Class began at 9:30, and I rushed into the room at about 9:27, feeling slightly panicked because biology had gone a few minutes late, as usual, and because the effects of my coffee had worn off. The class was Religion and Politics in America, which I was taking mainly to fulfill my requirement to take an honor’s course that semester, although I had been more than a little nervous to take a religion course at my Methodist-affiliated college. Before we began class that day, my professor handed back my first essay, which he had just graded. The topic was civil religion. We were supposed to describe and discuss how politicians and other public figures refer to God and religion in their speeches, and how God is depicted in patriotic contexts.
Glancing at my paper, I was pleased to see that on the first page, the professor had made only three comments, two of which simply said ”good,” and the third said ”yes.” As class started, I shoved the paper in my folder to look at later. After class, when I had a chance to turn to the second page, I saw a slightly longer remark. The professor had underlined one of my sentences in which I had said that while politicians frequently mention God in their speeches, civil religion is necessarily vague and generic, because public figures never say anything theologically significant. The phrase I had used was that politicians don’t talk about “the important subject of salvation and eternal life.”
It was this phrase that my professor didn’t like. He told me in his comments that he felt I exaggerated the insignificance of civil religion’s theology. His note on that particular phrase pointed out that civil religion did include messages of justice, mercy, blessing, and providence. If he had still been there when I read his remarks, I would have had a few things to say to him. Justice, mercy, providence and blessings sound nice and are certainly valid religious topics, but I fail to comprehend what significance they have outside of the concept of forgiveness and salvation. The Bible certainly tells us that God is just and refers to justice as a good thing, and it’s a virtue for rulers. But I can think of one important case where God Himself seems completely unjust and unfair. If God gave us what we deserved, we would all be condemned and Jesus would never have died, but instead, God chose to send Jesus to live a perfect life on Earth, to suffer and die in our place, so that we could be saved and have eternal life. Rather than justice, God chose to give us justification, and for us, this unfairness is certainly better than the fair alternative.
As for mercy, I’m not sure what mercy even means apart from salvation. Referring to my handy copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary, I find that the official definition of mercy is ”a refraining from harming offenders, enemies, etc.” Doesn’t this mean that talking about God’s mercy towards us necessarily requires us to acknowledge that we are sinners and enemies of God, but that He has graciously forgiven us our sins through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ? Incidentally, this sounds to me like the message of grace and salvation (Romans 5:6-11).
Providence and blessings are likewise vague and fairly meaningless when not taken in the context of our salvation. Undeniably, God gives us many blessings—not only spiritual, but sometimes material and worldly blessings as well. But when a politician or public figure talks about providence and blessings, they generally only mean material and worldly wealth. I certainly am glad to live in a country and society where necessities like food and shelter are abundant. I am glad to have access to things like the internet, coffee, and duct tape, which are technically luxuries, although I admittedly take them for granted much of the time. But these are not the only blessings that God gives us. The greatest blessings He gives us are forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Christ came and lived among us, He led a sinless life, died, and was raised, and besides all this, He gave us even more. He gave us the Bible so that we would have access to His word in our daily lives. He gave us saving faith, and He gave us His sacraments of Baptism and Communion by which He strengthens this faith and assures us of our salvation.
I am not interested in hearing about a generic God who gives us justice, mercy, and blessings. I go to a confessional Lutheran church because I want to hear about the true Triune God who gives us justice, mercy, blessings, forgiveness, salvation, His word and sacraments, and eternal life. And coffee, too.
Magdalena Teske is a senior at Birmingham-Southern College and attends Hope Lutheran Church in Birmingham, Alabama. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org