A city can be teeming with idols, as Athens was, and yet retain something in their history that provides a foothold for preaching the truth. This is what the apostle Paul did when he preached that their unknown god was in fact the true God (Acts 17:23). But the altar he took his preaching cue from was not an altar set up by Abraham or Moses. The altar was set up in obedience to direction by Epimenides, the Cretan prophet who had been summoned to help the Athenians deal with a great plague. The plague was successfully stopped when the Athenians sacrificed to this god. Paul himself calls Epimenides a prophet (Tit. 1:12), and identifies the god worshipped by the Athenians in ignorance as the true God.
One of the reasons why Protestant missionaries were so successful in Korea is that the Koreans had a “most high” God named Hananim, who was virtually unknown to the Koreans, and the missionaries preached Jesus the Son of Hananim. This is different than trying this with Muslims and their Allah, because (as a Christian heresy) Isalm has defined Allah as the one who can have no Son. In Muslim lands, Allah is an idol. Hananim was an unknown God.
While this distinction must be made, at the same time we must not be superstititious about words. The Coptic Christians use the word Allah for God the Father — it was their word for Him before there were any Muslims. And Paul, in that famous exchange with the Athenians, says that “we are all his offspring,” quoting from a hymn to Zeus (Acts 17:28). This was lawful because there was a difference between the Homeric Zeus and his sexual highjinks and the Zeus of the philosophers. The Zeus of the philosophers was Hananim — think for a minute about the similarities between Deus, Theos, and Zeus. Lots of dentals going on there.
So this brings us to the God of American civil religion. Is he an idol or not? I used to believe so, but I have changed my mind about this. I believe it would be far better for us to say that he is an unknown god, and to preach the gospel to Americans, telling them that this God has made Himself known in the revelation of Jesus Christ.
This is not to say that there is no attempted idolatry involved. There is, and the secularists are insistent that we keep it that way. There is a difference between an unknown god (who may then be declared and revealed by faithful preachers) and a blank screen place-holder higher being force, where all the citizens may project their own personal understanding of the deity (with the tacit understanding that all other religions will be allowed to project their understanding of the deity into that same place). This latter approach really is idolatrous, and this place-holder deity-spot is subordinate to the true god of the system, which is of course the state. At the same time, as an effective strategy, this approach really is very recent.
Paul preached the God that Epimenides had had the Athenians sacrifice to centuries before. If he did that, why cannot Christian preachers declare that the God on our money, the one in whom we trust, gave us His Son so that we might genuinely trust in Him? Why can we not preach that the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s in response to pressure by evangelicals, who were talking about the true God? The only way for a nation to be under God is by means of mediator — who is Christ. It is the job of Christian preachers to declare that “what you did not know” is “now made manifest.” This is not the task of legislators, incidentally. It is the job of preachers.
When we do this, we are not surrendering the exclusive claims that Christ places upon the title of Lord. This proclamation fills up the space that idolaters wanted to create for any “god as you conceive him/her/it to be.” We are preaching Christ, the only way to salvation. We want Jesus to be recognized as Lord, and we want Him to be recognized as Lord by Americans. In this task, we are not starting from scratch. We are drilling deep into the collective memory of Americans. There was a time when this god, unknown to this current generation, was known to our fathers. How do we get back there? We get there through Jesus. Jesus is the only way to the Father. He is also the only way to anything good and true.
Incidentally, this entire set-up provides a no-win situation for R2K theologians. The God on our money, in our pledge, and in our various civil ceremonies is either an idol or he is not. If he is not, then he is (currently) an unknown god. If he is an idol, then R2K advocates must insist, for example, that all Christians stop saying the Pledge. If he is simply an undeclared god, making it lawful for Christians to invoke Him, then why may we not declare Him? How can we invoke a God and not be permitted to preach Him? If he is an idol, we must refuse to have anything to do with it. If he is not an idol, then we must own Him before men.
Fuzzy thinking loves to hide from true accountability in self-generated confusions. It can sound very humble to say that “we just don’t know.” But when you “don’t know” about God, you have left the door open to a preacher of the everlasting gospel, someone who does know. And this helps make manifest the differences between various claims of ignorance.
The first is apathy. “I don’t know and I don’t care.” This attitude doesn’t need an argument, and doesn’t deserve one. This attitude isn’t looking for an argument — it is only seeking room for its lusts. The second is dogmatism. “I don’t know, you don’t know, nobody can know.” The response to this is a simple set of questions. “Do you know that? Friend, how do you know that?” Dogmatic agnosticism is an oxymoron.
The third is one of hunger. “I don’t know, but I wish I did.” To them we say that God has winked at their ignorance, and is willing — because Jesus shed His blood for America — to pass by that ignorance. But He must not be mistaken for an indulgent-grandfather-senile-god, but rather a God who commands all men everywhere to repent. The best Greek lexicons acknowledge that everywhere includes North America. We know that God will judge the world in righteousness through Jesus Christ because He raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 17:30-31). The world that will be judged in righteousness includes our nation. It includes America. The best geographical atlases show that America is in the world.
Because Jesus died and rose, God is willing to overlook the past ignorance of Americans when it comes to their unknown god. But they may not continue in that ignorance. Overlooking ignorance is not same thing as leaving that ignorance untouched. God sends out preachers to tell their countrymen the true attributes of this God, and to declare His mighty works to them. As we undertake this arduous and dangerous task, what are we to make of our brothers in the R2K camp, who tell us that it is our solemn Christian duty to keep the unknown god hidden? Because otherwise, we might compromise the gospel?