American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred

By Rock, Hugh | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred


Rock, Hugh, Anglican Theological Review


American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred. By Peter Gardella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 368 pp. $24.95 (paper).

Ever since Will Herbergs 1955 thesis, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, it has been recognized that a lowest common denominator of all three religions serves the purpose of a national identity in America. This religion fused disparate, immigrant village identities to form a cohesive cultural point of reference. Peter Gardella takes up the story of this interface of nationalism with religion at the point where Robert Bellah, inspired by the Kennedy inauguration, coined the phrase "civil religion." Bellah proposed that the domain of civil rituals should be taken seriously as religion; Gardellas book is a comprehensive documentation of what comprises that domain today. He features forty monuments, texts, and images arranged in chronological order, each with a wealth of historical detail. These monuments are taken to resonate the four values cited as foundational to civil religion: personal freedom, political democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance (p. 3).

Gardella has a gift for linking many of the civil icons with structural counterparts in religion. For example, he asserts that the Declaration of Independence is a "statement of the American creed" (p. 98), and the Constitution is "a sacred scripture of American civil religion" (p. 131), while "The Star Spangled Banner" is its official hymn (p. 151). Nor are physical representations lacking: the Lincoln Memorial is a temple "where a god lives and receives worship" (p. 225), the Washington Monument is a symbol of immortality (p. 165), the National Mall "is the most sacred space" in American civil religion, and a place of assembly (p. 323). People figure as well: Martin Luther King is a "saint" (p. 302); the military guides at Arlington National Cemetery are the clergy of civil religion (p. 199). These and many other examples constitute the substance of that religion.

The book contains an unintended bonus for those interested in biblical criticism and the development of religions. Gardellas research, taken together with recent history, places readers in the privileged position of observing first-hand the process by which powerful emotional symbols develop in a civil-religious context. Accretion and charismatic political interpretation can be seen at work on materials that originally had little significance.

Gardella's entertaining story of the Plymouth Rock in chapter 5 is an example. …

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