You know you’ve entered a temple when disagreement is treated as sacrilege. The animosity directed toward NFL players kneeling at the anthem, protesting police brutality and structural racism, is the sort of acrimony we reserve for infidels….
This response to the kneeling controversy tells us something about the state of American civil religion and the way it accommodates — and then deforms — traditional religious communities.
The tropes of “God and country” or “faith and the flag” are almost always instances where country and flag domesticate faith in God. Or, to put this in terms that religious folk should understand: These liturgies of civil religion are covert modes of idolatry. The rank and priority are reversed; our political identities trump all others.
This is how stadiums became temples of nationalism. When the Constitution functions like Scripture, and the pledge serves as our creed, and the flag is revered like the cross, and the national anthem becomes our hymn, and the hand over heart is a sacred expression like the sign of the cross, then a swelling patriotism becomes our religion and dissenters are heretics.
In a long article in this week’s Atlantic, Kurt Andersen builds the argument that America’s teetering march toward extreme individualism and non-rational thinking were pushed over the edge by the relativism of the 60s, and here we are now as a result.
“How America Lost Its Mind” (The Atlantic)
“In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”
I always raise an eyebrow at arguments like this. For every Thomas Jefferson who was cutting the miracles out of his Bible because they didn’t make sense to his rational mind, weren’t there a ton of other 1700s-era Americans who got off the boat and headed straight into the wild Appalachians so they could get away from the long arm of the law and being told what to do in a structured, reasoned society?
Andersen seems to argue that the 60s injected a dose of relativism so extreme that the American experiment hasn’t been able to recover. Coupled with the rise of the Internet to amplify the craziness, we now find ourselves in a “post-truth” society.
While the breakdown of our political discourse seems to be new compared to the past 75 years, should we forget McCarthyism and the Red Scare that threw America into a frenzy in the 50s? I’m reading a biography of Oppenheimer which discusses how one of the greatest physicists who ever lived was destroyed and defamed based on zero evidence and a lot of terror about Communists taking over. The rhetoric of his trial could easily fill a Trump speech; just swap out some of the names.
I’m more and more convinced that the vitriol and racism and lack of compromise that we’re seeing isn’t new. It’s not like we’ve regressed to lower life forms in the past 24 months from a state of enlightenment. As a people, we never really changed. Certain legislation drags us forward into being less ugly about it (e.g.: Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Brown vs Board of Education) but Americans have been like this in many ways since our founding. We’ve always been about “doing our own thing,” though perhaps more people agreed on what “that thing” should be on the national scale at certain times more than others.
Andersen seems to write from the center-left position but he does so smugly, in a way that grates on me a bit. Most of the time, I feel like he’s grinding an axe and proud of himself for letting you tag along.
I did appreciate this part of his critique of the GOP:
Another way the GOP got loopy was by overdoing libertarianism. I have some libertarian tendencies, but at full-strength purity it’s an ideology most boys grow out of. On the American right since the ’80s, however, they have not. Republicans are very selective, cherry-picking libertarians: Let business do whatever it wants and don’t spoil poor people with government handouts; let individuals have gun arsenals but not abortions or recreational drugs or marriage with whomever they wish; and don’t mention Ayn Rand’s atheism. Libertarianism, remember, is an ideology whose most widely read and influential texts are explicitly fiction.
Perhaps our politicians were better men at one time, but I don’t think history is going to support that thesis either, really. Corruption comes and goes at all levels of government; I think at times it’s more obnoxious than others, but there’s no way to escape the truth that money is power, and power is the key currency within politics.
I’m not a pessimist; I do think our nation can choose to be better than this. But it’s not just a political discussion. Many of the fears driving people to support men like Trump (even when Trump’s policies work against the best interests of poor and middle-class whites) stem from a coming economic disaster that will hit the less-educated very hard, especially men who have formed the bulk of the blue-collar work force. Very few people are writing enough about this.
It would help if our pulpits emphasized loving God and neighbor above pursuing culture wars in Jesus’ name. But that’s a rant I’ll leave for another day.
My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.
Memorial Day was never complicated when I was a kid.
We lived on top of a mountain in Appalachia in the middle of the woods. Flagpoles weren’t part of the natural landscape, but my mom had inherited her mom’s 48-star American flag (so – pre 1950?) and bought a bracket for it one year. Dad found a pole, strung up the flag, and installed the bracket on a tall tree that flanked the gravel pathway from our circular driveway up to the house. It was a huge flag and I don’t remember how it came into our family. I’d guess it could be from World War 2. I wish I’d asked.
But it was cool to see that huge flag wave in the breeze among the trees. We eventually stopped putting wear and tear on the 48 star specimen and switched to my maternal grandfather’s funeral flag, with its crisp white edges and all 50 stars.
Dad was a Korean War era vet, so he was particular about the flag’s handling — he never left it out in the rain or overnight and folded it carefully back into its triangle at the end of Memorial Day and 4th of July.
I always liked the rhythmic visual symmetry of the 48 stars even though the flag was technically “out of date.” A holdover from when life seemed simpler, to my young mind wrestling to pin definitions on the words my dad used when ranting at the news about “commies,” “pinkos,” Democrats, Reagan, union-breakers, and Japanese steel imports (which to his mind were entirely responsible for destroying the Pittsburgh steel industry, not the failure of the unions to negotiate within a realistic understanding of a global economy.
But church on Memorial Day and July 4 and Veterans Day always themed around America, blending together Jesus’ sacrifice and the soldier’s. We sang the Battle Hymn with no sense of irony:
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I met anyone who even began to question the easy elision of Christ and Country. Early in our dating days, it came up that Coart would not sing the Battle Hymn out of principle – not a Southerner’s simmering rage at the War of Northern Aggression, but because he could not sing words that suggested America’s bloody history of war and violence were the same as Jesus’ work of redemption.
Honestly, I’d never even realized what the hymn was saying, linking the Union war against Southern slavery to the advancement of God’s Kingdom. Or that God would judge people based on how they reacted to “his contemners.” It was awkward and uncomfortable and eye-opening. If you have to kill 700,000 of your own citizens to bring them God’s Kingdom, you might be doing it wrong.
I was raised in a Christian school and community and household that thoughtlessly linked America and God, placing us without question on the same side of all issues. I’ve since come to realize that the landscape is more complex.
It wasn’t until I got to Presbyterianism that I discovered people who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, I taught in a school where no one said the pledge ever, it seems. We experimented with pledging to the American flag and Christian flag at some early assemblies and ceremonies, but that fell aside quickly. Presbys understand that we are citizens of another country, and they mean it enough to risk (or enjoy) being “unpatriotic.”
But I’m not really happy with that approach either. Is the Pledge really that big of a deal? My dad and hundreds of thousands of other men and women have dedicated themselves to preserve an idea of an America where freedom matters, where people have chances, where democracy takes root and thrives.
It’s not an accident that I was born in the United States and not Zimbabwe, Peru, Denmark, or Thailand. God placed me here, in this nation, to be good at both Kingdom work and civic virtues.
American Christianity, at least the Evangelical flavor, could use a dose of wisdom and discernment to separate their American ideals from what the Bible teaches. With no apologies to my friends, I cannot see Capitalism as a biblical virtue. (I’m not saying it’s evil; I’m saying it’s a system that’s just as broken as the humans who inhabit it.) War is not a virtue either — it’s the last resort of sinful, broken people in a world that’s so twisted by sin that we couldn’t find any better solution. So we kill people.
I’m tired of conservative mantras showing up in Sunday sermons as truth, as middle class Christian Evangelicals adjust to living (once again) in a country where immigrant culture, changing demographics, and a shifting economy threaten to disrupt their traditional values. (America’s been through this before.)
But — all that aside —
I’m proud of my father, my grandfathers, and the friends I have who served proudly in the US Armed Forces.
I’m thankful for the many who have chosen military service (or were drafted but served anyway, even when they disagreed) because they see value in trying to give people the gift of self-direction.
I live too far away from my home to visit my dad or grandfather’s grave today for Decoration Day. I know the local VFW has placed a flag and maybe a wreath on their brass military plaques. And that’s the right thing to do.
1 Peter 2:17:
Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.