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Civil Religion


In his seminal 1967 essay, sociologist Robert Bellah argued that the United States had “an elaborate and well-instituted civil religion,” which existed “alongside of” and was “rather clearly differentiated from the churches.” Also known as civic piety, religious nationalism, public religion, and the common faith, civil religion provides a religious sanction for the political order and a divine justification of and support for civic society and a nation’s practices. It is the “state’s use of consensus religious sentiments, concepts, and symbols for its own purposes.” “As a system of established rituals, symbols, values, norms, and allegiances,” civil religion functions as a social glue to bind people together and “give them an overarching sense of spiritual unity.”  — Gary Scott Smith, Civil Religion in America.

We of a certain age can remember television in the 1950s — our Age of Innocence — especially the Mickey Mouse Club that produced a weekly cycle of shows in various formats. “The Adventures of Spin and Marty” was one of them, the exploits of a teenage odd couple set in a dude ranch. I don’t recall the particular premise of one episode but a vignette involved some European teenager. He or she expressed metaphorical willingness to die for a home city; whether it was Venice or Prague or Paris matters not. Putting it into an American context (admittedly in the ’50s), either Spin or Marty then wondered aloud that he’d sacrifice his life for the U.S.A., “…but Gary, Indiana?!”

Our sense of sacredness in public space has varying intensity and frames of reference. I’m not about to die for Fargo, North Dakota, for example. But my sense of “civil religion” acknowledges the sacredness a few places: Dealey Plaza and the infamous “Grassy Knoll” in Dallas; “Ground Zero” in New York City; Washington, DC is peppered with several (the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials). I went to Mount Vernon once and it meant practically nothing to my sense of American-ness. But these are the opinions of a seventy-year-old. Would any of my list be shared with twenty-somethings? Or for that matter, is the battlefield at Gettysburg on the list of any who are alive today? This notion of civil religion, a shared spiritual perspective, would be difficult to identify or, perhaps, even justify in the 21st century America of Donald Trump.

I’ve almost finished reading Joan Breton Connelly’s 2014 study The Parthenon Enigma: a New Understanding of the West’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It,  and am coming away with a radically altered sense of how we sacralize public space.


Connelly’s understanding of the Parthenon goes well beyond the status of a monument to the Age of Perikles. She makes a convincing case that the Parthenon and adjacent Erechtheion and their full complement of sculpture and other ornament constitute a mytho-memorialization of Athens’ origin as a city-state in the larger Hellenic culture and a pædogogic tool for the inculcation of civic virtue in Athenians of all ages and every caste. I can think of no building or landscape in America today that fulfills the same noble role. If the idea of civil religion would have been understood by 5th century BCE Athenians, it pales by comparison.

In the encounter portrayed by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the artist Phidias conducts a preview tour of the sculptural frieze that surrounded the inner sanctuaries to an audience who would have immediately apprehended it as a lesson in patriotism and civic responsibility linking them directly to the city’s foundation myth and a reminder of their oath of citizenship. Had I made a grade or high school field trip to Washington, DC, I would have taken from it nothing resembling the Periklean experience, nor would our understanding of democracy have been conceivable to them.

Spin and Marty are another matter altogether.

“Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1868)

A replica of the frieze (the original was carted off to London two hundred years ago) on the architrave behind the doric columns. The paint has long since worn away.

A replica of the frieze (the original was carted off to London two hundred years ago) on the architrave glimpsed between the doric columns. The paint has long since worn away.

Might some faint parallel have existed in Agincourt at some point in its one-hundred-and sixty-four year civic life? On the city’s golden anniversary in 1907, no city Founder was alive. And their memory had not yet faded into the mist of myth. But I’d like to think that the Founders’ Fountain installed in the center of Broad Street — at the zero-zero point of the original urban grid — might have had similar motivation.


1 Comment

  1. […] A chance encounter with Joseph Campbell — whose books I haven’t read since college — reminded me that a small town in northwestern Iowa deserves its own myths. […]

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