Liturgical Abe and America’s Civil Religion

Speaking of dudes who are remembered for not quite the right thing (it is St. Patrick’s Day, after all) whilst continuing the thought of extra-ecclesiastical liturgies is this piece from Richard Gamble over at the American Conservative entitled “Gettysburg Gospel”. [1] Gamble draws out the liturgical intention behind and within the Gettysburg Address, one which obviously succeeded masterfully as Lincoln is memorialized now as the “Savior of the Union.” [2] The Man wouldn’t use it if it didn’t work, folks!

Into this empty vessel [Gamble notes how odd it is that Lincoln never identifies names of soldiers or commanding officers or what “this nation” is, or any such concrete referents] Lincoln poured the 19th-century’s potent ideologies of nationalism, democratism, and romantic idealism. Together, these movements have become inseparable from the modern American self-understanding. They have become part of our civil religion and what we likewise ought to call our “civil history” and “civil philosophy”—that is, religion, history, and philosophy pursued not for their own sake, not for the truth, but deployed as instruments of government to tell useful stories about a people and their identity and mission. Polybius praised Rome’s forefathers for having invented religion for just this public purpose. Religion, history, and philosophy can all be domesticated to make them tools for the regime.

In 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah launched the modern career of “civil religion” as a concept, a way to examine how, on the one hand, the state adopts religious language, ritual, holidays, and symbolism to bind a nation together and how, on the other hand, it elevates its own values and ideas to the status of holy doctrine. Regarding the first type, University of Toronto political theorist Ronald Beiner recently defined civil religion as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its purposes.” Lincoln had been doing this to the Bible since at least 1838. He ended his Lyceum Address by applying Matthew 16:18 to American liberty: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” More famously, in 1858 he quoted Matthew 12:25 to characterize the precarious state of the Union: “A house divided against itself shall not stand.”

Such an appropriation of Christianity for politics dominates the Gettysburg Address, from its opening “four score” to its closing “shall not perish.” In the 1970s, literary scholar M.E. Bradford, in his essay, “The Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” identified the Gettysburg Address’s “biblical language” as the speech’s “most important formal property.” That is undoubtedly so. Lincoln drew from the King James Version’s archaic words and cadences, as he opened with the biblical-sounding “four score,” an echo of the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” years allotted to man on this earth. He continued with “brought forth,” the words in the Gospel of Luke that describe Mary’s delivery of Jesus—the first instance of what turns out to be a repeated image of conception, birth, life, death, and new birth, culminating in the promise of eternal life in the words “shall not perish”—a startling echo of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”).

Lincoln’s speech also engages the other side of civil religion—not the appropriation of the sacred for the purposes of the state but the elevation of the secular into a political religion. Early in his career, Lincoln had explicitly promoted this kind of civil religion. Again in his 1838 Lyceum address, he called for fidelity to “the blood of the Revolution” and the Declaration, the Constitution, and the laws to serve as America’s sustaining “political religion” now that the founding generation was passing away. In 1863, Lincoln filled the Gettysburg Address with the words “dedicated,” “consecrated,” and “hallow.” The cumulative effect of this sacred language was to set the American Founding, the suffering of the Civil War, and the national mission apart from the mundane world and transport the war dead and their task into a transcendent realm.

Bellah, a defender of American civil religion who wanted to globalize it in the post-Kennedy years, claimed that Lincoln and the Civil War gave America a “New Testament” for its civic faith: “The Gettysburg symbolism (‘…those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live’) is Christian without having anything to do with the Christian church.”

Look how symbol and biblical textual appropriation intertwine to reinforce a vision/mission Lincoln’s audience largely identified with, i.e. Manifest Destiny. Lincoln’s Gettysburg homily hallowed that dubious calling by addressing how civil war threatened the Union’s accomplishment of that vision. So while there is good grain to be found in his address, a significant percentage of its form and content is pragmatic, liturgical chaff intended for political gain. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, workers of the world!

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[1] Available at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/gettysburg-gospel/

[2] Recall that the inscription within the Lincoln Memorial reads,

IN THIS TEMPLE
AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE
FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION
THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
IS ENSHRINED FOREVER

“This temple“??? Sheesh!

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