Civil Religion in an Era of Inequality

I’m a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I was ordained in 1991; my generation of pastoral leaders presides over a precipitous decline in church membership and participation. This is true for all the mainline churches (Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.). Evangelical and non-denominational churches are no longer growing; the Roman Catholic Church in the United States maintains no loss in membership gracias a los Latinos. Times have changed and the institutional church has lost quite a bit of its mojo . . .

Churches in America, yes, once upon a recent time, did have some mojo (status and momentum). The period of the 1950s and early ’60s was the recent heyday of American churches; the civil religion of that day required good citizens to belong to houses of worship. My generation of pastors (mainliners, at least) was educated and trained by seminary professors, most of whose formative years harkened back to the heyday period. Expectations were rightfully lofty; we were to support the church’s dominion even as signs of decline unmistakably surfaced. My generation can be accused of harboring some entitlement mentality; we were expectant of a decent salary, health insurance, and a pension from these established churches. Today, fewer and fewer churches are able to satisfactorily meet all three of these expectations.

It’s a pretty good idea in this current era of diminishment that a minister have a second gig. I know pastoral colleagues who are engaged in the following tasks for pay: music lessons, carpentry, teaching, coaching, writing, managing a call center. Tent-making, descriptive of the Apostle Paul’s second gig and of a pastor working a secular job, has been the norm much more so than not during the Church’s two-thousand year history. All is not lost in this era of precipitous decline. The church has done some of its best work from and within minority status.


Civil religion has deep roots in modern society. Political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (18th century) wrote of the “sentiments of sociality,” the social glue holding a nation or state together. Sociologist Robert Bellah, in our day, wrote of civil religion as the common values that unify Americans. He called the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement the defining chapters of the national narrative. Other items deserving mention include the playing of the national anthem at public events, the president closing out national addresses with “God Bless America,” and belief in the concept of American exceptionalism. Civil religion is a two-sided coin, both helping and hindering societal common good.


The ELCA publishes its own monthly magazine for its faithful. No surprises with the name of the magazine – it is called The Lutheran. In the July issue, the cover theme was “Economic Inequality.” Four articles by different authors highlighted this timely topic; The new inequality by Jon Pahl, a teaching theologian working in Philadelphia, was especially well done. Pahl argues that two important responses to this “new inequality” (not entirely new, but a repeat of the inequality of the Gilded Age and the 1920s, and newly present since the late 1970s) is the advocacy of community (political) organizing and the implementation and empowerment of social ministries. Whereas Lutheran Christians have in the past and today strongly advocate social ministries, community organizing seems an entirely different issue. Many of us are comfortable with advocating a food pantry ministry to serve the hungry in our community, but how many of us are willing to dig deeper and ask the question – with the goal of answering it – why there are so many people, including children, who are hungry?

We almost got rid of hunger in the United States in the late 1960s, because of a continued emphasis on social policy coming out of the New
Deal era. In the late 1970s, there were only 200 or so food pantries serving the hungry in the United States. The pendulum swung, however, and something changed as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s. Governmental and societal will embraced the emphasis of fiscal policy over social policy and financialization has been dominant ever since. The size of the US financial sector (measured by percent of GDP) doubled from the late 1970s to 2008. Something else has also increased – exponentially so from the 1970s. Today there are more than 40,000 food pantries and soup kitchens that serve the hungry in the United States. Close to 50 million Americans are food insecure, the majority of these women and children. The emphasis on financialization – the process whereby financial markets, financial institutions, and financial elites are given top priority in governmental policy – is a major factor in the creation of the current economic inequality and its fallout.

When the September issue of The Lutheran came out, the letters to the editor section printed four responses to the articles on economic inequality. Two were highly critical of the magazine for running the articles:

“I do not share your cheerleading enthusiasm that paints economic inequality as demonic injustice.”

“I refuse to be used by people who feel entitled to half of everything others have while they do nothing.”

A part of American civil religion – the social glue that holds this society together – in this era of inequality has devolved into a simplistic “maker/taker” tenet that casually accepts the current rampant inequality as normal. Entitlement, taking on second jobs, poverty (inclusive of an abysmal childhood poverty rate of 23% in the United States), and other social consequences of inequality are crucial issues that cannot be dismissed as trivial.  More harmful, even, is the demonizing of others as entirely culpable and the categorization of American citizens into two groups – us and them.

We pay a high price for the ignorance concerning the causes of inequality and their consequences for the whole of society; the common good suffers as a result. Economist Thomas Piketty forecasts historic levels of inequality for the United States by 2030 if we continue on current trajectories. In the meantime, the soon-to-be minority-status church has a job to do: remind the society in which it resides that the justice of heaven is to touch everyday life here on earth. A majority-status church (as in the 1950s) runs the risk of not being able to differentiate itself from the surrounding civil religion (consider the many US flags in sanctuaries across the nation, as an example). The minority-status church is less susceptible to being co-opted by the reigning civil religion. Point in case: the Divine will carried out on earth includes daily bread, not just for some, but for all.


These ideas are adapted from the book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo Publishing, 2014) available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.



One thought on “Civil Religion in an Era of Inequality

  1. Carl Anderson

    Very well said (written). I’m hopeful that if church groups study this book it may lead to more activism on this issue. Part of our problem is that most Lutherans (I’m guessing this to be true) are on the comfortable side of the economic fence and while we’re very willing to help the disadvantaged with direct aid, whether it’s food, housing, clothing, etc., we’re uneasy about changing the system because it may hurt us in some unforeseen way. Ergo, let’s leave it the way it is but help the down and out. And after all, isn’t most of the problem with the poor that they should try harder and be more resourceful? The one letter to the Lutheran expressed it so clearly: “Why should I be responsible for someone else’s bad choices?”

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