America is a Religion: Our High-Church Politics and Sacred War
by Michael Vlahos
Michael Vlahos, PhD teaches in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Vlahos is the author of Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Times Literary Supplement, Foreign Policy, and Rolling Stone. Since 2001 he has been a regular featured guest of the nationally syndicated John Batchelor Show on WABC.
Author: Michael Vlahos
"Michael Vlahos has been remarkable in pointing toward broader connections and deeper historical-cultural roots in the challenges that Western democracies face. He has earned public gratitude for his many books and essays. Fighting Identity is another important and original contribution in helping Americans understand how their conscious and unconscious national beliefs affect their strengths, vulnerabilities, and possibilities in meeting this era’s threats."
—James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly
When Congressman Paul Ryan made his VP candidate-debut in August heat, 2012, at The Villages — a Florida retirement community the size of metropolitan city — he did not just come and speak to seniors. Instead he brought Kapellmeister Lee Greenwood to set the stage by singing — a Capella — the GOP’s official anthem, “Proud to be an American.”
Weeks later, in Tampa and Charlotte, after Party introit and hymns came a procession: Those witnessing addressed directly how America’s next sacred king — Mitt Romney — had rightful claim to his divine office. Here, ordinary Americans laid their garlands of reverence at the feet of a waiting national savior. The heartrending testaments of ordinary people, those beloved by God, worked to establish the candidate’s divine provenance, his good works, and his many miracles — each one a sign and token of special favor in God’s eyes.
Then came the blessed film. Little sacred cinema on enormous screens resembles nothing less than Gospel readings in a traditional church — on steroids — save that the candidate’s anointed life so far reads as the promise of our salvational leader’s miracle-work-to-come, which will in future become yet another cherished part of our scripture. Finally, beneath glittering, heavenly proscenium, our next sacred king appears — both Romney and Obama in competition — to declare how their divine ju-ju will renew and replenish the nation.
Many called the conventions, big-tent revival meetings — but their scripted reverence felt more like High-Church liturgy. Watching, can we still doubt that American national politics are really religion?
The great sociologist Robert Bellah called America a civil religion in 1967, and he was met with denial and disbelief.
Perhaps if he had just gone a bit further he might have mercifully lifted the veil for all of us: America is not just civil religion — it is honest-to-God church religion.
Yet we say we are a nation, not a religion. There is no established church, and the republic was founded to keep both church and god at arms’ length. Our national values and some national symbols, like our flag, may be sacred to us. But our nation does not tell its citizens how to worship or what god to pray to or how to meet in holy congregation.
No: Our nation merely tells us who we are, and how we should live together. Yet this is what religion is really about. All religions deal with what is unknowable in life: Truth and death. But above all, religions are living faiths. The word is from the Latin religare — to bind together — and that is what religion is for: To frame how we belong to each other, what is meaningful in life, and how together we should cherish each other.
It is America’s determined misunderstanding to think of religion as “church.” Religion is not merely the stuff of dietary laws or church institutions or brick-and-mortar temples. These are only like a plaster and wood proscenium arching over a stage.
Real religion is the construct that allows people to be together. The power of religion is the power of sacred identity.
In 1949 the famed anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn gave us the perfect sound-bite definition of religion. He called Islam “a blueprint for life.” But that goes for all Religion. Call religion the key evolutionary adaptation of “civilization” — and the Latin root here is civis, being a citizen of the community of people.
Hence civilization is about the first cities — whose town walls physically held people together. The bounty of a Neolithic revolution in agriculture and animal husbandry made this evolution necessary. Human societies were outgrowing family and clan and even tribe. A new human construct was needed to bind people together like kin.
Even 6000 years ago, humans needed to craft a construct to replace the sheltering womb of the extended family, village, and clan. Here so long ago was the kernel of what would become Modernity’s vision of nationalism. Even at the beginning of Antiquity humans had managed to create a substitute for blood-intimacy, where the people of the new cities might “reconstitute a sense of connection at a distance” — a breathtaking sleight-of-hand indeed! But how to get the big buy-in?
Simple. We created a new collective consciousness: Call it, religion. City walls might define early society in stone, but only a shared framework of human connectedness had the power to bind people together as strong as family blood-tie. Benedict Anderson discovered this magical achievement in his book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Faith created this foundational trust: That I might meet you who are not my kin, but part of my nation, and call you “brother.” In Latin, remember, faith (fides) means trust.
So as Kluckhohn told us, 6000 years after the emergence of the human adaptation we call religion, it is still just as powerfully with us, and just as powerfully needed. Hence Islam is a blueprint for life, and America is a blueprint for life.
The heart of the sacred is: Us. We, ourselves — past, present, and future — the living and the dead unto our remote posterity: We are the essence of life’s meaning. Together we share the sacred.
But how do we get on the same sheet of holy music? We need an overarching construct. We need symbols and rituals and institutions: All that makes up a Church. Religion is the construct that lets us, and keeps us, singing together on the same sheet of music — America: the Church of us.
America’s Ten Commandments
Consider all the formal symbols, traditions, tools, and workings we think of when we think, religion. Then consider how these work their way as our ten commandments of religious:
- Our grand church is apportioned between two competing sects, Democrat and Republican. Moreover the genius in this division is America’s greatest religious innovation, because it creates a living dynamic of cooperation to sustain the Cathedral, while competition also insures continuing adaptation to change. Sunni and Shi’a in contrast remain warring identities representing two opposed sources of cultural authority (Persian and Arab) in Islam.
- Our cathedral is the Capitol in Washington, and the fifty state cathedrals, all drawing upon the lineal heritage of Renaissance and Enlightenment-era cathedrals in Europe from St. Peter’s to St. Paul’s to the Sacre Coeur. Their borrowed grandeur could set the stage for our own dramas of politics and the sacred — played out in our Capitol, like Rome, within our own college of cardinals, called the Senate.
- We have our own saints and prophets. Our Founding Fathers are the core pantheon, to which we have inducted over a couple centuries many more. Prophets are few, and correspond to our sacred kings: Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, and Martin Luther King. We continue to collect and share hallowed vignettes of their life and things they said. It is our American version of the sunnah (teachings) and ahadith (stories) of Muhammad.
- We have a credo, just as all great world faiths, of universal promise to all humanity, and its future redemption and transcendence. We call this, American Exceptionalism, and its heart is the charge from God to redeem those lost and oppressed and punish the evil that keeps them from the light. e are thus the divine agent of both God and History.
- Our credo has a sacred narrative. We established ourselves as a sanctuary of virtue in a New World: A “city on a hill.” We transcended in our first trial, defeating a corrupt kin-monarchy (our trust is in God, not a Divine Right man-as-god). Our second trial, a bloody civil war, was our national rite of self-purification, our own redemption from the sinful place into which we had fallen (both North and South). Our third great trial, in two dramatic wars and a long cold war, was no less than to bring God’s word to the whole world, and defeat evil. Bearing God’s final message to humankind is a charge of conversion, for ours is the credo of a Universalist faith.
- We celebrate this narrative with High Holy Days — Independence Day, Memorial Day (Decoration Day before), Veteran’s Day— and our own Saint’s Days — Washington and Lincoln’s birthday (before), and Martin Luther King Day. There are also many rituals of remembrance, from Pearl Harbor to 9-11 to JFK’s assassination. These also represent sacred American rites. On these days we celebrate and give thanks to those who died for us — who sacrificed that the nation might yet live, renewing us with their life’s blood. The legions of Civil War re-enactors alone — whose very souls are fulfilled in the sacred recollection of long-ago battles — is testament to our love of national rites.
- We have many sacred places. Washington itself is a true temple city, and to visit one of its temples is a solemn, moving religious occasion. I know a nine-year old boy whose mother made him read Lincoln’s words aloud in his temple, on a summer’s day long ago. The scores of fellow tourists there with me were at once transformed. In that moment their reverent attitude became the prayerful silence of the faithful. Today, a visit to Mt. Vernon or Ford’s Theater with my nine-year old son is our form of pilgrimage. Presidential libraries are equally, shrines to both sacred and failed kings — and to the fallen, those who died for us, and still incarnate with us, at Arlington Cemetery — the immortality of the nation enshrined in an “eternal flame.”
- Sacred objects, housed in America’s imperishable reliquaries, can move a citizen to tears: The Holiest of Holies, the Declaration of Independence, or our unconquerable battle flag, that flew through the night at Fort McHenry. Ancient Islamic lore likewise tells how those who first heard the Quran chanted aloud felt their hearts would burst. So it is with us when we hear these divine words: “When in the course of human events …” Here the Declaration inheres with divine presence — also most like the Quran. Not a document or holy text alone, but the living word of God. Hence our flag too is treated with sacral reverence — its ritual folding and unfolding so like.
- We have collective public confessions of our faith, like the Pledge of Allegiance (before), and we intone the holy words, freedom and democracy, on every public occasion. Our national hymn is unusual for its warlike call, and our great battles are the mythic skein of American sacred narrative. Our daily celebration of Eternal Victory on the Military and the Hitler Channels is committed to reverent 24⁄7 remembrance through an endless loop of Old Testament battles — which we just happen to call World War II. Here again, America resembles Islam’s celebration of Jihad, our battle cry of freedom and democracy eerily echoing, “God is great!” and “There is no God but God!”
- The grand rites of American politics — caucuses, primaries, conventions, and elections — thus contain our familiar liturgies of identity. Watching the two conventions, they were as one in shared celebration. Presidential debates’ fervent hoopla will be no less exuberant. Following Big Tent Party revival and sacred king selection rites comes the election, where our “imagined community” of Americans congregates in its most solemn convocation — hundreds of millions of us placing our charge of collective identity upon a single person — in our most holy moment.
The Power of Denial
The idea of America as a great world religion presents Americans with an existential paradox, which Bellah surely understood when he wrote in 1967 — and it is this:
No Universalist faith in full flood can see itself as just another religion. Other blueprints for life, those that came before, may be ignorant and wrong-headed, or perhaps the best of them may indeed foreshadow God’s final vision for humankind. But now they are all, overturned. The Final Word has arrived.
Yet other universals, like Islam and the many Christian sects, have still managed to survive under the shadow of revelation postponed. Why? Because the new faith — in modernity think Nazism, Communism, Americanism — did not bring the promised apocalypse (revelation) and millennium in the end.
This is how Constantinople and Christianity survived Islam in the 8th century, and how humanity survived Western modernity (the variegated sects called Imperialism) in the 19th and 20th centuries. Americans have always high-fived themselves on not being Euro-imperialists, and yet since the 1940s the United States has forcibly intruded itself on all of humanity in a zeal of proselytism.
Think of it: Since 1945 Americans have again and again congratulated themselves that the millennium had in fact arrived, with the lifting of the veil (apokalypsis) to surely follow — from the founding of the UN to the fall of the USSR to the “color revolutions” that seemed poised to justify our interventions in the world of Islam.
But it simply did not happen — so other religions shoulder on, like Russia and China and the Islamism of the “Arab Spring.” Universalism is still plural.
Universalist worldviews are persistently — and sometimes even consciously — resistant to other realities. America’s dispensation (America is not a religion!) is this: Science and Modernity. This is a clever way to package universalism, so that it is posed to the world (in supreme confidence) not as some mere assertion of fallible humans (however divinely they may testify), but rather as supreme truth outside and above all human frailty, a special knowledge (gnosis) that automatically overturns all former superstition.
Of course alloying America’s divine vision of history, freedom, and democracy with the gnosis of science requires an especially artful sleight-of-hand. But the American purpose in aligning Science with Faith is not really intended to convert others, but rather through overarching “truth” it seeks to keep the belief system at the heart of American identity, pure.
Thus the religious “truth” in American ethos is important because it represents our mediation between identity and reality. Moreover, pursuing and defending this truth forms the passionate driver of our strategic decision-making — as our recent wars in the Muslim world have shown. That we sought to “transform” Islam itself is as committed a strategy of religious conversion as any in history.
How often do we say, “What terrible things they do in the name of religion” — because we are not fazed even by abusive insults to traditional churches here. But this is classic “apples-and-oranges” because it ignores what we do in the name of real American religion.
Millions have died in our crusades for freedom and democracy, e.g., 5% of the population of Japan, 8% of the population of Korea, 5% of the population of Vietnam, and 5% of the population of Iraq. Hence all Muslim violence represents religious “extremism,” while America’s wars represent reasoned acts of policy (our certainty is boosted by our stainless sword of “state” authority against all that is illegitimate, apostate, and evil).
Knowing that cultural realities are impenetrable, Bellah sought through indirection to insert the notion of American religion as analogy. When Bellah tells us we can call it “a religious dimension” he is softening his message — even though he really wants us to acknowledge the actual religion in us. Clearly he sees the cultural challenge.
But we have rejected even this offer of halfway-recognition. Going further, and asserting that America is as much religion as Islam, is pure anathema in the national conversation. Just saying it risks apostasy.
Given this paradox, that Americans cannot see what is everywhere around and within us, what is to be done? Perhaps I might at least take on three basic rhetorical denials — not to open minds, but at least to try and open debate — and then one existential question:
- How can America be a religion if the state is constitutionally separate from titular religion? Moreover, in the United States, government upholds and administers the laws of the republic, as given through popular will. U.S. law, administration, and politics are abidingly secular institutions by nature.
- How can American presidents be “sacred kings” when the Constitution tells us they are simply citizens elected to a term of office? The Senate as a college of cardinals? Again, simply elected officials. Certainly sacred symbols and cues abound in American public life, but a “church” — and “sects”?
- If America is a religion, then how to account for the wildly popular persistence of traditional churches? God is as strong as ever in American life: But outside of politics, and in thriving communities where He belongs. No one in Government dares breach our hallowed barrier between church and state.
- Why force us to see America as a religion? How can we hold to our true faith if we stand back and see it as just another sacred construct in humanity’s long search for shared meaning and identity? Communities of belief after all perform best when their belief is full and unshaken.
How can America be a Religion?
There is no separation of Church and State in these United States. According to the Constitution, however, there is no established Church. Why is that, you might wonder? The states of early modern Europe, after the Reformation, all blessed a single church as the state’s (and King’s) chosen organ and tender of things divine.
The king in France, for example, became His Most Catholic Majesty. The king in Spain was His Most Sacred Majesty. Even the “violent extremists” who beheaded Charles I soon sought a “Lord Protector.” Why was America different?
We went the whole way — we made the American Republic itself our church. We melded church and state, and made our religion a grand collective joint venture. Hence we very quickly anointed two “parties,” not just as two competing and yet competitive political factions, but also as two competing and yet cooperative sects. — and created a political-religious liturgy whose grand rites were realized through the people’s convocation and popular will.
In Young America the parties learned to work together, even as their differences grew to schism and war over chattel slavery. But the national cathedral was always held high. Look at Edward Everett Hale’s The Man Without A Country. Published in 1863 during our civil war, the story weaves every piety and symbol of American identity into a clarion call for the North’s crusade.
Our Cathedral’s survival in existential war meant the two sects could reconstitute their compact as early as 1876. But this did not stop them. They went further and formalized it. By the end of the 19th century Democrat and GOP had become America’s only official sects. This was to ensure stability, and guard against the party volatility of the 1850s. Democrat and Republican parties became our established churches, under the roof of the national cathedral (and its temple precincts — corruption always starts here).
Yet there is no contradiction in a church-based government pursuing effective civil administration. The Latin Church did so for much of the European West after Rome, preserving the entire Late Roman administrative system. In many Muslim societies today (and since the time of the Prophet) the Mosque is the source of education and social welfare. Our all-pervasive religion follows the path of so many others over the past 2500 years.
Religion abides even in our most civic and apparently secular institution. The law is totally hard-wired into America’s blueprint for life. If medieval European and Muslim jurisprudence was church-based, then modernity and its “superior” big state also regulated how we should live. America’s most cherished legal construction — human rights — is still “rights” we choose for our sacred blueprint.
Hence the rites of marriage, the rights of an expectant mother, parental and custodial rights, the propriety of punishment, our responsibility to citizens in need, when and how getting high is socially permissible, the place of the armed citizen in society — these are big blueprint issues. They are at the heart of America’s frankly religious contentions. Intruding deeply into our lives, how do these rules differ from Islam’s on prayer or fasting or pilgrimage? We both have our existential how-do-we-live-together issues.
Just one example: The US has 4% of the world’s population, and yet 23% of the world’s incarcerated. Millions are sentenced to long, mandatory terms for minor drug possession. Is a legally coded belief like “marijuana is evil” not also a kind of Shari’ah mind-set?
Yet the historical orbit of Americanism shifts. The law changes with changing identity. There is always fundamentalism, but there is no forever-fundament. What we declare to be true and forever is instead the passionate conviction of belief, shared within the spirit of the age. Moreover our rules for life are not only expressed as religious law, they are constantly fought over in our creative sectarian struggle. Muslims do the same — but through six schools of Islamic law.
The Red American sect, like Islam, holds that our principles of Law come from God, not man. But even if the Blue American sect believe our civic codes are rooted in reason, are they thus — like abortion or gay marriage — any less existentially free of religious proposition?
As for ancestral legislative legacies, let us just say the Roman Senate presided over religious rites as often as they wrangled over political patronage and spoils. Peter Brown, our premiere visionary of late antiquity, tells us precisely how the College of Cardinals evolved from the Roman Senate. Can a deliberative political chamber also be religious? Can a deliberative religious body also be political?
Are they not simply the same?
How can American Presidents be Sacred Kings?
What does it really mean to be president of the United States? Is such a man (or in future perhaps, a woman) really no more than an elected officeholder of the most inflated sort? Is such a man really just a politician (a colloquial term of derision)?
American presidents are not kings. According to myth and Constitution, they cannot ever be kings of the sort whose corruption prompted God’s creation of America — like those entitled royal babies whose courtiers cooed through their fabulously spoiled childhood how they ruled by divine right. In such estate the thought, “Let them eat cake!” might be only first and natural.
Our divine kings are not of this clay. They rise to face and then become something much more and much bigger: An incarnation of national identity and the national sacred that has its roots in the origins of civilization itself.
America’s sacred kings are elected. Those who rise to such station must be able — so we tell ourselves — to represent the whole nation. But we declare this narrowly, as political representation. What we collectively feel in our breasts (the same human breasts that felt like bursting when first hearing the Quran), what we all yearn for, is a man who in his person embodies our country — a president incarnate of the Nation!
Our ancient selves sought out the token of divine incarnation in a man, like Jesus or Buddha, or even transcendent prophets like Moses or Muhammad. Hence such a man need not be actually divine in his person, but rather one so chosen of God (as in The Matrix, or Dune: “Could he be the one?”) to lead his people with divinely-endowed powers.
Pharaonic Egypt jump-started divine kingship perhaps 6000 years ago. The power of its vision eventually spread throughout West Africa. Today there are still sacred kings among the Yoruba and the Igbo, for example — and some are even elected.
Their sacredness is in both channeling God and embodying the people. Such a man in his person has powers to uplift his people, but also his health is the health of the nation, and as he moves with energy and ju-ju, so do his people.
Not all American presidents rise to become true sacred kings. The very greatest — Lincoln and FDR — sacrificed themselves that the nation might live, and then be reborn. Thus they also joined all those young soldiers who in the purity of their commitment to the nation went before them. Sacred king as he was meant to be.
Yet Reagan as sacred king survived assassination, divine token in three senses: God had more for him to do, he was strong enough to take a bullet, and this was divine token that a weak king had been succeeded by one with very strong ju-ju.
Sacred kings, going back to their earliest provenance, are always rainmakers. They must be rainmakers or they forego their promise and must be retired. America’s sacred kings are anointed when they self-sacrifice to save the Republic, or when they are Manna-men. Reagan was a rainmaker. Bob Woodward in his latest screed faults President Obama for failing “to work his will” on the economy.
The entire promise of Romney in fact rested on his claim — so brittle — that Republicans were the true rainmakers — and Dems, not. The GOP accused: “Are you better off today than four years ago?” Romney’s promise trumpeted that our collective welfare — the bounty of our lives — is somehow bound to the sacred incumbency of the President, vested in the magical powers inhering his person.
Do we simply disbelieve the evidence of our living religious belief in divine American ju-ju — when it is calling out to us from our TV screens?
Is such talk of the living “Pleistocene primitive” operating in American life so foolish? At the Republican convention it was clear that “the King must die” — that President Obama was no longer channeling the Heavens to replenish and renew American earth. Moreover, pundits and experts alike all affirm that the president must provide. He must bring the rain. No matter that scholars and knowing bureaucrats alike tell us how presidents are powerless to turn an economy around.
As Americans we all believe in, and long for, the sacred king.
How do Traditional Churches Persist?
In their relationship to the American religion, all traditional churches are no more than interest groups vying in the political maelstrom of the national faith. The American Cathedral and its two sects never abridged the social claims of old religion. Their claims are still well with us, and all to the civic good.
But traditional churching in America means a scrappy fight to find a snug berth in the larger American religion. Traditional churches — meaning old Euro-denominations — as well as U.S. born muscle like Mormonism and Evangelical Calvinism, must jostle and strive to find useful niches within the bigger American religion — and thus some subsidiary claim on their flocks.
America’s traditional “religions” are all auxiliary and supplemental identity-agents of the American religion, embraced and applauded when they support the two dominant sects, and pushed aside when they fail to play the game straight.
Americas are all members of the American religion, and this is their life-identity. The American religious blueprint is all about being American: This confession must precede all auxiliary or supplementary traditional church loyalties.
We know this is true because there are so few Americans who are Old-church first and American-church second. Our religion though has no problem with marginal pietistic communities — like Mennonites or Hasidim or Amish or even Islamist — just as Islam in its stainless days accepted Orthodox, Jews, Druze, Ismailis, and Alawites. But almost all Americans are ardent believers in Americanism.
Hence the old religions find ways to connect and make themselves useful in the to-and-fro of American politics: The grand revivalist camp where the American religion get re-vetted and adjusted. You might say that not only is there no separation of church and state, but that all legally tagged religions in the United States are necessarily complicit accessories in the course of the American religion. If foreign, they must become American.
Thus the Catholic Church here distances itself from Rome, the better to speak to American Catholics who put the American religion first. We see this reified in Mass, where the priest ritually prays for the President, the generals, and all the assorted courtiers of the imperial seat. “Render unto Caesar” now goes to places early martyrs would sacrifice rather than submit to: The American religion.
If native, like Mormonism — which Tolstoy called “the quintessential American religion — there is no such tension. With evangelical Calvinism we actually see a push to place their “gospel of wealth” and its credo of predestination at the core of GOP theology.
Yet the American religionist — you and me — still has the same response to the big question, Who am I: “I am an American.” To this declaration all auxiliary and supplemental churches must all defer.
Our Founding Fathers, and all of our succeeding prophets and saints, forged the passionate attachment points of our religion, and media input everywhere tells us that Americanism is undiminished today. There is no discernable abatement in national religiosity. Witness the 2012 Olympics — an international religious competition just as sacred as the Greek games of antiquity — where we won yet again, proving yet again the stainless virtue of American Exceptionalism.
Why Force us to see America as a Religion?
To see America as a religion is to gain a kind of gnosis — a deep insight into us. Why force us to see America as a religion? How can we hold to our true faith if we stand back and see it as just another sacred construct in humanity’s long search for shared meaning and identity? Communities of belief perform best when their belief is full and unshaken.
But there are two practical and urgent reasons why we need to see ourselves for what we are, and our America as a religion. We are entering a time of crisis in America’s relationship with the world, and equally, a time of crisis in American identity. Both could soon become true tests of faith.
Crisis with the world. Sacred war is the religious vehicle for American transcendence, and has been so since our beginning (in Revolution). War plays a distinctly eschatological role in American identity and American life.
As a nation we bear witness to God’s final testament to humanity, a message to all humankind summed up in the holy words freedom, democracy, and free markets. Yet those who bear the one true word are more committed to converting others than understanding them. Like Islam: Like us.
Our interest in humanity is not empathetic or compassionate — it is religious, and what we do for humanity is essential because it is instrumental to our own identity. Those who talk about “realism” in our world relations, or the need to strictly pursue only our own “national interests,” are denying the great fundament of national interest, which is bringing God’s word and will to the rest of humanity.
American mission is distinctly different from the European religious nationalism of Victorian-era empires in that it cannot be advanced as narrowly acquisitive or selfish. European nationalists often sought to defend their greed under the cover of a “civilizing mission,” but these masks always fell away — and it never mattered.
America is both more passionate than its European cousins, and also more doctrinally pietistic. Our fervent belief in divine mission means leads America to wars with other national cultures just as savage as the prosecutions of European imperialism, but with an afterburner flame of accompanying crusader rhetoric.
When we invoke “American exceptionalism” we are making a declaration of faith — while at the same time invoking our right and responsibility to tell the world what to do. Hence the punishment we inflict on those who resist is just, because we act from higher authority.
Our 20th century world intervention — “Manifest Destiny,” “the hand of God,” “a rendezvous with Destiny” was a vision of America as the redeemer nation, and it was born in our civil war. The Federal Union sought to redeem a nation darkly corrupted, while the Confederacy sought to redeem the nation’s original, founding civic virtue: Two visions of a fall from Grace, of virtue renewed and sin cast out. Two passages, two narratives of severe purification, and only one ascension.
But world war was followed by Cold War. Our divine work — in birthing a United Nations so close to apocalyptic completion — now seemed farther away than ever. Because of nuclear weapons, sacred wars could not redeem the world [in creating them, had we sinned against God and fallen from grace?]. The Cold War in effect froze the mission: The millennium would be deferred. Communist Evil had found a way to survive, and the Devil would be bested only through vigilance and “a long, twilight struggle.” Only through the expression of collective piety might our nation open its veins to victory.
The “dirty wars” that followed — through the killing we did up-close-and-personal, and the endless bombing — raised a chilling possibility: That our divine calling had already been corrupted by Hiroshima, that we were now a national enterprise engaged only about the bloody business of retributive justice; that we had gone from New Testament to Old Testament nation in a single generation.
Vietnam drove us to doubt our very faith and the righteousness of American identity itself. But then the Soviet Union fell, and confidence in American Eternal Victory returned. Redemption made a comeback. The end of history was at hand, if only we had the courage to make it so. Perhaps we were on a peaceful glide path to a millennium too-long deferred.
Then 9-11. Like Pearl Harbor, the ram’s horn sounded, and our blood was up. Soon our sacred king was reaching for the language of Lincoln and Wilson and FDR. It seemed as though the moment to fulfill God’s charge had come at last. America was taking the reins of History — the sacred narrative of a mission ordained by God — and this time we would finish the job. The sacred king declared that the
… Call of history has come to the right country. Americans … know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.
Yet 9-11’s did not blossom into another sacred war, nor did it become another national transcendence like World War II. We did not redeem (“transform” or convert) the world of Islam. Instead we found ourselves in another corrosive war of punishment and retributive justice, still playing out as a murderous, endless loop.
For America’s century, war has been the driver of America’s relations with humanity as a whole — because war serves the purposes of the national religion. Yet since 1945, sacred war — either as the vehicle for national transcendence or “top dog” branding [for “realists”] — has failed us.
But more than war failed us. By putting sacred war on hold, the Cold War created a new norm, in which the demonstration and display of resplendent American military power, rather than war itself, became the interim purpose of the national religion. Now American identity increasingly became invested in military superiority (over all others). “Alliance” for Americans became synonymous with military pacts — and submission to American military power. In a world where media-symbolic power transactions defined our top-dog status, “leadership” and “respect” become America’s most important world goals, made possible only through “strength.”
Yet by failing in our Islamic war to achieve the goals of an official sacred war on the battlefield, American identity has lost its claim on world authority as well — because our military cannot achieve what its enormous power tells the world it should, and what we boasted we could. Put simply, we have become the Emperor telling the world that he has no clothes. We insist on “keeping up appearances, even as we exclaim: “Hey, we’re naked!”
This is a crisis-in-waiting, because American world authority has become inseparable from American identity. It is a core doctrine in our religious canon — yet it has failed to add another testament to national scripture. Americans are told that the nation is in decline, and Americans believe this: Because it is true. It is true on the terms that we asserted in the 20th century, and the terms that we continue to demand, but which our national high church (and its military) cannot deliver.
Plus the rest of the world believes it too, because they too have watched the wreckage of American sacred war this past decade. The consequences are easy to see — they are right in front of us. America can exact punishing retributive justice at will. Just look at the damage our drone killings have done to Al Qaeda. But it is plain America can no longer spread God’s Good News and do his good works. It can level societies with ease but has lost the magic, as Iraq and Afghanistan showed, to rebuild them.
Hence the rest of humankind is no longer willing to accommodate itself to a world system designed to fulfill American’s need to fulfill our destiny. The world made room begrudgingly after 1945, eventually even China and Russia. But the signs and portents everywhere today say: No longer.
When Bellah wrote, in 1967, Vietnam’s looming crisis of defeat was already with us, whispering of national agonies of faith to come.
Then as now, the crisis of American defeat is, like all defeats, first and foremost a crisis of faith. As our world authority has ebbs, so our belief in ourselves falters:
- If we are in economic decline, and are no longer masters of war, how can we reclaim world leadership? But how could we possibly reassert the notion that prevailed throughout the Cold War — that we are still somehow the stainless leader of the Free World?
- What is America’s “world role” (i.e., identity) if it is no longer world leader and “closer” of History? After all, the only traditional alternative is the unthinkable “isolationism” — which was the default strategic position of the United States when it was weak. But when we got strong — stand back! Remember, we were God’s foal — to be guarded and nurtured until grown.
- How can an exceptional nation become an ordinary nation without failing God and all those who gave “their last measure of devotion”? Our fallback models then become those we defeated in desperate war: Japan and Germany. Can we become them, and still look proudly in the mirror?
- If our mission in history is divinely ordained, how can we fail, unless God is abandoning the United States of America? Byzantines agonized over their defeats, believing that their own failings were somehow tied to an almighty visitation: That failing the Lord, the Lord frowned. Pure and simple. But are we Americans in modernity anymore advanced?
Such questions themselves tell us about the crisis to come.
Crisis within ourselves. If sacred war is intertwined in the wellbeing of our identity, then defeat weakens us. Only a strong and united people can overcome and persevere to victory. But what of a people who cannot persevere, who no longer believe in victory? What does defeat then say about us, and the American future?
In our minds today, our feckless parade of war, year-after-year, glitters like a faux-gilded arch over a corrupt and failing system — and the system, above all, is the leadership province of the sacred king. Hence, for the war president, his welcoming permission of a rotten government-to-financial industry bargain was as corrupt as the rot itself, just as his war leadership led the way to defeat — and implosion in 2008.
Our sacred king is expected to keep the nation healthy, just as he is expected to lead the nation victorious in war. Nor can a festering and failed war be separated from sickness at home. Americans’ fears are fanned by the state of the American Body.
Moreover, a national crisis of identity shows itself first in religious politics as an unbridgeable sectarian divide.
Here we can see how our public rites are getting more elaborate and intensely demanding of adherents. Americanism itself is getting more religious — both more pietistic and more liturgical. Long ago in our national life, horse-trading trumped high ritual. Politicos actually wrangled over patronage and spoils at party conventions — that was what they were about.
Yet conventions today more resemble High-Church rites, because everything is so reverent and so scripted: Absent even the vitality and improvisation of a big-tent revival meeting — with one old cowboy exception!* Yet even he was brought on like a living deity, Godspell for GOP fortunes.
Overturning all political tradition, the First Lady has also risen to be Mother Goddess equal to the Sacred King, with a very explicit rhetorical emphasis — in Party conventions just past — on her fertility pacing his potency: As sign of their joint power to replenish and renew the nation. How she entered into the bosom of Hollywood in the Academy awards!
Bringing Bronze Age rites into American political liturgy is a very recent development — yet we can see it with our very eyes — and these rites tell us something very important about us.
The intensification of public-religious ritual is an indicator of a transfigured relationship between our two competing Churches (sects). Our nation needs religious affirmations of identity more than ever, but it seems that identity is splitting passionately between the two Party sects.
Here we must remember how American religion works: Our unique American compact is carefully configured for two party sects to compete and cooperate so that the national religion remains vital and fresh. Why is this important? Because it keeps the ruling idea of America always refreshed and alive — we all seek victory in the competition.
The prize is what our two parties seek, yet it is, even as attained, a dove of the moment. When one party stumbles it means that a better take on Americanism can take over — for a while. But the main innovation is ensuring making renewal built-in. The system is evangelically and institutionally self-renewing. America is ever-refreshed because its religion demands an impermanence of church doctrine and orthodoxy.
This is the jewel in the crown of the American Blueprint-for-Life. Call it America’s cutting-edge take on evolutionary adaptation: The vigorous contest between two parties, meaning, two churning enterprises of American identity and renewal.
Yet so adaptive a construct can still break down — and it has broken down. How does it break down?
A belief system (the American religion) rooted in constant adaptation is at the same time implicitly under enormous pressure. A change-based belief system can only hold together as long as there is an overarching, grand political-religious compact. This compact at an existential level must wholly and absolutely embrace a shared belief in a unity of sacred identity — a belief that must always be more fervent than the differences between sects.
We are all, above all, Americans, and it is here that our congregation must be as one. If we become schismatic: Meaning, if we begin to tell ourselves that the other moiety is the not-America, or un-American, or anti-American, the opposite of us, the alien other, the betrayer in our midst — where only we are the true Americans — we veer toward catastrophe and the death of the nation.
This was the terrible tale of 1861, set up and prefigured tragically decades before. By the early 1800s the shadows of schism were already darkening politics, no matter how righteous American patriots (religionists) fought to hold us together.
But America broke apart — and civil war was our bloody harvest.
Our national politico-religious life since 1865 tells us that the creative relationship of two sects is best harnessed through the benevolent dominance of one over the other: Periodically exchanged. Think of this not so much as a submission to main force, but rather in the spirit of “I have a better idea, and I won!” It is totally with the defeated party then to reimagine and instantize a new political-religious vision: The next better idea, and drive it home in an election to come.
Hence the Republican party-system owned politics from 1865 to 1896, with only two Democratic terms. Remarkably this charter was renewed in 1896 for another 36 years, again granting Democrats only two presidential terms. From 1932 to 1980 Democrats dominated, with infrequent Republicans looking like pious moderate Democrats (like Eisenhower and Nixon). From 1980 to our present, Republicans again hold the whip hand, with Clinton and Obama in Eisenhower center-right mien, garbed in good Republican wool-cloth.
But there are earth-shaking discontents racing beneath the surface of our religious politics. As never before since the 1850s, there are emerging two separate and opposed visions of Americanism. Moreover, the political grist of compromise and cooperation — which has sustained the very co-existence of two competing sects since 1876 — is evaporating.
It is noteworthy that piety and churchgoing are on the rise in America. Intensifying “churching” is an indicator that Americans are becoming more evangelical, proselytizing, and pietistic. The Calvinist surge especially tells us how Old Churches still seek to capture an American Sect. In itself this is a portent of schisms to come: Signs that sectarian battle lines are entrenching themselves and girding again for battle in American life.
As in the 1850s, two distinct American blueprints for life have emerged out of one, and each defines itself in opposition to the other. The Republican Way demands stainless virtue. The Democratic Way demands civic altruism. Surely our canon intends for both to make us whole Americans. But each sect today is clear that the other is, prima facie, The Other: The antithesis of national identity.
Consider the Red Sect, through the prism of a recent film, Last Ounce of Courage. Not simply an evocation of red-Republican tropes, this is white-hot starshell lighting the Blue Sect threat to American sacred identity. It is a cinematic American Jihadi-cry.
There are so-called “issues” in the American religion that we can only approach through impoverished terms-of-art that tell us next to nothing about what is really going on. The most heinous of these is “hot-button issue” — and today the very biggest “hot-button issue” is “gun control,” known by the other party as “Second Amendment Rights.”
What is the distracting term-of-art not telling us? Very simply, it is not telling us that this is no issue at all, but rather a wedge of schism as strong as that which rent the Roman (Byzantine) world in the 8th-9th centuries: Iconoclasm. It is as strong as Luther’s cry in 1517. It is as strong as the extension of slavery in antebellum America.
Americans simply do not apprehend the sacred, symbolic significance of firearms in the national religion — and why should they? To see this truth, they would first have to see that America is a religion, and we know how ferociously — to the ends of reason — that recognition is resisted.
Guns are American identity — to about a third of all Americans — and remember, religion is at its fundament about identity, and identity only. Guns are the orb and scepter of the individual American citizen and his imperishable Liberty. Period. Full stop. Those who hate guns thus at some level hate America itself — so the Davy Crocketts and Daniel Boones believe in their hearts.
A third — in military strategy — sounds outnumbered, and it is. But such a minority of Americans — fervent, committed, and unbowed — nonetheless constitutes absolute critical mass in sectarian religious terms. They did in 1860, and so they do today. So you see, the fractures that threaten the American religion are real, and they yet hover before us in the near-distance — whether or not we wish to see them.
The danger here is not only that neither sect dominates, but also that each comes to see the other as the mortal enemy of American identity. As battle lines are drawn among American citizens the stakes become existentially all or nothing. Religious advertising tells us: If Republicans win the people will be reduced to serfdom. If Democrats win, “European Socialism” will reign, and American virtue will be lost. Are we not already there?
Our religion is casting off its moorings. Twin religious traditions of virtue (the bedrock doughty, armed individual citizen) and civic altruism (the state as collective expression of how we care for one another) — so long ago carved in the wall of ethos — must be balanced if the nation itself is to survive and prosper. Today our Blue and Red chalices of identity are being relocated to separate chapels of identity — physically if not forever irreconcilable.
Yet this is not the 1850s. That gathering storm was over the nature of America’s very credo (hint: it was another Constitution). This struggle is about what we do when the credo established by that long-ago civil war begins to fail.
Hence guns do not so much represent an existential flashpoint as they remind us how latently ever-present schism-as-self-destruction is within the American Body. The failing credo can be seen everywhere in our national body, as this gigantic, moving entity currently envisions what it calls “politics” — in racism, in the imperial power of the sacred king, in the role of the state in our common welfare, in the path to social justice, in the crushing inequality of wealth in America. So it is not just guns. Guns are a sign … but of what?
Just this: As with all great faiths, the deepest truth is that the congregation must believe altogether. Hence with the American faith-enterprise, the great crisis we face is a crisis of belief. The nation must address the decline of its religious compact, preferably through an explicit rite of renewal and purification (a collective casting out of the divisiveness).
But here we Americans find ourselves as hobbled and poor in alternatives as those 18th century European regal dynasties in whose passionate opposition we created ourselves. Today Americans are shot through with anxiety and apprehension, but we seem to have only one solution. We always turn to the sacred king. Go to Mt. Vernon and gaze on the sacred king Washington. Watch the Spielberg movie Lincoln. Behold us, expectant.
Yet the sacred king W failed us, while the heavenly promise of his successor has drained away, at least in terms of ju-ju squandered. Americans long for the savior, the prophet, The Return of the King: Of one of our own coming to us in unearthly splendor and eternal promise.
Are these all signs and portents that God has abandoned the United States of America? Fears of America’s decline — seemingly so pragmatic in the policy world — are really deep-seated fears that we are no longer exceptional. The Republican charge against the Democrats is that they betrayed the nation in the eyes of God. But that in turn is the very Democratic j’accuse to the GOP: That their impious vanity led the nation down the path of false pride — and perdition.
In our self-made Wilderness we seek the one who will lead us to the Promised Land.
We cry out his name, but he does not come.