Pastor Note #114: Michael Flynn and One National Religion

“If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion.  One nation under God, and one religion under God.”

Michal Flynn, speaking at a “Reawaken America” event in San Antonio, TX on November 13, 2021

Washington County (Pennsylvania) Courthouse; photo by GAC

It is hard to see how this statement is anything less than a rejection of religious freedom in America and a call for a coercive imposition of governmental power into the religious lives of all Americans.  It is hard for me to imagine what sort of American would actually welcome this kind of governmental intrusion into religious life.  But maybe it isn’t obvious to would-be supporters of Mr. Flynn that a vast, coercive program of governmental involvement into the lives of Americans would have to be undertaken in order for Mr. Flynn’s vision of one American religion to become a reality.

I am assuming that Mr. Flynn’s vision includes a governmental imposition of this “one religion” on the American populous.  He could, I suppose, be merely advocating a vigorous evangelistic program aimed at persuading every American to adopt his “one religion.”  But Christians in North America have in greater or lesser degrees been pursuing that program for the past four hundred years to ever diminishing success.

If persuasion and voluntary recruitment were all he had in mind, then his comments would fall far short of newsworthy.  Persuasion and voluntary evangelism have been and remain a standard element of the ministry of a large portion of American churches.  In fact, this past weekend, I attended a workshop on a major evangelism initiative in my own denomination.  Surely, I am not wrong in taking Mr. Flynn’s comments to be an expression of impatience with programs of voluntary recruitment and a preference for some form of governmentally imposed religious establishment in America.

There are, of course, examples of this sort of governmental coercion in the religious lives of a nation’s population.  Iran and Saudi Arabia, for instance, both assert rigid control over the religious lives of their people.  I find myself left to assume that Mr. Flynn approves of the principles of religious government pursued by such nations as Iran and Saudi Arabia, even while he rejects the particular religion that those two governments are imposing on their people.

To pursue this path, Mr. Flynn will have to abandon any pretension to claim that American should be a land of freedom.  American can be “one nation [and one religion] under God”.  But it could no longer claim to be the “home of the free”.  Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia could conceivably be deemed bastions of freedom for their people, in large part because of their coercive imposition of one sanctioned religion.

The loss of freedom as illustrated by those two examples is not limited to creedal or doctrinal beliefs.  As we see in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and in the Taliban government of Afghanistan, the line of demarcation between “religious” matters and more broadly “cultural” matters is extremely porous.  The imposition of a religion involves the imposition of a very wide range of cultural and societal concerns.  The imposition of one religion would certainly soon express itself in various forms of control over the arts, popular culture, education, and news media.  Indeed, the desire for “one religion” may well be seen by Mr. Flynn as a shortcut to precisely these sorts of societal controls.  In any case, this expansion from the religious to the more broadly cultural and societal controls is just what we see in the repressive societies of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

For the government to impose one particular religion on American society would also require the government to restrain the expression of any views that undermined or simply differed from the government established religious position.  Individuals would be free to say whatever they liked, AS LONG AS it did not conflict with government-sanctioned religious and cultural views.  Schools—public AND private—would be free to teach whatever they liked, AS LONG AS what they taught was consistent with the government-sanctioned religious and cultural norms.  And churches would be free to teach and preach whatever they liked, AS LONG AS  it was in conformity with the government-sanctioned religious and cultural standards.  And there can be little doubt that along with “religious and cultural” views, norms, and standards would go religiously sanctioned political views.

Paul Revere statue, Boston, MA; photo by GAC

This is where Flynn’s one national religion really begins to become an existential threat to every church in America.  Though he doesn’t say so in the line I quote at the beginning of this post, Flynn’s “one religion” is certainly meant to be understood to be Christianity.  But immediately the question arises, What sort of Christianity?  Would any “religion” that called itself “Christian” fit the bill?  Would Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Unitarians be considered Christian?  They are not considered Christian by most classic, orthodox Protestants or Catholics.  Would liberal, progressive Protestants, such as the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Episcopal Church, who advocate policies very much in line with the more progressive wing of the Democratic party be considered acceptably Christian?

What standards would be used to determine if a church was in line with the “one religion” of America?  Would doctrinal standards be used?  Which doctrinal standards?  Would there be some bureaucracy of the federal government tasked with the work of determining if a church was in compliance with the official standards?  Would churches be required to submit their statements of faith to that federal bureaucracy in order to be permitted to operate?  What if a church was found to be out of compliance with the federal religion standards?  Would they be closed down?  Would some governmental official be put in charge of that church’s operations?

For religious liberty to be real, it has to apply to all religions equally and without exception.  There are legitimate reasons for government to restrict certain religious practices.  For example, a religion that included human sacrifice as part of its worship would certainly find its liberties restricted by government.  Religious liberties must be balanced by government against other legitimate civil and human rights.  Government might well assert a legitimate role in restricting religious practices for the sake of public health.  But as soon as government attempts to discriminate among religious groups and practices on the basis of religious, creedal, doctrinal, or ideological beliefs, privileging some doctrines or beliefs over others, religious liberty as such will begin to be eroded.  That is the world that Michael Flynn’s “one [national] religion” would create.

Mr. Flynn’s vision of and rationale for “one national religion” is very much in line with the Roman view of religion in the first three centuries of the Christian era.  The Romans saw religion as a kind of civic glue that held their society together.  The kind of civil religion that Mr. Flynn likely would desire is not an end in itself but is rather a means to a “higher” end.  For him, the “one religion” would serve the cause of advancing the national interests of America.  In that religion, God is not the master but the servant of the nation.  There is a certain irony about the fact that this Roman rationale for religion’s role in society was what drove the periodically vicious persecutions of Christians.  I think America and American Christians would do well to stay away from that vision of “one national religion”.

© 2021 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.

See also:

Pastor Note #93: Religious Liberty, Privileged Christianity, and the Art of the Deal


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