National Holy Days and Holy Places
Robert Bellah recognized the important place of national holidays in the cultus of American civil religion and the ways that “the public school serves as a particularly important context for the cultic celebration of the civil rituals.” It is not only that the public school year moves along the cycle of national holidays, but that the classroom and hallways are decorated and the entire school environment infused with the symbols of national holidays which necessitates considerable attention when assessing the nature of civil catechesis in the American context . Gamoran comments:
Because the holidays are expressed in the same way in school, they carry a common message: being American means celebrating these festive occasions. Consequently, I consider all these holidays as part of a civil religious ceremonial calendar. Although they clearly vary in the extent of their spirituality and in the centrality of American themes, taken as a whole they represent a yearly cycle of collective celebrations that define and organize the American calendar.
While purely secular holidays have entered into the national public school calendar (Labor Day, Memorial Day, and others) and achieved the necessary public observance to receive vacation time, other holidays (Valentine’s, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day) which have a more explicit religious heritage have all but lost that heritage and now consists of detached symbols alone, thus not receiving vacation day status. Yet other holidays, which have not lost their explicit religious history (Thanksgiving and Christmas), provide the most controversial instances of perceived “establishment” by a host of national observers. Long before George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation, and long before Pilgrim harvests and Governor William Bradford, there were traditions of agricultural festivals in the Hebrew and Christian traditions with which the earliest colonists would have been familiar. And unlike the observance of more secular holidays in the school calendar, Thanksgiving is an event which is celebrated at home though it is more likely that the educational framework and meaning of the holiday is provided by the public school.
Still, there is the threat that an overtly and true religious message might overshadow the secularized civil religious message when characteristically sectarian holidays are observed, to any degree, in the public schools—the democratic creed could be robbed of the universal priority it is afforded in public education by those confessions whose creed’s transcendent themes incline the hearts of men with more persuasive force. Nevertheless, the pattern of the American calendar with respect to public education demonstrates that the national “holy days” are of at least equal significance with those true holy days whose traditions, festivals, and rites they parallel. They are sanctified and hallowed in the classrooms, and children are taught to respect the men and events which they commemorate with solemnity and pride.
Closely related to national holy days are those holy places where the observance of these days is commemorated in the American public consciousness. Places like the Washington Monument, as well as the Lincoln and the Jefferson Memorials occupy hallowed ground along the most sacred landscaped corridor of American public life—the Capitol Mall. The architectural frames of these sacred monuments are built to resemble obelisks of ancient Egyptian religions or temples of the Greek and Roman pantheon. Inside the Lincoln Memorial the high priest of American civil religion is seated on a great, white throne—presumably in judgment—as his gaze is fixed eternal toward the other end of the mall where the nation’s laws are enacted. All who enter the memorial are invited to enter a “temple,” and many remove their hats and speak quietly in due reverence.
Behind the Lincoln Memorial and across a land bridge is the Arlington National Cemetery, where thousands of the nation’s sons and daughters are buried, their blood sacrifice commemorated by endless and sime simple, white headstones dotting a sloped, green lawn. There are the generals and the common soldiers, the Jew, the Christian, and the Muslim. There are the presidents and governors and the unknown soldiers who died in defense of the national faith at home, or seeking to advance it in opposition to tyranny abroad. Every year, the sitting president makes his obligatory visit to the national cemetery to pay his tribute, place a wreath, and bow his head in momentary, prayerful reflection. America, indeed, needs to see its highest leader at such ceremonies and on such occasions in order to reinforce perennially the deep and democratic faith.
But the national holy days are not only commemorated at the temples of American public life, but at city centers, town squares and county seats all across the country. Mayors and councilmen, judges and clerks gather on momentous and nationalized occasions of public life to pay, each in his turn, their respects. July Fourth, Thanksgiving, and Christmas parades are marked with equal interest, usually ending or passing at some point the town hall, the county courthouse, or the civic center. And while these occasions are not universally observed in the public school, it is there that the nation’s children inevitably receive their indoctrination into the meaning and significance of these events. Without the public school, appreciation for and allegiance to the national faith could rob the holy days and shrines of their privileged place in hearts and minds of the body politic within one generation. The need for regular reinforcement is necessary to preserve the “shining city on a hill” that is the United States of America with such frequent reference that many Christians hardly recognize the particular biblical reference to the followers of Christ and the body he left empowered for prophetic witness of the resurrection life.