FEBRUARY 10, 2003
Martin E. Marty
Andrew Greeley's new Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium (Transaction) finds that 86 percent of people in Ireland and only 21 percent in "East Germany" believe in heaven. Here in the States, we tend to believe more like the Irish. American military and political leaders, especially in times of crisis or mourning, assume that 100 percent of us do.
When the President spoke in Houston, he assured grievers that Kalpana Chawla, the Hindu aboard the Shuttle Columbia, who had "wanted to reach the stars," now had gone "there and beyond." He said to mourning families that "in God's own time, we can pray that the day of your reunion will come," presumably also in heaven.
In his most eloquent speech, after the Challenger tragedy, President Reagan, in his role as priest in America's civil religion, announced that the crew (including a Buddhist, a Jew, and a non-religious person) had all "slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God." Theologian Larry Rasmussen observed that the president's language of promise was "in keeping with triumphalist optimism," where "the final scene must be a happy one; it must be covered with quasi-religious fulfillment. . . There is no truth-telling here, except the illusory truth of a theology of glory."
Where distinctly Christian (or comparable tragedy-to-redemption) language is missing, he adds, "this is the only truth that consoles. For this reason its illusions must be maintained." Still, says Rasmussen, without the triumphalist illusions, we might experience a long and dangerous national "slide into despair and cynicism, a cosmic pessimism, or even nihilism." Neither a sour exploiter of tragedy or a cynical analyst of national mourning, Rasmussen does recognize that while the content of faith in American civil religion often sounds something like the faith-language of particular religions, it actually competes with these same religions theologically.
Thus through Christian history, from the sixteenth century Reformations to today's denominational battles, the conservative Protestant and Catholic believers who most encourage civil religion language about national triumph and heaven argue among themselves about who gets to heaven and how they get there. In Christianity the route is through faith in Jesus Christ and God's dispensing of grace. In civil religion it is through "works," by being a citizen, a patriot, a self-sacrificial exemplar -- which the Columbia and Challenger astronauts certainly were.
Evidently, in times of crisis, Christian citizens are able to believe in two religions and two paths of salvation at the same time. In mourning, we are all presumed to be universalists. Theological precision can await quieter, more luxurious times and situations.
Reference: Larry Rasmussen and Renate Bethge's Dietrich Bonhoeffer: His Significance for North Americans (Fortress, 1990) p. 83-85 contrasts Bonhoeffer and Reagan language.