'We the People' and God. Religion and the Political Discourse in the United States of America

By Paraschivescu, Mihaela | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

'We the People' and God. Religion and the Political Discourse in the United States of America


Paraschivescu, Mihaela, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


Abstract: The religiosity of the first settlers shaped the American spirit, the essence of national traits, shared values and ideals that define the American nation. Influential in public discourse in the colonial times and beyond, religious expression has its place in contemporary American political discourse. This article is concerned not so much with the intermingling of religion and politics in the United States of America as with the religiousness that has permeated political speech. For illustration, we look for religiousness in U. S. presidential inaugural addresses and other speeches to the nation. Inspiring and a good start in our enterprise are Mircea Eliade's reflections on myth and on religiousness, which is sometimes unconscious and camouflaged without ceasing to be a constant value of humankind, or in his frequent expression, a human universal.

Key Words: religiousness, political discourse, Puritanism, U.S. Presidents, American dream, myth, Mircea Eliade

To me, as a Romanian with an ever new interest in the United States, a discussion on religion and the American society begins with Mircea Eliade, the Romanian-American historian of religions who taught at the University of Chicago, Divinity School for thirty years, until 1986. Some of his assumptions in the theory of religion and myth are relevant in the wider context of the relatedness of religion, culture, ideologies and politics in American society.

According to him, all culture was once religious but the distinction between religious and cultural phenomena has been blurred since secularization brought a fall from religion into culture and modern humanity 'fell' into history. Cultures have a religious matrix, spiritual dimensions that Eliade believes the historian of religions is in the position to recognize and interpret.1 The creative hermeneutics, that Eliade advocated, discovers and recovers those 'lost', 'forgotten' meanings, touches consciousness and changes the way the interpreter and the modern reader view existence. "For, in short, every culture is constituted by a series of interpretations and revalorizations of its 'myths' or its specific ideologies."2 At the dawn of humanity, everything was religious, including myth which was believed to be a true story, a product of a revelation as to how a reality came to be and as such an exemplary pattern of behavior (we do this because gods did so first). When no longer considered the result of a revelation, myth 'fell' into fable, the 'fairytale and legend.'3

In the United States, Eliade finds religiousness apparent in various cultural and artistic forms and even protest movements, like the hippies in the 1960s, aware or not that their acts and gestures resembled ancient rites. Although at times he was criticized for his position, Eliade saw in such examples camouflaged mythologies surviving from symbols of the past to cultural forms of the present. Eliade's view is optimistic: the future of humanity will be religious, for as long as one can see signs of spiritual quest, there is hope. "Whether one understands religion in a sense strongly connected to Christian morals or in a more general sense relating to the 'sentiment of the sacred'4 or to the 'diffuse religious sentiment'5 specific to contemporary religiosities," as Sandu Frunza mentions6 , speaking of the last stage of desacralization in the historical age, Eliade describes a state in which the sacred is undistinguishable from the profane, and in which, even though religion may disappear, as in Max Weber's and Marcel Gauchet's disenchanted post-religion society of the future, faith and religiousness will endure.7

Due to the relentless human capacity to mythicize and to the creativity of the human spirit, Eliade insists, moderns continue to have myths. Even a most secular ideology of the twentieth century like Marxism appears to be a reversed mythology, professing a golden age of complete equality placed in the future, unlike traditional mythologies depicting 'paradise' in the beginning of time. …

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