America is a Religion:
Our High-Church Politics and Sacred War
Part I of Michael Vlahos' Paper
An excerpt of Michael Vlahos' paper appears below.
Click here for the complete paper with references.
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.
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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. We are thus the divine agent of both God and History.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.”
  8. 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.
  9. 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!”
  10. 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.

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.

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.

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.