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The Last Gasp of Civil Religion

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On the May 16, 2009, episode of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor ended his The News from Lake Woebegone with a group sing of It is Well With My Soul. The entire episode is vintage Keillor: what happens when a lapsed Baptist from Georgia wants to walk the aisle at the Lutheran church?!

As I listened to the broadcast, I was struck by the audience's willingness to sing the hymn and their familiarity with it. Granted, the show was being recorded in Georgia, but for how much longer will an audience at a public event be willing and able to sing a Christian hymn?

While a decent percentage of that audience may have had Christian convictions or backgrounds, I also wondered about those who, undoubtedly, did not have such convictions: were they (like other public choirs) just enjoying the sounds of many voices melded together in music regardless of the words they sang? Did they respond in any way to the hymn they sang?

Civil religion can be an enjoyable thing when it props up your own beliefs, but there is a significant danger, too: not having been confronted with the claims of Jesus and the demands of the Law, an individual can salve his own conscience with the singing of a hymn. Having done his religious duty or achieved some sort of religious feeling, the heart is ultimately hardened. Christian emotion divorced from Christ-centered preaching, the church, and the sacraments is no better than the hearty singing of a patriotic anthem.


Eric Landry
Executive Editor, Modern Reformation