The National Hymns
Closely associated with the pledge of allegiance is the singing of national hymns and anthems that further nurture the inculcation of an American civil religion. Gamoran observes: “The pledge is often followed by a song [which] carries the theme of the pledge, and when sung immediately following, must be seen as a part of the civil religious rite. Though they lack mention to God, they refer either to a sacred object or to the death sacrifice of the nation’s founders.” On a profound and fundamental level, the national hymns serve to inspire, challenge and unite the American people. The most hotly contested sports event is preceded, in most cases, by the national anthem, during which both fans and contestants remove their hats, emblazoned with symbols of cultural partisanship, cover their hearts, and with authentic reverence join voices in solemn pause. During moments of national crisis, the bitterest of political opponents can join hands and sing more explicitly theistic national hymns, entreating divine blessing upon the land and its citizens. We all remember Democrats and Republicans alike standing on the Capitol steps — much to the chagrin of the ACLU — and singing “God Bless America” during the 9/11 crisis. These are not holdovers from a day gone by where Americans believed that God was superintending the affairs of men, but rather reflect the enduring ability of a childhood catechism to unite the nation’s citizens throughout their entire lives even if it takes 19 terrorists and a few airplanes to forge that bond of citizenship.
The Saints and the Martyrs
Tertullian of Carthage is credited with having observed that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” Alongside those whose death-sacrifice warranted special attention in the life of the church are saints whose lives exemplified the religious ideal, and an essential part of catechism is the telling and re-telling of the lives and deaths of the saints and martyrs so that the abstract nature of faith does not eclipse the practical potential that the faith actually works to embolden the church’s witness.
It is no different with the structure of America’s civil catechism. When democracy is taught in public schools, it is taught most frequently by chronological and biographical narratives surrounding the personalities whose lives inform the civil catechism: presidents like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan; military leaders like Lee and Grant and Patton and MacArthur; intellectual elites and innovators like Benjamin Franklin, Edison and Einstein; women like Betsy Ross, Dolly Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt. Among the saints of American civil religion, it is noteworthy that the presidents play a supreme role, even to the degree that the veneration of these men (the building of monuments and memorials, the carving of their likenesses into mountainsides, the marking of their birthplaces and burial grounds, the naming of public schools and the renaming of airports) can approach deification. All other players on the national stage must, in some part, derive their respective identities from the personalities who comprise this pantheon of former presidents. Charles Henderson is especially insightful in this regard:
Presidential politics is clearly the arena in which the implicit religion of the people is made explicit. While leaders of the established churches are virtually ignored by the general public, all eyes turn toward the president. This is the context in which the root symbols, beliefs and attitudes have their most dynamic relationship to everyday life. (The only religious leaders who are significant on the national scene are those who manage to place themselves, in one way or another, near the presidential power.) But the presidency is the stage on which the nation’s leaders play their parts, acting out their priestly and prophetic functions, piecing together those constellations of meaning which become the precarious vision of their various constituencies. It is not the nation which is the focal point of civil religion, but the presidency.
So while men like Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, and other religious leaders have a place in America’s civic faith, their place is not so much grounded in a contribution to the theologies of their respective denominational loyalties as much as a proximity to and influence upon the men who have occupied the Oval Office. Martin Luther King, in particular, will be an interesting addition to the roster of national saints, and the degree to which “MLK Day” will be celebrated like other national holidays is dependant on the attention it receives in the festal calendar of American public schools.