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July 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 3 · pp. 15–21 

Mennonites, “Civil Religion,” and the American Bicentennial: An Interview with James Juhnke

Ben C. Ollenburger

[At the request of the editors of Direction, Ben Ollenburger, Instructor of Bible at Tabor College, and Wally Kroeker, Associate Editor of The Christian Leader, interviewed Dr. James Juhnke, Professor of History at Bethel College, Newton, Kansas. Professor Juhnke is a student of American history and of the Mennonite experience in America. He has written A People of Two Kingdoms: The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites (Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press, 1975) and is co-editor of Mennonite Life. He has also experienced the dilemmas and rigors of campaigning for political office. In 1970 he was the Democratic candidate for Congress in Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District. The interview was transcribed and edited by Ben Ollenburger. The indented material may be taken as direct quotations. The rest of the material paraphrases Juhnke’s ideas as they emerged during the interview.]


The term “civil religion” is more confusing than helpful. It may be better to speak of nationalism, which is itself a religion.

It is a religion because it demands ultimate loyalty and commitment, develops a set of cultic rituals, observances of holy days and holy songs, pledges, and, finally, the expectation that people should die and kill in defense of the nation.

Civil religion is thus the set of symbols through which a nation expresses its values and ideology. As such, nationalism, or civil religion, is implicit in every state, especially the modern nation states. It was also a very important factor in the Roman state of Jesus’ time.

It is part of the “human condition” that people organize themselves politically and that they create symbol systems, myths (of their origin, development, and destiny), and rituals to support and sustain that order. So great is the need for political order and its symbolic supports that it is inappropriate to try to abolish civil religion. It is a factor within our world which is appropriate to it. As such it is neither good nor bad. However, it is {16} characteristic of religions to demand ultimate loyalty, and civil religion is no exception. Here then is the problem.

Jesus’ message was that in him the kingdom had come, and was coming, and that the church constituted a new reality over against the principalities and powers of the world.

The starting point for the Christian ought to be an awareness of the two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of the world. The question is how to live in Christ’s kingdom and the kingdom of this world at the same time, as we must, and at what point the demands of the civil religion are contradictory to the demands of discipleship in Christ’s kingdom.

The problem is that the church and the state constitute two competing social realities, each with its own “religion,” each demanding ultimate loyalty and commitment. The problem exists because one cannot wholly leave one kingdom for the other. Thus we must live with the dilemma of two-kingdom existence. And we must retain the kind of tension and balance toward the state that is demonstrated in the New Testament.

I think it is absolutely remarkable that the New Testament includes both Romans 13 and Revelation 13. On the one hand, we have an image of the state as a maintainer of order. In the book of Revelation we have the image of the beast who is a devouring monster and is on the side of death, making war on God’s people and the church. Because of the many benefits which we have enjoyed in America, we have lost the image of the beast and have not appreciated the demonic potential of our political system. I think somehow we have to develop a theology and understanding of the state which will allow us to embrace both Revelation 13 and Romans 13, so that we see the demonic potential in the most well-ordered state and we see the benefits of orderliness which accrue even in the most demonic, totalitarian, and church-persecuting state.


The term “civil religion” had its origin with Robert Bellah, a sociologist of religion, who saw that there is a religious quality to American civil life and that this civil religion is legitimate on its own terms. But something is lacking in most discussions of civil religion.

I discover that much of the discussion of civil religion in America does not have much of a conception of the church. Perhaps Bellah has not had an experience of the church as a social reality which he can pose over against the state and the salvation, or whatever, the state brings.

Our conception of the church is Anabaptist; however, it is difficult to formulate a clear Anabaptist doctrine of the state based on sixteenth century sources.

I have just read John Ruth’s biography of Conrad Grebel, and the thing that impressed me there is how rapidly things happened to Grebel. His life in the movement was spent on the run, avoiding his persecutors. He didn’t have time to sit down and work out a theology.

Despite the flux in which Anabaptism took shape, we may regard such things {17} as the use of the sword and the civil oath as universally prohibited among Anabaptists. Very often the occupation of political office was also forbidden. But this may have been due to the intense hostility which developed between Anabaptists and the state. Holding office was hardly a possibility. We need not, therefore, accept an “ironclad dualism” which prohibits participation in government by Christians.

We may take our “historical warrant” for this from Menno himself, who spoke in a very prophetic way to the state officials of his day.

I have read what Menno Simons had to say in his various exhortations, and it is very interesting to me that he does not say, “You belong to a different kingdom, you have your ungodly job to do, go ahead and do it.” He lectures on what he has read in the New Testament and he knows that their responsibility is to live up to certain kinds of values and standards.

This is not to say that Menno calls the state to be the church, or to match the church’s standards, but rather that Menno calls the state to accountability for maintaining order, which is its God-given task.

The church, then, as Anabaptists understand it, is to constitute a social reality which exists over against the state and can, therefore, speak “prophetically” to it. But in order thus to speak, Christians must understand and use the language of the state’s “religion.”

This does not mean that the Christian finds his central identity in that civil religion, or identifies his destiny with it, but rather that he is using the language of civil religion to appeal to government because he knows that it is effective and that it can be heard.

Martin Luther King spoke prophetically to the United States by calling it to be faithful to its own values as they are expressed, explicitly or symbolically, in American civil religion. We have the same responsibility as did King—to call the nation to account by appealing to America to fulfill its highest ideals.

What King lacked, however, was a doctrine of the church. He entered into the civil religion and it was to a considerable extent his religion; he called America to the fulfillment of an American dream. But the Christian must always keep clear the distinction between the two kingdoms. With fellow believers who are committed first and foremost to Jesus Christ and biblical Christianity, we must experience the Kingdom of God as the central reality in our lives. Then prophetic preaching on the steps of the White House can be seen as going out from the center, as witnessing, but not as an entering into and taking unto oneself this civil religion with its symbols as if it were the center of our sense of reality. The chief aim of our witness to the nation is to help it to find its rightful place in God’s plan, which is to maintain order and fulfill justice—not to bring in God’s kingdom, but to keep people from clawing each other to death and to keep the rich from violating the poor. We must help the state to fulfill its function of punishing evil and rewarding good.

Because of the enormous and constant “presence” of the state with its apparent power to control us, we are impressed with its power—and, in contrast, with the apparent impotence of the church. {18}

But the church is going to be the preeminent instrument for bringing in God’s kingdom. That is a statement of faith which is so radical that I bite my tongue when I say it. How could anyone possibly believe that the final summing up of history is going to be done through the church? We are, however, sometimes surrounded by the church’s power to transform. Not the church’s power, but the church is a witness to the power of Christ. The state has the power to coerce obedience but not to transform lives in voluntary commitment.


It seems to be the case that those Mennonites who came to the United States out of Russia have been particularly susceptible to the lure of civil religion and to be in danger of losing the sense of two separate kingdoms.

I think perhaps the General Conference and Mennonite Brethren over the last one hundred years have been assimilating so rapidly to the American way of life, materially, socially, and politically, that a two-kingdom theology is almost a fresh discovery in our time. While in Russia, the Mennonites apparently assimilated a fairly benign and happy view of the Russian state and the privileges that it had given them.

These Mennonites had no ideological proclivities toward a liberal democracy, but were rather interested in being left alone to form their own autonomous communities. It was only natural that the liberal, easy-going approach of America would appeal to them. This, combined with fantastic financial and institutional success, has led Mennonites to affirm intense loyalty to the American state. It has also led in part to the adoption of the cultic symbols of American civil religion in their churches. The American experience has led these Mennonites to lose sight of a two kingdom theology.

I found this best articulated by one good Mennonite brother who said, “The American Bill of Rights has made the Anabaptist vision obsolete.” Although this example may overstate slightly what has happened, it is clear that something fundamental has been lost from our theology. The result is that finally the flag salute becomes more important than the Lord’s Prayer, and the National Anthem stirs us more deeply than “Holy God We Praise Thy Name.” Then registration for selective service becomes more important than registration for voluntary service. And the symbols, stories, and rituals of the civil religion outweigh the symbols, stories, and rituals of biblical religion.

It is imperative that the church consider the religious import of such practical matters as having a United States flag in the church, pledging allegiance to the flag, or running for political office. The decision whether or not to do any of these things is ultimately less important than achieving clarity on what it means to be Christ’s followers in an alien world. When we achieve such clarity, it is quite unlikely that we will continue to place the American flag at the front of the church. And whoever then pledges allegiance to the flag will do so conditionally. No ultimate loyalty can be pledged, by a Christian, to any state.

The issue of running for political office is a particularly interesting one. [Juhnke was the Democratic candidate for Congress in Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District in 1970.] {19}

Although the political parades, flag-waving, and political rhetoric created certain tensions, I felt that I had a responsibility and an opportunity to make a contribution so that the government will be making order instead of chaos. There is plenty of room for that within American patriotism and I want to claim that.

The important thing is not to blur the boundaries of the two kingdoms or to confuse our loyalties to them. It is not so much the nature of political office, in itself, that tends to do so as it is the kind of activity which the political office demands. But politics is not the only profession which tends to confuse our theology and to misdirect our loyalties.

I think it is legitimate to ask the very same question about a businessman who is accountable to certain forces which tend to demand non-humane decisions on his part. What are the forces of the market? Where is your market? How do you define it? How do you win your point of view? How do you portray yourself, not to voters, but to potential buyers without setting yourself and your product up to be something you are not? You can lose your essential honesty and integrity being a salesman, being active in business.

The problem is also severe for the presidents, public relations officers, and development officers of our colleges who, in order to keep their institutions viable, have to make certain kinds of appearances which they do not necessarily agree with or believe in.

The activities of churchly and church-related “politics” also tend to blur the line between God’s kingdom and the world’s.

It is frequently charged that those who adopt an Anabaptist or Believer’s Church stance tend not to discharge their responsibility to the world. It is argued, for example, that refusal to fight in World War I or II would have been an abandonment of our duty to protect innocent people from oppression or death; that is, pacifism is a “cop-out.” This argument can be rejected on two grounds. In the first place, it is not a “cop-out” to seek to make peace in Christ’s way. In the second place, it is not clear that these wars were as “just” as they seemed at the time. It seems likely that history will look less and less favorably on the justifiability of World Wars I and II.

The pragmatic wisdom of history may be that those people who were saying “I refuse to participate in this madness”—whether refusing to be drafted into World War I or World War II, or refusing to pay taxes because they were going to military purposes, or refusing to pledge allegiance to a military, demonic, system—these people were right.

This does not deny the right of the state to bear arms or to use legitimate force to restrain the evildoer.

The real issue is to define when the state is fulfilling that function: when it is keeping order and when it is creating chaos and the conditions of death. For the life of me, it is hard to conceive that a nation which is spending one hundred billion dollars a year on a so-called defense establishment is simply restraining the evil-doer. Yet we have major political campaigns in both parties making it the central issue that the United States is not spending enough on the military. I think that the {20} nation’s desire for security and our mad rush to military appropriations to achieve that security is very sad, very tragic.


It is almost inevitable, when one questions the role of force in national policy and the Christian’s participation in it, that the issue of the American Revolution is raised. How should one respond, especially in this bicentennial year, to that military conflict?

When I look at the American Revolution I tend to say that it was unfortunate that the colonists chose to go to war to achieve political independence.

It is nonetheless the case that the colonists did go to war and we now live as we do because of that conflict. How then do we celebrate?

I do not take the view that we should boycott all bicentennial activities. If they want to have a bicentennial parade with a speaker in Newton or Hillsboro, I do not think we should send out the word that church members are not to attend.

It is even the case that the bicentennial is spawning a great deal of fruitful research into Mennonite responses to that conflict in the eighteenth century. Overall, however, we are making far too much of the bicentennial issue.

It is not number one on our agenda. I do not think the church should finally take its agenda exclusively from the world. Every time the world comes up with another celebration, or another event or cause, you have a bunch of liberal reformers taking up that cause. There is a humanitarian reform tradition in American history. Now it is women’s lib, abolitionism, temperance, prison reform, or something else. All of these are needed reforms, but somehow I yearn that the church might have a clearer understanding of itself and be on a firmer rock. Fundamentally, the church ought to be the church and be able to understand what it means to be the church.

The church should be asserting itself in the presence of American culture and demonstrating the power of its symbols, stories, and rituals in the face of American civil religion. That task, admittedly, is difficult in light of the apparent power of the state. But,

maybe the most important statistic is that people do not trust the government anymore. Trust and confidence in America seem to be on the wane, and that may well mean that the conditions are right for the church to reexamine and to reaffirm its ways. It is such an overwhelming task because we are in the world. . . . Nevertheless, the church has the task of demonstrating, in action, the ultimate significance of the church rather than the state in human history.

It is not the task of the church to abolish civil government and civil religion. Our task is rather to restore the integrity of the church’s symbols as separate and distinct from those of the state and to bear witness to the power of which they are symbolic. Perhaps we err on two sides. Those of us who are superpatriots are guilty of confusing the power of God with the temporary, fading, power of America. Those of us who clamor for ritual purity are guilty of disbelief in God’s ability to work through human institutions. Can it be that the {21} church, composed of all of us, will prevail against hell’s gate? It is at least clear that the issue of civil religion calls us to quickly determine what is the church—and to be it.

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