THE RELIGIOUS CHARACTER OF AMERICAN PATRIOTISM
It's time to recognize our traditions
and answer some hard questions
by Frederick Edwords
In the last few years, we have witnessed a number of
patriotic celebrations in the United States -- celebrations that
have taken on an almost religious expression. In 1976, it was the
glorious bicentennial of our independence. In 1984, American
jingoistic displays associated with the opening and closing of the
XXIII Summer Olympic games in Los Angeles were televised around
the world. On July 4, 1986, amid hoopla and fireworks rarely
equaled, the Statue of Liberty was rededicated in New York Harbor.
Finally, on September 17, 1987, we celebrated the bicentennial of
the signing of the U.S. Constitution. Festivities commemorating
the final ratification of the Constitution on June 21, 1788; the
passage of the Bill of Rights on September 25, 1789; and the
ratification of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, were
comparatively subdued but recognized nonetheless.
That these are more than just anniversaries in political
history is made clear not only by how we tend to celebrate them
but in the reactions we receive from people abroad: they simply
cannot understand our fervor. After all, as Americans we do not
belong to a single racial group, do not share the same religion,
and are mostly relative newcomers to the national soil we inhabit
(so new, in fact, that many British still refer to the United
States as "the colonies"). Lacking, then, a single racial,
religious, or long-standing geographical identity, our cultural
unity and patriotic zeal seem hard to explain.
What is it, then, that binds us? The answer can be found in
a set of ideals and myths pervading our national consciousness
that has been growing for two centuries. Whether we admit it or
not, even if we claim we are not religious, we frequently tend to
operate according to the prophetic vision, dogmas, and rituals of
a generally unacknowledged religious tradition. Our behavior
belies this as we take pilgrimages to its shrines, view its
relics, sing its songs, celebrate its holy days, show respect to
its saints and martyrs, and respond to its symbols. The United
States is indeed a religious nation, but its unifying religion is
not Christianity or any other world faith -- not even "the
religion of secular humanism," as has been claimed of late. It is
instead a unique national belief system best called _Americanism_.
THE CREATION OF A TRADITION
New nations are frequently formed when an already existing
ethnic or religious group re-identifies itself and breaks away
from a larger body. In the ancient past, new nations formed from
the consolidation of similar tribes. In both cases, however, a
long prior tradition existed, a tradition that cemented the union.
But in 1776, a group of people from diverse linguistic, national,
ethnic, and religious traditions, isolated on the coast of a
continent they had only recently inhabited, suddenly decided to
set themselves apart from the rest of the world. This must have
seemed a preposterous undertaking to many.
Could a nation last without a common bond in some time-worn
ground for unity? This was a bold experiment -- a government
invented out of the whole cloth. If the project was to work, a
unifying tradition would have to be invented to go along with it.
In his Centennial Oration of July 4, 1876, the great American
agnostic Robert Ingersoll gave his view of how this came about:
There were the Puritans who hated the Episcopalians, and
Episcopalians who hated the Catholics, and the Catholics who
hated both, while the Quakers held them all in contempt.
There they were, of every sort, and color and kind, and how
was it that they came together? They had a common
aspiration. They wanted to form a new nation. More than
that, most of them cordially hated Great Britain; and they
pledged each other to forget these religious prejudices, for
a time at least, and agreed that there should be only one
religion until they got through, and that was the religion
But the religion was more than just patriotism. As early as
1749, Benjamin Franklin pointed to "the Necessity of a Publick
Religion" that would promote good citizenship and ethical
standards. Later, in his _Autobiography_, he laid out "the
essentials of every religion," limiting them to the following few
. . . the existence of the Deity; that he made the world and
govern'd it by his Providence; that the most acceptable
service of God was the doing good to men; that our souls are
immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue
rewarded, either here or hereafter.
He then proceeded to accord "different degrees of respect" to
existing religions depending on how far they departed from this
outline and to what degree they added other doctrines that were
divisive or unhelpful to public morality. His ideas were shared
by many of the founders.
For example, in his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson
asked his audience to carry on the American principles of
government, secure in the knowledge that happiness and prosperity
would result. After all, Americans were a people who were
. . . enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed,
and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating
honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man;
acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by
all its dispensations proves that it delights in the hap-
piness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter. . .
Other elements of this public religion were set forth in the
Declaration of Independence. However, they were presented not as
the absolute or God-given truths of prior religions but as "self-
evident" truths discoverable by human beings. Furthermore, these
truths were not a Decalogue of divine commands but an assertion
of "unalienable rights," a notion no less religious for not being
traditional. Noticing this, British journalist Gilbert K.
Chesterton wrote in 1922 that America is "the only nation in the
world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with
dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of
Conspicuously absent from the writings of many of the
nation's founders and first presidents are indications of belief
in Christ, hell, and Original Sin. But they all mentioned God --
and not merely the clockwork God of deism but a god actively
involved in history. Their "public religion" clearly was not
Christianity, though it could include Christians and others within
its embrace. In some ways it harked back to the Old Testament
with its view of America as "the promised land." This was
prevalent in many writings of the time. Jefferson concluded his
second inaugural address in this vein:
I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we
are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their
native land and planted them in a country flowing with all
the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our
infancy with His providence and our riper years with His
wisdom and power . . .
How much of this public religion Jefferson or other founders
of the republic may have personally believed is not central here.
What is important is that they felt a need to_promote_it and, in
so doing, to give roots to a population that previously shared
little in common. George Washington spelled out this utilitarian
rationale in his 1796 farewell address:
Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined
education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and
experience both forbid us to expect that national morality
can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
THE BUILDING OF A MYTHOLOGY
No religion is complete, however, if it only has a unifying
doctrine. It also needs a unique history, complete with saints
and martyrs. Thus, it was not long before the principal figures
in the saga of the United States' founding began to take on a
In the growing mythology, George Washington, "the father of
his country," came to be immortalized as a type of latter-day
Moses who led his people out of British bondage and to a "sweet
land of liberty." Benjamin Franklin was immortalized, too, as the
intellect behind the holy cause. These two became the most
prominent among the stock characters of nineteenth-century
children's U.S. history textbooks. That this imagery remains
strong is evidenced by the satirization of it in this scene from
the Broadway musical_1776_by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards:
JOHN ADAMS [to Franklin]: It doesn't matter. I won't
appear in the history books anyway -- only you. Franklin did
this, Franklin did that, Franklin did some other damned
thing. Franklin smote the ground, and out sprang George
Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then
electrified him with his miraculous lightening rod, and the
three of them -- Franklin, Washington, _and_the horse --
conducted the entire Revolution all by themselves.
BEN FRANKLIN: I like it!
But the Old Testament analogy does not end here. Like the
Hebrews who followed Moses, the brave patriots who followed
Washington soon strayed from the truth and fell from grace.
Robert Ingersoll, in his Decoration Day Oration of 1888, summed it
up in a manner common to the oratory of his time.
When their independence was secured they adopted a
Constitution that legalized slavery, and they passed laws
making it the duty of free men to prevent others from
becoming free. They followed the example of kings and
nobles. . . . They forgot all the splendid things they had
said -- the great principles they had so proudly and
eloquently announced. The sublime truths faded from their
hearts. The spirit of trade, the greed for office, took
possession of their souls.
And so a war was required to redeem the nation, Ingersoll
The conflict came. The South unsheathed the sword. Then
rose the embattled North, and these men who sleep tonight
beneath the flowers of half the world, gave all for us.
They gave us a Nation -- a republic without a slave --
a republic that is sovereign, and to whose will every
citizen and every State must bow.
Added to the liberation imagery of the American Revolution
were the new elements of a fall, repentance, sacrifice, death, and
rebirth. Abraham Lincoln was especially adept at getting this
message across. In his Gettysburg Address, he spoke of "those who
here gave their lives that that nation might live," the honored
dead who "gave the last full measure of devotion" so that "this
nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that
government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall
not perish from the earth."
One almost feels need for the concluding phrase: "but shall
have everlasting life." It's hardly surprising that generations
of American school children were once required to memorize and
recite the Gettysburg Address. Such was a ritual and a sacrament
of the national religion, much as the Pledge of Allegiance is
The Gettysburg Address took on an even greater meaning after
Lincoln was shot. For then it was Lincoln who had become the
blood sacrifice so that the nation might be reborn. The imagery
of Lincoln as savior, as an American Christ, arose immediately in
the sermons that resonated from the pulpits of a grieving nation.
The Reverend John McClintock in New York said it most explicitly:
We had no fear about Abraham Lincoln, except the fear that
he would be too forgiving. Oh! what an epitaph -- that the
only fear men had was that he would be too tender, that he
had too much love; in a word, that he was too Christ-like!
And how Christ-like was he in dying! His last official
words in substance were, "Father, forgive them, they know
not what they do." And on Good Friday he fell a martyr to
the cause of humanity.
The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous cleric of his
day, practically canonized Lincoln in the conclusion of his
In the midst of this great continent his dust shall rest, a
sacred treasure to myriads who shall pilgrim to that shrine
to kindle anew their zeal and patriotism. Ye winds that
move over the mighty places of the West, chant his requiem!
Ye people, behold a martyr whose blood, as so many
articulate words, pleads for fidelity, for law, for liberty!
To this day, whenever an American hears the "Battle Hymn of
the Republic," he or she thinks of Lincoln and his death. What is
the song about? Think of the words. It is about "the glory of
the coming of the Lord" in the last days when "his terrible swift
sword" shall destroy the wicked. Yet, our mental associations
turn to Lincoln who died for the sins of a nation and whose
"truth is marching on."
The song is appropriate in a way, however, for in the
religion of Americanism there is also a vision of the millennium,
a paradise on Earth to come. Ingersoll offered his version of
this at the conclusion of his Decoration Day Oration of 1888.
A vision of the future rises:
I see our country filled with happy homes, with
firesides of content, -- the foremost land of all the earth.
I see a world where thrones have crumbled and where
kings are dust. The aristocracy of idleness has perished
from the earth.
I see a world without a slave. Man at last is free.
Nature's forces have by Science been enslaved. Lightning
and light, wind and wave, frost and flame, and all the
secret, subtle powers of earth and air are the tireless
toilers for the human race.
I see a world at peace, adorned with every form of art,
with music's myriad voices thrilled, while lips are rich
with words of love and truth; a world in which no exile
sighs, no prisoner mourns; a world on which the gibbet's
shadow does not fall; a world where labor reaps its full
reward, where work and worth go hand in hand . . . -- and,
as I look, life lengthens, joy deepens, love canopies the
earth; and over all, in the great dome, shines the eternal
star of human hope.
Of this speech, the _New York Times_ of May 31, 1888, reported:
Enthusiastic cheers greeted all his points, and his audience
simply went wild at the end. . . . Nor did the enthusiasm
which Col. Ingersoll created end until the very last when
the whole assemblage arose and sang "America" in a way which
will never be forgotten by any one present.
Ingersoll was popular, even with many who opposed his
agnosticism, because he advanced a common doctrine using
inspiring and emotional language that spoke to the heart. One
could either espouse traditional religion or advocate freethought
and still be inspired by a religious display of Americanism.
THE APPROPRIATION OF A TRADITION
Because of the power this common religion has held over the
imagination of Americans, different groups have continually tried
to claim it as wholly their own. For example, in 1912 _An
American Bible_ by Elbert Hubbard was published. This was a
collection of selected sayings from eight American "prophets" --
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Robert
Ingersoll, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and
Hubbard himself (who devoted nearly half of the book to his own
writings). The selections had a decidedly freethought slant, and
the book was a bestseller in its time and remained popular into
When I attended in 1987 the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant put
on by the Mormons in Palmyra, New York, I noted how cleverly they
used Americanism to make their bizarre religious ideas more
palatable to non-Mormons. American flags flew on flag poles
throughout the pageant area, the program opened with the national
anthem, and a giant flag on the hillside was waved by over a
hundred Mormon youth. Then there were fifteen minutes of
bicentennial hoopla involving claims that America's founders were
guided by God in all their actions. Only after this common
emotional ground was established did the uniquely Mormon part of
the program get under way. And even in this latter part, the
mythical pre-Columbian followers of Christ in the Americas were
depicted as advocates of liberty and democracy -- an indication of
the influence Americanism had on Joseph Smith when he published
_The Book of Mormon_ in 1830.
And Christian fundamentalists constantly try to tell us, in
spite of well-established evidence to the contrary, that our
forefathers and mothers were practically all devout Christians.
It should be noted that fundamentalists from other
countries don't generally attempt such claims. For example, Ian
Taylor, a Canadian fundamentalist and creationist, was willing to
suggest in the June 1987 _Bible-Science Newsletter_ that Thomas
Paine was probably the real author of the Declaration of
Independence, a claim usually advanced only by American
freethinkers. He further argued that most of the signers of the
document, including Franklin and Jefferson, were members of the
alleged _Illuminati_ conspiracy and were non-Christian Freemasons.
One would never hear such things from Jerry Falwell!
American fundamentalists feel duty-bound by the
pervasiveness of Americanism to admire our nation's founders and
claim them as their own. It just won't do to suggest that they
were anything less than good Christians, for that might imply that
Christianity is unpatriotic and Americanism is heresy! It would
also require belief that most of the nation's great heroes are now
burning in hell. Christian Reconstructionists, however,
frequently take such a view because, harboring few illusions about
the religion of our forebears, they really mean to overthrow the
present order and set up a theocracy.
A TWO-EDGED SWORD
That America is most religious when it is most patriotic
cannot, I think, be denied. A common religiosity seems to run
through our national life. The evidence of it is everywhere.
One event sticks in my mind. When I was a teenager, I attended a
summer camp for boys, established by the U.S. Marine Corps. We
all had drill instructors who, to us, seemed pretty rough.
Because of this, one teenager wanted to go home. But when our
sergeant told us that this teenager had said he would "walk across
the American flag" to get out of there, the guys in my group went
crazy with rage and wanted to kill him. He had to be moved to a
different group for his own protection.
This is one of the dangers of Americanism. It leads to
fanaticism and bigotry. And because it calls upon ideals that
are sometimes seen as higher than the law, it makes possible an
Oliver North and, worse, a public admiration of an Oliver North.
We are inculcated with this Americanism in our youth and we
reflexively respond to key words, strains of music, symbols, and
imagery. It is no wonder that religious, political, and social
organizations deliberately seek to evoke patriotic responses.
But, in spite of the fact that blind patriotic belief, like
any such belief, is dangerous, there is a positive side to it as
well. By its very nature, it is the glue that holds this diverse
nation together. As such, it is the best reply to the charge that
America will collapse in a post-Christian era, floundering without
roots or religious moorings. It will not, for America does have
roots and religious moorings, even without Christianity. The
Christian Reconstructionists sense this and are none too happy
Of course, this is where problems emerge in today's political
climate. So long as Americanism was never acknowledged as a
unique religious tradition separate from all others but was merely
fought over by different groups trying to claim it as their own,
religious extremists did not question it. However, after World
War II, J. Paul Williams, a follower of John Dewey, declared that
"Democracy must become an object of religious dedication." He
hoped that providing metaphysical sanctions and ceremonial
reinforcements for a now explicit American faith would enable
Americans to better compete against the more zealous patriotisms
of fascism and communism. In 1967, Robert N. Bellah expanded on
this notion with what he called the "American Civil Religion" -- a
faith that he said was already institutionalized and included
common theological ideas as well as the principles of democracy.
And in 1987, Martin Marty's _Religion and Republic_ appeared,
exploring further this line of thinking.
With the growth of these ideas came increased attacks on the
wall of separation between church and state. More and more, the
Religious Right has used these ideas in their challenges to the
notion that the United States and the public schools can be
value neutral or religiously neutral in any absolute sense. John
W. Whitehead argues from this perspective in his book,_An American
Dream_, which calls for "salvaging the soul of America" by a
rejection of American Civil Religion and an explicit "return" to
our supposed Calvinist roots.
Defending public education against the predations of such
religious apologists is not easy. It will continue to require
sophisticated argumentation that takes into account the
historically religious character of American patriotism. We will
have to face our traditions for what they are and realize that
_absolute_ neutrality is not possible in a nation that is so
clearly a product of Western culture in general and American
culture in particular.
But this is no reason to throw out the baby with the bath
water. A _relative_ neutrality, in the context of our historical
traditions, has been supported by many court decisions and can be
maintained flexibly with consistency. This approach is especially
necessary when the public schools, facing onslaughts from growing
numbers of adherents of Eastern religions, are called upon to
defend their teaching of Western values.
Also, a relative neutrality need not be overly permissive.
For example, the more theological aspects of Americanism can
still be kept out of public education in deference to the rights
of non-theists. But this should not lead us to fool ourselves
into believing that the end result is a product sanitized of
religiosity. The religious nature of our reverence for the
documents of our republic, our forebears, and our nation's history
will continue to make its presence felt.
Americanism, for all its shortcomings, dangers, and new
problems, has successfully served for over two centuries as the
religious unifying factor thought so necessary for successful
governments by the Roman statesman Cicero, by America's founders,
and even by humanist historians Will and Ariel Durant. Whether
it will continue, and whether it should, are questions to ponder
as we celebrate our various national anniversaries.
_The Annals of America_, Vols. 3 and 9, Chicago: Encyclopedia
Britannica, Inc., 1976.
Bellah, Robert N. _The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in
Time of Trial_, New York: Seabury Press, 1975.
Franklin, Benjamin. _Autobiography_.
House of Representatives, U.S. _Inaugural Addresses of the
Presidents of the United States_, Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Government Printing Office, 1952 and subsequently.
Hubbard, Elbert. _An American Bible_, East Aurora, NY: The
Ingersoll, Robert G. _The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll_, Dresden
Memorial Edition, Vol. IX, New York: The Ingersoll League, 1939.
Stone, Peter, and Sherman Edwards. _1776_.
Whitehead, John W. _An American Dream_, Westchester, IL:
Crossway Books (a division of Good News Publishers), 1987.
This is a slightly edited and updated text, with bibliography
added, of an article of the same title appearing in the
November/December 1987 issue of The Humanist magazine (Pp. 20-24,
36). The author is the executive director of the American
Humanist Association and managing editor of The Humanist.
(C) Copyright 1987 and 1994 by Frederick Edwords
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