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Liturgy in the USA: God, Flag, and the Superbowl

President Eisenhower once claimed, “our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.”⁠[1] He thereby gave official recognition to what many have suspected about western democracies for a great while:  though some of their leaders may sing the glories of “God” and the “free-exercise of religion,” they may in fact be more like parasites, using “religion” for their own ends.

Five decades ago, a number of historians and sociologists began a lengthy discussion of “American Civil Religion.” A 1967 essay by Robert Bellah suggested that a “well-institutionalized civil religion” has existed in the US from its earliest days:[⁠2] this “religion” was not merely a collection of lowest-common denominator beliefs among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Instead it was a distinctive set of beliefs held by a majority of Americans: some notion of “God,” an afterlife with rewards and punishments, and a rejection of religious intolerance. The American Civil Religion is not Christianity. Its content, he summarized, is more “Unitarian,” and more austere—concerned with law, order, and might.  

Bellah, and others, strikingly conjectured that a set of rituals perpetuated these convictions: for the American Civil Religion, Easter and Christmas—while protected as “private” beliefs—would not suffice for the religion of the republic. Indeed, anything too particular, too much rooted in claims of historical revelation, would not suffice for the Civil Religion. Consequently other holidays would have to tell the American story, and re-enact the drama of the American God. Thus, Independence Day, Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, Presidents’ Day serve in roles analogous to those of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter.

Or as the writer of the Pledge of Allegiance once noted, the Pledge would function for American school children as does the Lord’s Prayer for Christians.[⁠3] 

 

Bellah’s work was fruitful and helpful. But his language is problematic. In the intervening time, a great number of intellectuals have convincingly made the case that the notion of “religion” as opposed to the “secular” has been invented in the western world

But why? Because: for one, it is a convenient and powerful way to make “religion” irrelevant to public life. “Religion” is classed as “private.” And, as a “private matter,” it is protected as a universal human right. But “religion,” we are told, is dangerous because of its supposed proclivities toward violence. Consequently, “religion” can be tolerated so long as it is, in effect, emasculated, privatized, and subordinated to the “state.” See the Eisenhower quote with which this post begins, as a most bald case in point.

So Bellah’s language is not sufficient to go as far as we might need it to go. 

Consequently there is a trend today to recover the language of “liturgy.” “Liturgy,” the word which translates a Greek word that literally means the “work of the people,” is used to describe practices of worship.  Liturgy forms the people’s loves and desires.  It expresses what they find worthy of worship. And it points to what they count worthwhile, and worth giving their lives for.[⁠4]

Taking then a cue from Bellah, but using “liturgy” in place of his “religion,” we may begin to ask questions about public spaces like the mall, the football arena, the national holidays, and the like. How do the liturgies of the mall, the nation-state, the market, how do these form us in a way contrary to the liturgical practices of the Christian tradition? Or Islamic traditions or Jewish traditions? 

Think of it this way: in our day, no ordained prayer practice is allowed in public schools. But our children daily practice the liturgical act of the Pledge of Allegiance. In our day, indeed in many of our churches, we do not memorialize the missionaries who have given their lives, often in the face of great danger to body and health and family; but we memorialize every year those who have killed and been killed to protect the interests of the United States. In our day, we pay little attention to the radical implications of the Apostle Paul’s teaching on the revolutionary nature of overcoming evil with good, and his explicit rejection of violent revolution; but we hold feasts of celebration every Independence Day of violent revolution. 

This is, I suggest, a powerful practice: to examine cultural gatherings, anywhere there are great crowds, vast budgets, the massing of media, and ask about the liturgy. What stories are being told, and what kind of people embody those sorts of tales. What appetites, desires, loves are being formed? What are the chill-bump moments? What prompts praise or blame, anger or joy? When are people expected to stand or kneel, or not to; when are they expected to raise their hands or place them over their hearts, and what does that tell us about what is counted worthy of great sacrifice? What words are we expected to sing together, and what is the nature of the communal formation which comes from such singing? 

Employing such questions allows us to see things we may not see otherwise: to see the deep liturgical power of things like Super Bowl Celebrations. Or the naïvete of demanding “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” in the midst of a much more all encompassing consumerist liturgy. Or the power of the liturgy of the nation-state by which it demands, alone, to kill-and-be-killed for. Or the shallowness of much of the “me and Jesus” liturgies of  churches in the face of the immense power of so-called secular liturgies which are fine with us doing whatever we want in the privatized realm of religion, but wants very much to claim our attention and our devotion with regard to allegiance, money, and power.   

 

Some parts of this piece were first published in Leaven and is available here.

 

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Notes:

[1] See Daniel Lazare’s discussion, “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” The Nation 28 Oct 2014, at https://www.thenation.com/article/gods-must-be-crazy/. He notes: “As a good pluralist, Eisenhower was unconcerned with the exact nature of the guiding force in question. His only concern was that Americans continue to believe in something so as to make sense of a senseless system. Just as ancient Rome tolerated all cults as long as they sacrificed to the emperor, the postwar United States, he believed, should welcome all forms of religious expression as long as they bolstered the national cause. Faith in God and faith in America were mutually reinforcing.”

[2] Robert N. Bellah,"Civil Religion in America," Daedalus 96 (1967) 1-21.

[3] See William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford University Press, 2009), 117.

[4] See as two good examples of this line of inquiry, James K. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, Cultural Liturgies, vol. 1 (Baker Academic, 2009); and David Dark, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious (IVP Books, 2016).