Admittedly, I had very little positive to say about Harry S. Stout’s Upon the Altar of a Nation, but I cannot praise to highly his well written introduction and the ideas it presents. I found particularly compelling his condensation of the nature of American civil religion. While his presentation will admittedly strike many as contrived (even as many such people are hot in the throes of civil devotion), it appears to me to very nearly approximate the way the American people conceive of their nation and their place in it as citizens. The following is an extended quote from the introduction which I have edited only for format in an effort to accentuate his points and make them more accessible:
Though lacking transcendent revelations akin to the Abrahamic faiths, the religion of a sacralized patriotism enjoys a complete repository of sacred rituals and myths. In fact, American civil religion borrows so heavily from the language and cadences of traditional faiths, many Americans see no conflict or distinction between the two. Many Americans equate dying for their country with dying for their faith. In America’s civil religion, serving country can be coequal with serving God. The evidences for an ongoing American civil religion are ubiquitous.
The Bible prevails as America’s most popular book, and often patriotism draws on familiar biblical themes to refer not to the church and its believers but to the nation and its citizens: “Exodus,” “chosen people,” “promised land,” and “New Israel” all represent staple metaphors in American speech and letters that express America’s messianic “mission” to be a “redeemer nation.”
The rites and rituals of civil religion are discovered less in the laws of the nation than in more informal folkways and traditions. These include a myriad of sacred monuments, chief among them the Mall in Washington, D.C., with recent monuments to the Vietnam War and World War II, and, above all else, the majestic Lincoln Memorial, bracketed by the transforming phrases of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. Key places evoke religious significance for many American tourists and patriots: Bunker Hill and Concord, Independence Hall, the Alamo, Gettysburg, and the Statue of Liberty all elicit reverential awe.
Though lacking a formal creed American civil religion does contain sacred texts, including most importantly the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the two Lincoln orations.
Patriotic songs [I would suggest the term “hymnody”] identify America with the sacred. “God Bless America” was sung repeatedly after 9/11, not the “Star-Spangled Banner,” generally viewed as lacking sacred gravitas. “My Country “Tis of Thee” reminds Americans that the transcendent smiles on their cause in unique and self-empowering ways.
America’s civil religion enjoys no weekly Sabbaths, but it does have its sacred days. For the first three centuries of America’s existence, fast and thanksgiving days, called by civic authorities (rather than churches) and observed on weekdays to judge or celebrate the nation, predominated, especially in the North. They would later be joined by Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, Presidents’ Day, and Martin Luther King Day.
Nonsectarian prayers sacralize political events, including inaugurals and opening sessions of Congress. Historically these have often been expressed in schools in conjunction with the Pledge of Allegiance.
The American flag stands as America’s totem. Schoolchildren routinely pledge their allegiance to the flag—and the republic for which it stands, one nation under God. Until the late twentieth century, this pledge would be accompanied by prayers asking for God’s blessing on “His” American people. Soldiers killed in battle are buried in flags. America at war is a nation festooned with flags in 2005 no less than in 1861. American patriots reflexively invoke the “Stars and Stripes” or “Old Glory” as the object they are willing to kill and be killed for. Critics of America, at home and abroad, who burn the flag are accused of “desecration”—literally a trampling on the divine.
American presidents have traditionally been viewed as the prophets and priests of American civil religion. The presidency is the only “office” that cannot be left empty—even for one day. Laws are established to ensure instantaneous succession. As commander in chief of the armed services, presidents launch wars and the warrior generals who command them.
The United States Military Academy at West Point became, in effect, the first seminary of America’s civil religion, later joined by the other service academies.
The locus of American civil religion is not the church or the synagogue or the mosque. Rather, it is the state, which uses sacred symbols of the nation for its own purposes and perpetuation. The appeal proves so powerful and all-encompassing that some contemporary religious critics identify civil religion with idolatry. In a positive sense, scholarly analysts see in civil religion the social and cultural glue that binds a diverse people together and invests them with a collective sense of spiritual unity capable of withstanding internal disintegration.
Stout will later add, quite appropriately, that America develops a full blown martyrology surrounding its assassinated civic leaders and fallen soldiers. Finally, though Stout does not address this, American civil religion has a peculiar ethos populated by specific civil virtues which are invoked and embodied in the practice of civil religion: exceptionalism, liberty, free enterprise, bravery and with it a specific conception of “manliness,” prosperity, and activism.
It is interesting that with such a perceptive understanding of civil religion, Stout (as I noted previously) concludes his book by specifically endorsing America’s messianic redeemer status for the world. He is, in short, a devotee of America’s peculiar faith. I am decidedly not. That we can disagree so stridently on the appropriateness of such a civil faith only heightens for me the persuasiveness of Stout’s rendering of reality. Regardless of one’s stance toward it, I now struggle to imagine how anyone could argue the point that America and the trappings of citizenship therein have a sacred significance that is best described in religious rather than secular terms.