logic, or rather thinking from language. Traditional (formal) logic replaces the logic of real language with an artificial model.
Finally, Luther also reflects on the linguistic status of the word “God” as a grammatical subject. Here, too, he wants the word “God” to be comprehended as a fluid substance, understanding it essentially as a verb—as a linguistic expression of movement—thus embodying the Reformation idea of “for me” (pro me).
Ultimately, it is always about the important role of two linguistic aspects in theological language: grammar on the one hand, which should receive fundamental attention, and linguistic usage (usus loquendi) on the other, the comprehension of which is also crucial. Thus, Luther’s understanding of theological language could be summarized in this statement: theology, understood linguistically, is a grammar of the language of the sacred scriptures.
John R. Stumme
During the 20th century there was a remarkable change in the interpretation of Martin Luther’s approach to society. During the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, many understood that Luther advocated a sharp separation between gospel and world, faith and politics, church and state. Faith or religion was understood to be a private affair that had nothing to do with the autonomous functioning of government and other secular institutions. Christians were to obey the existing powers, even if unjust or authoritarian, and serve their neighbor through acts and church institutions of mercy. Lutherans were called quietists, defeatists, and dualists, and Karl Barth alleged that Luther’s understanding of law and gospel allowed other gods to claim allegiance alongside Jesus the Lord. And then especially there were the Lutheran failures in the Nazi experience.
All of this spurred theologians to critically evaluate their tradition and to take a fresh look at Luther in order to assist the church to be a more responsible presence in a changing world. In the middle decades of the last century, there was an impressive outpouring of historical and theological studies on what was being called Luther’s “two-kingdoms doctrine.” These studies did not exonerate Luther from all the ills of the tradition that bears his name, but they did reveal that other ideas and interests led to Luther’s approach often being wrongly interpreted and ideologically misused. These studies offered new interpretations, often differing in their positions and emphases, which demonstrated the complexity, the “labyrinth” (Johannes Heckel), of Luther’s thought and also revealed something about the social location of the interpreter. Yet there was wide agreement that Luther in his life and his theology did not disdain or withdraw from social and political life. On the contrary; a revisionist strain saw Luther’s theological distinctions to be essential for the church both to preserve the uniqueness of the gospel and to encourage Christians to participate critically in society. Questions remained, yet many in various contexts found in Luther a way for the church to affirm both justification and justice.
This all too brief sketch of the controversial and checkered history of interpretation of Luther’s thought on society since the early 20th century sets the stage for turning to Luther himself. In addressing social and political issues, Luther moves out from the center of his theology. That center is justification, the belief that people, sinners before God, are forgiven and justified by faith alone because of Jesus Christ. Christians living in faith before God also live at the same time in the networks and institutions of society where they are freed and called to love their neighbor. For Luther Christians always live in these two realms or relationships in which God is active; the loving God who justifies also creates the world in which Christians and others live. Better labels for Luther’s approach than “two kingdoms” are “the twofold rule of God” or “the two realms.”
Luther works out his understanding of political authority and its relation to spiritual authority as part of the twofold rule of God. He does so while protesting the abuses in the church and leading a reforming movement. He is concerned to show the proper function of Word and sword and their relationship. His 1523 treatise Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed sets out his perspective, which later he developed and modified.
Mark S. Smith
The Ugaritic texts provide a rich resource for understanding the Late Bronze Age kingdom of Ugarit, located on the coast of Syria. The site has yielded about two thousand tablets in Ugaritic, the West Semitic language of this city-state, and about twenty-five hundred tablets in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the period, as well as many texts written in seven other languages. These reveal a cosmopolitan, commercial center operating in the shadow of two great powers of the eastern Mediterranean basin, the Egyptians and the Hittites.
The Ugaritic texts offer innumerable literary and religious parallels to biblical literature. The parallels are so rich and in some cases so specific that it is evident that the Ugaritic texts do not merely provide parallels, but belong to a shared or overlapping cultural matrix with the Hebrew Bible. Ugaritic literature may not predate the earliest biblical sources by much more than a few decades, but the bulk of biblical literature dates to centuries later. Moreover, unlike the coastal, cosmopolitan center of Ugarit, ancient Israel’s heartland lay in the rural inland hill-country considerably to the south in what is today Israel and occupied Palestinian territory. Despite these important differences, Ugaritic and biblical literature are not to be understood as representing entirely different cultures, but overlapping ones.
Robert W. Gribben
The Uniting Church in Australia (1977) faces the challenge of both being faithful to its inherited traditions (Methodist and Reformed), and taking the opportunity to draw on contemporary ecumenical liturgical scholarship in the preparation of new liturgies. The eucharistic liturgies follow the basic shape of Dix; the Great Prayer may be used in either the Western Catholic tradition, or prefaced by a Reformed “warrant.” There is a wide variety of baptism and related services, including some resources for an adult catechumenate. There is provision for both adult and infant baptism, as appropriate; some material for an adult catechumenate is included, but the church has not yet shown evidence of increased baptism of adults. The first phases of the renewal process involved the production of two worship books, in 1988 and 2005, covering the full range of word, sacrament, and occasional offices, and were increasingly supported by authorized CD-ROM and web-based resources. Inclusive language is used throughout. The liturgical forms are regarded as models, to be varied or supplemented with material with the same theological intent. There is now an increasing move toward local worship leaders (lay and ordained) devising liturgies using resources, including musical, with other theological bases. This raises the question of the theological integrity of the result, in words spoken and sung. The complex task of providing its liturgies for non-European cultures, including indigenous, has hardly begun, though there are services now translated into other languages. The dearth of scholarly liturgical study in theological colleges makes it difficult to see how this can be addressed. Without such historical, theological, and practical study of worship, many other developments will be prey to fashion and individual styles.