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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving and American Civil Religion

In 1967 article Robert Bellah argued that America is constituted by what he called "civil religion," which helped connect it to the divine order of things, giving it a sense of origin and direction. It is the idea that America is a chosen nation, a city on a hill, a light to the nations. Like traditional religions, American civil religion has its sacred texts, symbols, and rituals. For texts, there is the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. For a symbol there is the American Flag (if you doubt its sacred status, try to burn one and see what happens). For rituals there are several: Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, July 4th, 9/11, and perhaps the most important, Thanksgiving.

In many ways, Thanksgiving is the consummate America civil religion ritual. It is the American Exodus story. Just like the ancient Israelites, many of whom probably didn't descend from the families that had fled from Pharaoh's wrath but later affiliated with those who did, most Americans don't descend from the Pilgrims. However, just as the Exodus story became the story for all who chose to worship Yahweh, the Thanksgiving story has become the story for most Americans. On the 4th Thursday of every November, most of us sit down with family and friends and either implicitly and explicitly recall the Thanksgiving story.

Robert Wuthnow has noted that there are actually two versions of the civil religion story. One that you might call the priestly or conservative version, and one that you might call the prophetic or liberal version. One holds up America’s greatness; the other, America’s obligations. The priestly or conservative version is perhaps best captured by the phrase “One Nation Under God," and its greates spokesperson was probably President Ronald Reagan:
I’ve always thought that a providential hand had something to do with the founding of this country. God had His reasons for placing this land between two great oceans to be found by a certain kind of people; that whatever corner of the world they came from, there would be in their hearts a fervent love of freedom and a special kind of courage, the courage to uproot themselves and their families, travel great distances to a foreign shore, and build there a new world of peace and freedom.
The phrase “With Liberty and Justice for All” is a nice way of capturing the essence of American civil religion's prophetic version. It calls on Americans to live up to their loftiest ideals, and it was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I Have a Dream” speech, who tapped into this version as well as anyone every has and perhaps ever will.
If America is to be a great nation, there must come a day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning ‘My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing / Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride / From every mountainside, let freedom ring!’
While these two stories are not necessarily incompatible, they are somewhat in tension with one another. One of the nice things about Thanksgiving, though, is that it helps many of us transcend our differences, if only for awhile, as we recall a story of sharing, celebration, and welcoming the stranger into our midst.

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