Sound Bites of Civil Religion: Politics, Popular Culture, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Darryl V. Caterine, Le Moyne College
The Presidential Medal of Freedom originated under the administration of John F. Kennedy to honour peacetime service by United States civilians. Emerging at the dawn of the television age, this new addition to the symbolism of American civil religion reflects the increased interdependence between political and popular culture beginning in the mid-twentieth century. Even as Anglo-Protestant culture has continued to wane in political influence, the "pop pioneers" of Kennedy's award have effectively demarcated the boundaries of the American nation under successive presidencies. Kennedy's Medal exemplifies the transformation of American civil religion from the written and spoken word to the crafted and consumed image.
 In 1963, John Fitzgerald Kennedy introduced a new cast of cultural exemplars to the tradition of American civil religion. 1 By Executive Order 11085, the Presidential Medal of Freedom was established to honour extraordinary peacetime service to the United States. The idea of creating an executive award analogous to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honour reflected Kennedy's broader vision of re-animating service to the country through the charisma of his presidency. 2 Emerging at the dawn of the television age, the Medal could in theory go to citizens of any background. While the first recipients did include lesser-known patriots, the Medal was bestowed primarily to high-profile celebrities and artists. These included Marian Anderson, Pablo Casals, and Rudolph Serkin, who had already graced the First Lady's tastefully restored White House. Thus the prestige of the presidency and the glamour of popular culture were aligned to create a new spectacle of American nationalism, setting a precedent that would shape the selection of Medalists by presidents in the future. 3
 Today the proverbial pantheon of Medalists features such American cultural legacies as Muhammad Ali, Rachel Carson, Walt Disney, and--more recently--Julia Child and Mister (Fred) Rogers. Its nearly four hundred awardees reflect the full sociological diversity of United States culture, and include a small number of foreign-born "honorary Americans"--men like Vaclav Havel of the former Czechoslovakia or women like Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar who embody for various presidents the multivalent ideal of freedom. For equally meritorious, though typically less well-known, exemplars of freedom, a separate executive honour is set aside--the Presidential Citizens Medal established by President Richard Nixon in 1969.
 Serious scholarship on American civil religion was inaugurated decades ago by the great American sociologist Robert Bellah, who outlined the discourse wielded by American presidents as a cosmogonic myth of the nation's political community. 4 His seminal essay began with an exegesis of Kennedy's inaugural speech as an invocation of a nationalist discourse ultimately derived from seventeenth-century Puritan mythology. 5 Less than a decade later, Bellah wondered aloud in The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial whether this discourse was still suited for a United States beset with the social problems of the late-twentieth century. 6 Much of the subsequent scholarship on civil religion has similarly been guided by an implicit narration of the decline and fall of Anglo-Protestant nationalism inherited from the Puritans. The virulent "culture wars" debates of the 1990s, for example, posited deep divisions in "moral values" among the citizenry--allegedly divided between "orthodox" defenders of an Anglo-Protestant status quo and "progressive" rationalists--which included their attitudes towards the continuing viability of civil religious mythology. By the time sociologists had compiled enough data to disprove the hypothesis, the events of September 11 spawned a resurgence of American civil religion in passionate speeches delivered by President George W. Bush. While its initially enthusiastic reception has since given way to heated debates, Puritan-derived civil religion largely sets the parameters of political discourse in the current era nonetheless. 7
 In this essay I would like to consider the Presidential Medal of Freedom as exemplifying a twentieth-century expression of American civil religion no less important than the Puritan-derived rhetoric studied by scholars since Bellah. A legacy from the twilight years of the liberal consensus, the Medal may be of limited use in today's realm of realpolitik to invoke sentiments of patriotic self-sacrifice. For historians of civil religion, however, it stands as an early political spectacle formalizing the alliance between the White House and other hubs of charismatic power in popular culture. While some public intellectuals have lamented the transformation of the presidency into the "celebrity-in-chief" as a de-evolution of American politics, political anthropologists would invite us instead to consider the strategic advantages of dispersing symbols of the nation throughout society rather than keeping them consolidated around an imperial hub in Washington. The Medal itself has faded into relative obscurity, but the history of its deployment is a striking instance in the mass media age of what Edward Shils referred to as "attenuated and dispersed charisma"--or the "extension of the circle of charisma" beyond America's political centre. 8 Such diffusion helps to safeguard and stabilize civil religious symbolism amidst political oscillations in the nation's capital.
 In the following discussion I will first outline the ways in which the Presidential Medal of Freedom leaves scholars a nuanced record of how successive administrations since Kennedy have perpetuated their various visions of the ideal republic through extending presidential charisma to select recipients. Presidents have used the Medal to evoke the imagined boundaries of the nation in and through its alleged "pioneers," much in the same way that British royalty has harnessed the prestige of its cultural and military leaders through the ceremonies of knighthood. I will then problematize the Presidential Medal of Freedom as a quintessentially twentieth-century transformation of civil religion from the written and spoken word to the crafted and consumed image. The photographs and stylized citations of the Medal's awardees obfuscate political analysis of their complex lives and their equally complicated relationship to the United States of America. At the same time, they reveal to the scholarly observer how civil religion, at least in its late-twentieth-century variant, legitimizes partisan agendas through carefully crafted images of the president's solidarity with "the people."
 Through the sound bites of civil religion afforded by the Medal, various presidents are at liberty to construct idealized visions of the republic that metamorphose with the times and agendas of successive presidencies. These are crafted and disseminated with a speed and agility that create an illusion of continuity with the past. The Presidential Medal of Freedom continues as a political heirloom of what Jacqueline Kennedy posthumously memorialized as Camelot, a presidency famous for the self-conscious crafting of the executive image for mass-media consumption. In my conclusion I will return to the imagination of civil religion inaugurated by Bellah's scholarship. If, as Bellah claimed long ago, the rhetoric of Kennedy's inaugural speech has indeed become an outmoded relic of American political history, then the strategies for manufacturing national consensus reflected in the Medal have remained constant features of American civil religion. The glorification of charismatic individualism and the celebration of America's national innocence have continued to defy the cultural contradictions of the twentieth century, weathering the demise of Anglo-Protestant mythology.
Pioneering Uses of the Medal
 The most significant contribution of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the evocation of civil religion comes from its expansion of national mythology to include a diverse repertoire of cultural icons. Prior to Kennedy, the evocation of civil religion centered largely around the people, places, and relics of the country's founding, as well as memorials and holidays devoted to its military leaders and martyrs throughout successive generations. With the invention of the Medal, the proverbial tool kit of civil religion was greatly expanded and subsequently mobilized to evoke social unity and historical continuity …
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Publication information: Article title: Sound Bites of Civil Religion: Politics, Popular Culture, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Contributors: Not available. Journal title: Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Volume: 20. Publication date: Fall 2008. Page number: Not available. © 2008 Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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