The Tradition of Place and Civil Religion

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Just got Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister in the mail today. I’m excited to read it–and also excited to have the opportunity to be hosted by the political science department at my alma mater, Furman University, to hear Dr. McClay lecture on Alexis de Tocqueville next week.

The fifth chapter on my exceptionalism book will be dealing with this topic of the tradition of place in American civil religion. Americans have historically considered their land as divinely favored, given its great size, bounty, and beauty. But over the past several decades, this sense of place has been lost. I’ll be writing on some various views of place in American civil religion, and I hope to make a meaningful contribution to the conversation in the book.

I also hope to present a paper on the topic. I’ve proposed a paper for the Evangelical Theological Society meeting next November entitled “God Shed His Grace on Thee”: The Tradition of Place in American History, Civil Religion, and Local Evangelical Churches. I hope it gets accepted. Here is my abstract, and I’d love any constructive feedback you may have:

One of the more ironic turns in the history of American culture is a general shift in attitude concerning “place.” The Puritans who settled New England in the 1600s saw tremendous theological significance in the physical space they occupied west of the Hudson River. The tradition of assigning theological significance to places in America continued well into the twentieth century. One has only to consider the patriotic songs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to see how Americans viewed their land in Edenic terms, particularly favored by God. But since the end of World War II, Americans have largely abandoned this traditional aspect of civil religion, this powerful sense of place. Technology, transience, convenience, urban sprawl, globalization, and many other factors have contributed to this loss of the civil religious tradition of place.

The church has, in large measure, taken part in this abandonment. Historically, evangelical churches in America have sponsored and supported civil religion. This unique aspect of American churches was underscored in 1835 by Alexis de Tocqueville in the first part of his definitive book, Democracy in America. But in an effort to pursue and preserve relevance, many evangelical churches have largely abandoned the tradition of place. Many churches have no architectural or aesthetic distinctives linking them to their respective places. Cemeteries are no longer laid out when new church buildings are constructed, having the effect of severing a believing community’s memorial and generational ties. And many churches seek mission opportunities that are distantly located from their own communities. These and other examples demonstrate how many American churches have lost their own sense of place, to the detriment of their Christian identity and engagement with their localities.

This paper will argue that the tradition of place has profound theological significance in worship, aesthetics, missions, and American culture. The loss of a sense of place is an emerging theme in American culture (see for example Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister, eds. Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, New Atlantis, 2014; Gary M. Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to ‘Holy Land’ Theology, Baker, 2010), and evangelical churches have a unique opportunity to direct the dialogue. In doing so, churches in America can make meaningful contributions to the coherence of community and quality of life for the sake of Christ’s gospel.

2 responses to “The Tradition of Place and Civil Religion

  1. Dr. Wilsey, I’m looking forward to meeting you this week at Furman, and I hope we can talk more about these issues. I think you are on to something very profound with your notions about the chronic inattention to place among evangelicals (and not only evangelicals). So glad you mentioned and enjoyed WHY PLACE MATTERS. Ted McAllister and I just had a book launch for it at Pepperdine, with Rod Dreher as the keynote speaker, and various panelists and audience members from the worlds of city planning and civic engagement, and it was terrific. Our hope is that the book can get a conversation going. Sounds as if your ETS paper is going to be part of the same conversation.

    • Thank you for your kind feedback! I’m very much looking forward to meeting you this week, and hopefully we will be able to chat some more. Sounds like there will be a lot of traction under your wheels on this topic. All the best, John.

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