The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview
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Chapter 8
THE PRE-SUMTER SYMBOLISM OF THE DEMOCRATIC FAITH

A NATION IS AN IN-GROUP whose members cooperate to achieve certain ends. Yet the citizens compete with one another for the prizes of life. The need to cooperate is a frustrating factor in their lives. It leads inevitably to aggressions which tend to disrupt the group. Patriotism, national consciousness, group feeling (all are synonyms) is a force operating mostly at the level of the emotions to counteract the disruptive tendencies which, if unchecked, sometimes destroy group cohesion. The democratic faith appeared in American culture as one of the principal forces making for what Whitman used to call adhesiveness. The ultimate appeal of the formula was to the feelings. If it were to have utility in the culture, it must be able to evoke an emotional response. To stir the sentiments of the people the faith must express itself in symbols.

Symbolism, in the form of effigies, personifications, or ritual is most developed in the religious aspects of culture. The Medieval Church lit candles and built cathedrals. It held processions. Its priests performed the dramatic ritual of the Mass. The Church elevated the Cross; the faith for which the Cross stood was personified in the Savior and the Virgin. All were symbols. Every doctrine of this complex religion was expressed in one or more symbols. A theology is a mosaic of abstract ideas. Symbols give these concreteness and make it possible for common people to grasp them. A religion is a cluster of beliefs capable of stirring the emotions. A cult may arouse its members to action; it may make them resigned to their

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