God Bless America: US Civil Religion and the President as Prophet, Priest and Martyr of the Nation

Abraham Lincoln
A martyr for the cause? Abraham Lincoln has been depicted as making the ultimate sacrifice for the future of the US nation-state

Ever noticed how nearly every time a US president makes a speech, it ends with “God Bless America”? Ever wondered why? Contrary to popular assumption, it’s not just because the United States is one of the most religious countries on earth, although this certainly plays a part. Several researchers have highlighted that the United States possesses its own particular type of “civil religion”, that is, a religion of the state, separate and distinct from traditional religions such as Judaism and Christianity, but nonetheless relying heavily on these for images, narratives, rituals and rhetoric. As part of this civil religion, the US President assumes the role of both prophet and priest (and, occasionally, martyr) of the nation.

Robert Bellah (2005) argues that the US civil religion contains the following elements:

–        “Religious” rituals and memorials, such as national days of remembrance, prayer services, presidential inaugurations and (I would add), State of the Union addresses.

–        A body of “sacred” national documents, such as the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Pledge of Allegiance

–        The casting of significant figures in US history (particularly, but not solely, presidents) as prophets and martyrs for the nation. Abraham Lincoln, for example, has been portrayed as paying the ultimate price for the unity of the American nation, similar to Christ paying the ultimate price for unity between God and humanity (Cherry 1971: 6-7, fn. 6). Other martyrs for the nation have included John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

The United States does not have a monopoly on these “religious” dimensions of nationalism, as Anthony Smith (2000) has noted. Yet for some reason these dimensions seem most obvious in the US context.

Sam Van Leer has already offered some reflections on why religion plays such a significant role in US presidential politics. Here, I suggest the significance of religion in US presidential politics is related to the broader institution that is American Civil Religion, with the US president being seen as prophet, priest and occasionally martyr for that cause.

This typology has strong resonances in both Judaic and Christian traditions. As the High Priest of the American Civil Religion, the President is held to a higher standard. Just like the High Priests of ancient Israel, who were held to a higher standard than the rest of the population (See Leviticus 21), the US president is also upheld as moral and spiritual guide of the nation, as well as its military and political leader. Jesus is described throughout the New Testament as Prophet, Priest, King and Martyr for the cause of reconciling humanity to God, strengthening the correlations between Judeo-Christian religious rituals and narratives and that of US civil religion. These similarities give us some insight as to why it is so important for presidential candidates to provide evidence of robust faith, or, at the very least, a strong moral and ethical code.

Presidential rhetoric offers numerous examples of the President acting in this capacity, particularly during times of crisis. Consider, for example, these words from the opening of Obama’s 2010 State of the Union, in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s:

It’s tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable, that America was always destined to succeed. But when the Union was turned back at Bull Run and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain. These were the times that tested the courage of our convictions and the strength of our Union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements, our hesitations and our fears, America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one Nation, as one people. Again, we are tested. And again, we must answer history’s call.

Or this from Franklin Roosevelt in his 1942 State of the Union, barely a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Habor:

Our enemies are guided by brutal cynicism, by unholy contempt for the human race. We are inspired by a faith that goes back through all the years to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “God created man in His own image.”

We on our side are striving to be true to that divine heritage. We are fighting, as our fathers have fought, to uphold the doctrine that all men are equal in the sight of God. Those on the other side are striving to destroy this deep belief and to create a world in their own image—a world of tyranny and cruelty and serfdom.

Both statements are rich with religious imagery and rhetoric (in particular the idea of being tested (see, amongst others, Luke 4), as well as being called to a higher purpose (Ephesians 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:11).

Yet it is perhaps in the concluding remarks of the State of the Union addresses that the likeness of the US president to a priest becomes clearest:

Today we still welcome those winds of change–and we have every reason to believe that our tide is running strong. With thanks to Almighty God for seeing us through a perilous passage, we ask His help anew in guiding the “Good Ship Union.”

(John F. Kennedy, 1963 State of the Union)

Let us be sure that those who come after will say of us in our time, that in our time we did everything that could be done. We finished the race; we kept them free; we kept the faith.

Thank you very much. God bless you, and God bless America.

(Ronald Reagan, 1984 State of the Union – note the similarity with 2 Timothy 4:7 – “I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, I have kept the faith”)

And finally, let all Americans — all of us together here in this Chamber, the symbolic center of democracy — affirm our allegiance to this idea we call America. And let us remember that the state of the Union depends on each and every one of us.

God bless all of you, and may God bless this great nation, the United States of America.

(George H.W. Bush, 1990 State of the Union)

At the conclusion of a church service, a priest will often call on each member of the church to go out into the world, prepared to serve God and the greater cause of the faith. The priest will often follow this by praying and asking God to bless the congregation’s activities. These concluding sentences from various State of the Union speeches contain distinct similarities with this religious ritual.

While the religious commitments of individual citizens is an important factor in how significantly religion influences the politics of a nation, it’s also crucial to think more historically, to look at the public rituals, language, imagery and narratives that constitute the way we think about our own nation-states and constitute national identity. The United States is but one example.

How does religion influence the way political leaders speak in your country? Does your nation have a “civil religion”? Leave your thoughts and comments below

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. The above includes excerpts from her recently published book, After Secularism . She’ll be speaking on these themes tomorrow night, 16 October, with Sam Van Leer, for Studium Generale. See here for details.

References:

Bellah, Robert N. 2005. “Civil Religion in America”. Daedalus. 134(4): 40-55

Cherry, Conrad. 1971. “Introduction”, in Conrad Cherry (ed). Religious Interpretations of American Destiny. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, pp1-24

Smith, Anthony D. 2000. “The Sacred Dimension of Nationalism” Millennium Journal of International Studies 29(3): 791-814

Speeches:

Barack Obama 2010 State of the Union address

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1963 State of the Union address

Ronald Reagan, 1984 State of the Union address

George Herbert Walker Bush, 1990 State of the Union address

Transcripts of all speeches are available at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/sou.php#axzz29LtXhC7S

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