"[T]he English regard and practice their religion only insofar as it relates to their duty as subjects of the king. They live as he lives and believe as he believes; indeed, they do everything he commands. … [The English] would accept Mohammedanism or Judaism if the king believed it, and told them to believe it."
~ Giovanni Micheli, Venetian ambassador to England during the reign of Henry VIII, as quoted in Reformation Europe: Age of Reform and Revolution, p. 174
"Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is."
~ President Dwight D. Eisenhower as quoted in Civil Religion and the Presidency, p. 200
The veneration and near-worship of the president, and the presidency, has been with us for a long time, as long as the United States of America has existed as a nation under the Philadelphia Constitution and quite possibly as long as Americans have misled themselves into thinking they are God’s chosen people. In fact, while Americans fancy themselves a Christian people, and their nation a Christian nation, the national faith of the United States of America — and most Americans — is Americanism, and the god of most Americans is their country, its "principles" and its symbols worshiped in deeply held civic faith willed into being over the last two centuries (more or less) from bits and pieces of English Calvinism, deism and 19th century evangelicalism.
And a whole lot of wishful thinking and very hot air.
So is the conclusion of academics Richard V. Pierard and Robert D. Linder, authors of the nearly 20-year-old tome Civil Religion and the Presidency. I came across the book while I was doing research during the spring semester on the views of Martin Luther and Philip Melachthon — the two architects of the German Reformation — toward the state, and knew immediately this website needed a review. Pierard and Linder evaluate the role of nine presidents — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan — in using, leading and shaping the American civic faith and the faith Americans have in the meaning and purpose of their government and their country.
Pierard and Linder begin the book with an exploration of civil religion, noting that human beings in most, if not all, societies throughout human history create some kind of civic faith that stipulates a "u2018sacred cosmos’ which locates their lives in an ultimately meaningful order." Civic faiths unify societies, help create a common shared frame of reference for members of that society, allow for the settlement of disputes and help create "common goals and values validated through some cosmic frame of reference which their members recognize as defining their collective existence."
While religion had filled this role in "ancient" societies, and the institutional church in pre-Enlightenment Europe, since the Enlightenment, the state-centered societies of the West have had to (consciously or otherwise) create civic faiths to take the place or fill the role that a state church would play. While both Rome and Greece possessed strong civil faiths — an offense against the gods was also an offense against the state and against society, and the reverse was also true, which is why Christian martyrs like Polycarp were charged with atheism for refusing to perform public religious rituals like sacrificing to the emperor — true civil religion in the context of Christendom only begins with the Crusades. Early Christians, even after the effective merger of Church and state during the reign of Emperor Constantine, distinguished between the polity where they lived and their patria, their homeland in heaven. This distinction comes directly from passages in Pauline epistles which state the Christians are sojourners and resident aliens of wherever they live while their "citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20, "ημων γαρ το πολιτευμα εν ουρανοις υπαρχει,u201D literally u201Cfor our commonwealth/state exists in the heavensu201D). In fact, in the anonymous early apologetic writing (sometime in the early to middle second century A.D.) the Letter to Diognetus, the author expands on this by writing:
[Christians] live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them, every fatherland is a foreign land. (Diog. 5:5 as printed in The Library of Christian Classics: Vol. 1, Early Christian Fathers, p. 217)
This notion of Christians having their real home in heaven began to change, Pierard and Linder write, in the early Middle Ages, when the king’s realm and the patria began to merge. Taxes and war, of course (for you cannot have one without the other), were the main instrument of this: taxes to pay for the Crusades, which created a concept of "holy land" that would eventually be transferred to the European nations sending crusaders to the Levant, allowing Europeans to eventually consider themselves covenant people chosen by God to do God’s will on Earth. "Before long," Pierard and Linder write, "the French saw war for France as war for the u2018Holy Land of France.’ In this context, Joan of Arc cried, u2018Those who wage war against the holy realm of France, wage war against King Jesus.’"
(The English would take time to catch up with the French, and would not go around claiming they were God’s chosen people until 1559, when English Bishop John Aylmer would claim "God is English." John Foxe would soon thereafter popularize the idea of England as God’s chosen land and the English as his chosen people in his Book of Martyrs, according to Pierard and Linder.)
The same period of time also saw the creation of an organic notion of nation and society similar to the evolving medieval notion of the church. If the church was a "body" with Christ as its head (and the pope as his earthly vicar), than the combined patria-realm would be one "body" with the prince or king as its earthly head. "Reason and nature demand that all members of the body serve the head as well as be controlled by it," they write.
But modern civil religion, the civic faith of nations and the bulk of people inhabiting those nations, is really the product of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. For Pierard and Linder, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau were the great authors of a "minimum civil creed that would instill civic spirit and discipline the citizenry" that might not share a single religious confession. Rousseau envisioned a simple and "exactly worded" civic faith with few dogmas:
The existence of a mighty, intelligent, and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence; the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked; the sanctity of the social contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas.
The problem with Rousseau’s civil faith is that it essentially made the state and the "popular will" as expressed in the state transcendent in and of itself. "Reason enabled each individual member of Rousseau’s civil society to read the revelation of Nature’s God in creation," Pierard and Linder write. "For many practitioners of civil religion before and since, the state encompassed everything that mattered: there was no law or loyalty higher than the state. … The likelihood of idolatrous subservience to the state lurked in Rousseau’s earthbound public religion because it had no fixed transcendental referent by which it could be judged."
American civil religion begins almost the minute the English colonists set foot on the continent. From the Mayflower Compact and John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity (from which the phrase "city on a hill" as applied to the enterprise of being American comes from), the earliest settlers in British North America had a sense that they were being watched by both God and the entire world and were engaged in a mission of "cosmic significance," that they were God’s people Israel crossing the wilderness and settling in the promised land after leaving Egypt (Europe).
According to Pierard and Linden, this sense of chosenness would be one of five main characteristics of American civil faith, the others being: civil millenarianism, the evangelical consensus, deism, and a self-authenticating history.
Civil millenarianism would manifest itself in the faith of American political institutions to save the world. Quoting church historian John Smylie, Pierard and Linder write: "Gradually, in America, the nation emerged as the primary agent of God’s meaningful activity in history. Hence, Americans bestowed on it [the nation] a catholicity of destiny similar to that which theology attributes to the universal church." God will save the world through God’s chosen instrument, the United States of America, and its political institutions.
(If there is a weakness in this book, Pierard and Linder spend too much telling me things, rather than using quotes to show me.)
By the evangelical consensus, Pierard and Linder appear to mean the emotive and experiential Christianity that emerged from the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century — a faith that emphasized the conversion experience, action as opposed to doctrine, and was generally positive in its anthropology (humans may be sinners but they could, of their own accord, choose God) and its outlook. History was getting better, and humans could make their world and the societies better through Christian action and state action (often one in the same). Because God’s chosen instrument for world betterment was the United States of America, evangelical Christians could easily pledge loyalty to both God and nation. (This evangelical consensus would become watered down, somewhat, as the civic faith was later expanded to include Roman Catholics and Jews.)
The deist contribution is important because if deists and evangelicals shared little, they did share common social outlooks. "For example, two Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson (convinced deist) and John Witherspoon (staunch Calvinist) agreed that humans possessed a natural, innate ability to grasp the truth about the world and morality without the need for divine grace or revelation. Thus political thought in Revolutionary America was based on the assumption that the light of natural reason could reveal the eternal principles of God’s law to any unprejudiced, right-thinking individual," Pierard and Linder write. While both deist and evangelical might differ on the sinfulness of human beings, both agreed and believed in individual freedom "under God" and of "freedom and democracy in the context of a New Israel with a sense of divine mission."
Finally, there is the matter of a self-authenticating history, a history which proves (since we don’t actually have any scripture telling us that God gave the Constitution to George Washington after he fasted on Mt. Vernon for forty days and forty nights) American specialness and chosenness. This is a history mostly of bloodshed, of victory in war and the expansion of territory and "freedom." Meaning, a history of "positive" state and government action and of the state as the central organizing principle of American society.
But what of the president? What role does he play in this? Pierard and Linder write:
Few students of politics would dispute that there is a religious component to the presidency, though determining whether the man influences the office in this way of vice versa is beyond the purposes of this book. The truth is that most Americans regard the office with a measure of religious awe [italics mine] and that certain presidents down through history have used the position with great success in playing the role of prophet and/or priest in America’s public religion.
In any event, scholars generally agree that whether he is religiously active or passive, the foremost representative of civil religion in America is the president. He not only serves as head of state and chief executive, but he also functions as the symbolic representative of the whole of the American people. He affirms that God exists and that America’s destiny and the nation’s politics must be interpreted in the light of the Almighty’s will. The rituals that the president celebrates and the speeches he makes reflect the basic themes of American civil religion.
Most of the nine presidents Pierard and Linder have chosen to examine are considered by most historians as "great" or "near great" presidents (with the exceptions, I’m guessing, of Nixon and Carter) who also held the office during times of war and/or great national crisis. Most of the nine did not have strong denominational bonds: George Washington was more of a deist than an Episcopalian and had little time for kneeling in prayer or partaking of the Eucharist; Lincoln may have been a deeply religious man but he was not much of a churchgoer (and no one is certain where Lincoln’s personal faith came from); Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s greatest "religious" influence was lifelong friend and Groton headmaster (and one of the major figures in early American Muscular Christianity) Endicott Peabody, whose religion was "a mixture of messianic idealism and simple pragmatism"; Dwight Eisenhower was only baptized (in a Presbyterian service) after his first inaugural in 1953; Nixon would adhere to neither the Quaker faith he was raised in or the Pentecostalism he spent some time as a young man flirting with, but would rather make America’s "innate goodness," the country’s "spirit" and its national mission his object of worship.
(However, Nixon would spend far too much time palling around with the closest thing to a "state church" the United States has ever had — Billy Graham, who wanders through this book like a false prophet.)
Each of these presidents contributed hugely to the country’s civil faith. Washington defined much of the job, creating the language of the civil faith by constantly invoking "providence" and "the deity" to oversee the country’s affairs. Lincoln, with the Gettysburg Address, added permanently to the canon of American "holy scripture" and outlined "the American Democratic Faith," the belief that American political institutions are central and necessary for the salvation of humanity. (Lincoln, along with Martin Luther King, would become one of the two martyred saints of the American civil faith.) McKinley, in presiding over the war with Spain and the campaign to subdue the Philippines, would attach imperial expansion to the country’s civil faith, giving America and Americans a potentially globe-spanning role as the savior of the world, emphasizing in particular America as God’s chosen instrument for world and human salvation. Woodrow Wilson further expanded that sense of global mission and further moralized that American sense of mission. Franklin Delano Roosevelt expanded the civil religion beyond the country’s Evangelical Protestants to include both Roman Catholics and Jews. (The civil faith had always invoked God the Father far more than God the Son anyway.) Dwight Eisenhower intensified the civic faith during the Cold War, portraying it as a struggle with "godlessness" and harnessing religion in general to "democratic" political institutions. Richard Nixon, consciously seeing himself as the central figure of the civil faith, "hoped to lead in the revival of moral values by making a dramatic public emphasis on worship [in the White House], and in doing so he created an extraordinary syncretism of church religion and civil religion."
Pierard and Linder identify three main ways the president manifests himself in the civil faith — as pastor, as prophet, and as high-priest. The pastoral job is most obvious at time of "national crisis" (wars, natural disasters, space shuttles blowing up, school shootings), when the president seeks to reassure the country that its election is intact and that God still has great things in mind for America and Americans. Neither Pierard nor Linder spend much time on this function (save to say it was Eisenhower’s primary job), but FDR was probably the first real pastor president, the first president able to speak words of immediate "comfort" to Americans, since being the pastor to all of America requires a mass media that allows the president to "talk to" millions of people at the same time. Only radio and television can accomplish that.
The prophet calls Americans and America to be better, to aspire to their better natures and the values inherent in the covenant, to live up to their founding ideals and to expand those ideals to those not originally included. The prophetic has largely been the preserve of Democrats — FDR comes to mind — but Lincoln’s presidency was very much a "prophetic" one. In fact, both Pierard and Linder say that if a religiously tinged presidency is unavoidable (a conclusion they appear to come to), prophetic is best, since it actually aims the nation at transcendent values that lie outside the nation itself. It holds the nation and its leaders accountable to something other than themselves.
(For another example of the “prophetic” in action in American politics, one need only look at Jim Wallis and folks at Sojourners, who like all Progressives past, continue to mistake God’s command to God’s people — that would be the church — to be just, merciful and charitable toward the poor with a command to the nation, and all that entails — taxes, force, coercion, state power and death.)
This leaves the high priest, a model both authors seem to believe Republicans have adopted in the last few decades beginning with Richard Nixon. (George W. Bush is clearly a high priest president.) This is a dangerous model, they write, because "[t]he president as high priest possesses what amounts to a sacred character, and thus his actions may not be resisted in any meaningful fashion." The authors quote at length 1968 Republican campaign strategist Ray Price on the matter of who Republicans then believed the president was in the eyes of the people:
People identify with a President in the way they do with no other public figure. Potential presidents are measured against an ideal that’s a combination of leading man, God, father, hero, pope, king, with maybe just a touch of avenging furies thrown in. They want him to be larger than life, a living legend, and yet quintessentially human; someone to be held up to their children as a role model; someone to be cherished by themselves as a revered member of the family, in somewhat the same way in which peasant families pray to the icon in the corner [emphasis mine]. Reverence goes where power is; it’s no coincidence that there’s such persistent confusion between love and fear in the whole history of man’s relationship to the gods. Awe enters into it. …
Selection of a President has to be an act of faith. … This faith isn’t achieved by reason; it’s achieved by charisma, by a feeling of trust that can’t be argued or reasoned, but that comes across in those silences that surround the words. The words are important — but less for what they actually say than for the sense they convey, for the impression they give of the man himself, his hopes, his standards, his competence, his intelligence, his essential humanness, and the directions of history he represents.
Whether Americans, or even Republicans, see the president this way (I think many do, actually, and many Republicans seem to have developed an idea of the presidency as a kind-of Davidic kingship), it’s pretty stunning that a major political party in an allegedly democratic nation state can speak of leadership in such, well, undemocratic terms. (To be fair, the above paragraphs can just as easily describe the devotion to and the cults surrounding FDR and John F. Kennedy, and what I’ve seen of the cult of Barak Obama.)
The problems with a high-priest presidency are two-fold. First, opposition to the president and the nation he (or, I suppose, she) isn’t just treason — it’s heresy. Religions, even ones cobbled together from junk, can be brutally intolerant of heresy. Second, the high priest isn’t really accountable to the people, he’s accountable only to God. (And, to be fair, the prophet isn’t accountable to anyone but God either.) He stands in front of the people but faces the altar, rather than at the altar facing the people. We are his to dispose of, and our wills, our desires — our persons and our very humanity — do not matter.
Better, however, would be no civil religion at all, no faith in the nation, its institutions or its purpose. I do not need nor want the president to stand in my stead before God, to mediate my encounter with the divine. I already have Jesus, so what need have I of George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton? My purpose comes from elsewhere, and so should yours. But that is about as likely as the government disappearing tomorrow. So I encourage non-belief in the civil faith and non-observance of its rituals. A committed Christian, a faithful Jew, a devout Muslim, has no business believing that the United States of America, its values, its spirit, its ideals and its institutions, can save the world. That is to worship a created thing, a transitory thing, an artifact of history, one that does not and cannot transcend anything.
I’m not sure any of this can be reformed or changed, because it may not be possible to have "America" without this nonsensical civil religion, without the sense that Americans are God’s chosen people, that America and American institutions can save the world. I could accept an Americanness that did away with the sense of mission and the evangelical faith in "democracy," an Americanness that assumes we are and allows us to be just another people living in just another country. But this sense of ourselves as God’s chosen people, as cosmically special, may be too central to our overall sense of ourselves, and our faith in our political institutions — including the wretched presidency — may be too strong and too essential to rid ourselves of. It may not be possible to have Americanness without it. I don’t know.
But I do know this: the American civil religion is a form of idolatry, a false religion that worships a false god and promises things — salvation, grace, community, purpose, love — it simply cannot deliver. We have no business believing in any of it.