Sound Bites of Civil Religion: Politics, Popular Culture, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Sound Bites of Civil Religion: Politics, Popular Culture, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom


Darryl V. Caterine, Le Moyne College

Abstract

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.

[1] 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

[2] 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.

[3] 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. …

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