Peter Gardella on July 4th and the values of American civil religion
Approaching July 4th at this moment of widespread disillusionment with American politics, I made my first visit to the 9/11 Museum. The intense power of the museum — which opened at the end of May on the site of the World Trade Center in New York — stands in contrast to the triviality of the holiday. Both illustrate a climate change in American culture in which places have generally gained power while holidays have lost.
As the anger surrounding its opening showed, many Americans regard the 9/11 Museum as a sacred place, which is to say a place where people have made sacrifice, a site where behavior should be bound by religious rules. Controversies ensued about the appropriateness of charging an admission fee, about the treatment of unidentified human remains kept in the museum, about the gala opening reception, about the existence of a gift shop, and about some of the items for sale. Under all these issues lay a general argument: a sacred place should not be made a tourist attraction.
Both the museum and the July 4th holiday belong to the system of faith and practice known as American civil religion. Together with the 9/11 Memorial, a pair of huge square waterfalls surrounded by the names of the dead, the museum has become the newest sacred place on a list that extends from Jamestown and Plymouth Rock to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, to many sites in the District of Columbia, and to the Alamo, Gettysburg, the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and Pearl Harbor. Holidays interrupt and mark time as sacred places interrupt space, and July 4th interrupts business as one of a few — including Labor Day, Veterans’ Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, and Flag Day — that belongs purely to American civil religion.
Besides places and holidays, American civil religion also has two sacred scriptures: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, both of which a constant stream of pilgrims visit in the church-like setting of the National Archives. There are other sacred documents, including a few speeches such as Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the lyrics for four or five songs that are sung as hymns. There are clergy, such as the National Park Service interpreters at historic sites and the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The president often acts as chief among the clergy, placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or ending each formal speech with the now required formula, “God bless the United States of America.”
The July 4th holiday belongs to the system of faith and practice known as American civil religion.
Though frequently mentioned, God is not essential to American civil religion. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial there is no mention of God, yet visitors regard that place as sacred. The Constitution never mentions God, but it demands that office holders swear to hold it sacred. The Declaration of Independence, which is celebrated on July 4th, makes powerful references to God, but the 9/11 Museum does not.
Four values are held sacred — worth sacrificing one’s own life or killing another’s to protect — in American civil religion: freedom, democracy, peace, and tolerance. The first and most essentially sacred element is personal freedom, also called liberty. Freedom is the subject of the July 4th celebrations. This holiday commemorates the day in 1776 when the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, which affirmed that God has endowed all men with liberty. The formal name of the holiday — Independence Day — signifies both individual freedom and collective independence from the British Empire.
Lately, Americans have fought over whether personal freedom must extend to the right to own guns, or to use drugs, or to marry anyone we wish, or to go without health insurance. All of these disagreements show that American civil religion rejects totalitarianism. Americans may not agree on the boundaries of freedom, but they overwhelmingly believe that personal freedom is essential, a value worth fighting and dying for. When Americans find the US government violating personal freedom — as in the National Security Agency’s surveillance of the whole population or the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of political groups — they are shocked and distressed. Last week, the Supreme Court voted 9 to 0 that personal freedom must cover the contents of cell phones, which can no longer be searched without a warrant.
Next on the list of values enshrined on July 4, 1776 is political democracy, the right of the people as a whole to choose their leaders and to change their government. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that people establish governments to protect their freedom. Long before the Declaration, colonists considered neither aristocracy nor caste, neither monarchy nor military dictatorship legitimate within American civil religion. In the last century, Americans have successfully fought to establish democracies in Germany and Japan, and then in all of Europe, and unsuccessfully fought for democracy in many other places. Latin America has become democratic in part because of our efforts and in part in spite of them. Our government and many private foundations continue to give aid and instruction to other nations with the aim of fostering democracy.
The values of world peace and cultural tolerance can seem less obvious, yet Americans valued both since the first English and Dutch colonies in what is now the United States. The Declaration of Independence complained that King George of England made war on the colonies, hiring mercenary soldiers and fomenting wars among the colonists and with Native Americans. To avoid war, they considered tolerance essential. At Jamestown, Plymouth, Providence, New Amsterdam, and Philadelphia, Europeans worked with Native Americans and Africans in the earliest years of settlement. The founders of these colonies hoped they would escape the chronic wars of Europe, and that their new societies would play a role in establishing world peace, whether by example or by hastening the arrival of a universal kingdom of God.
Although intolerance also appeared in the colonies and often grew — with dissenters hanged, natives killed, and Africans enslaved — the model of tolerance was there from the beginning and finally won out. And although many wars have certainly marked the history of European colonies and of the United States, the wars have at least nominally been waged to establish peace. The largest of these, World War Two, brought about a United Nations with the purpose of preventing war between major powers, and the United Nations has succeeded in its task since 1945.
Now, living in a nation and an age that more than any other in world history practices the values of freedom, democracy, peace, and tolerance, Americans have been building monuments to celebrate these values at an amazing rate. Since the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, the National Mall in Washington, DC has seen the creations of a United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum, a National Museum of the American Indian, a Franklin Roosevelt Memorial, a Korean War Veterans Memorial, a World War Two Memorial, a Martin Luther King Memorial, and a National Museum of African American History and Culture (still under construction). In New York, we have built an Ellis Island National Park, another branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, an African Burial Ground National Monument, a Museum of Jewish History and Culture, a Four Freedoms Park (on Roosevelt Island, close to the United Nations), and most recently the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
At other sites of American civil religion, such as Jamestown, the Alamo, Gettysburg, Little Bighorn (formerly the Custer Memorial), and Pearl Harbor, memorials have been radically expanded to include Native American, African, Mexican, and Japanese perspectives. Although every new memorial brings controversy, as does every change in National Park Service presentations and exhibits at the sites, it cannot be denied that the number of new memorials and the changes in presentations at the memorials give evidence that American civil religion is a living force. In my opinion, the quality of these new memorials and presentations speaks very well for the positive values of American civil religion.
One quality all of these new and transformed memorials share is an increase in the intensity of personal experience they seek to induce in the visitor. Traditional monuments — such as the obelisk of the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, or Mount Rushmore — gain their power through scale and emotional distance. Evoking greatness by inducing awe, they lead viewers to revere the people and ideals for which they stand.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial changed that dynamic by bringing the names of the dead down to the level of the living visitors, and by writing the names on black granite so polished that the visitors see themselves reflected in it. No distance separates the living from the dead. Visitors respond by leaving items for the departed, as they do on the polished brass of the 9/11 Memorial.
Similar intimacy marks the other new memorials. The Holocaust Memorial and Museum has piles of shoes from victims. Ellis Island sends visitors past heaps of old luggage, to climb the same stairway where doctors quickly judged immigrants’ health.
At the new 9/11 Museum, visitors hear the last messages victims left, calling their loved ones on cell phones and answering machines. Police and fire department radios play their announcements, messages, and requests for help. A bicycle rack stands with bent bikes waiting for riders who never returned. Eyeglasses and shoes, racks of jeans and sweatshirts to be sold on that day, mangled fire trucks and ambulances, all mingle in rooms where televisions constantly play the news of one airplane hitting the North tower, another hitting the South tower, then the news of the plane that hit the Pentagon, the one that crashed in Pennsylvania, and the search of rubble with no rescue. Though I have visited Auschwitz and Maidanek without crying, in this setting the message from a flight attendant on Flight 93 moved me to tears.
An exhibit called “Reflections on 9/11” held me for an hour. Groups of people, slightly larger than life, are projected sitting and facing the seated audience as they answer questions — “How has 9/11 made you think differently about America?” — or discuss the causes and consequences of the 9/11 attacks in world history. Most of the speakers are well known: they include Donald Rumsfeld, Rudolph Giuliani, and Hillary Clinton. Many are directly involved in responding to 9/11, such as the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, whose office is still working on identifying remains, or Frank Pellegrino, an FBI agent who regrets not capturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before the 9/11 attacks occurred. Some are professors or politicians not directly involved, and others are ordinary people who recorded their thoughts. Members of the audience are invited to record responses of their own in a recording booth. All of the responses being played now were recorded in 2012 or 2013, but continuing recordings may keep this exhibit fresh.
An overwhelming majority of those reflecting on 9/11 had something positive to say. Despite sobriety about the dangers of the world and the need for vigilance, most people affirmed the need to uphold freedom, democracy, peace, and tolerance. They almost universally rejected the temptations to demonize Muslims, to give up freedom for security, or to declare another World War.
In my judgment, no sacredness seems lost by having a shop and a café in this museum. The Holocaust Memorial Museum has both, and the Lincoln Memorial has a shop. Many large churches, like St. Patrick’s Cathedral, have shops. They allow visitors to decompress, and pilgrims have always sought to bring some souvenir of their pilgrimage back home.
As new memorials make the experience of visitors more intensely personal, our collective experience of the sacred may be weakening. Holidays once featured community events. The Memorial Day parades of my childhood recruited every child in the grammar schools, public and private, to march down Main Street along with the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion and the National Guard, and the local police and fire departments. Those parades ended with a small concert by the high school band, playing at least the National Anthem, and a speech or two on the meaning of the day. Later in the afternoon, many families went together to cemeteries to leave flowers and flags on graves, so that the holiday was often called Decoration Day.
In some ways, American decline is making the four values of American civil religion — freedom, democracy, peace, and tolerance — even clearer.
For decades in the early years of the United States, July 4th brought public readings of the Declaration of Independence. Fireworks, cannons, and guns, fired for noise and show, also featured in these celebrations. A few decades ago people wore cloth poppies on Veterans’ Day to recall the fields of World War One, and they participated in small parades.
Today, Thanksgiving still brings families together. Houses of worship sometimes celebrate the day with inter-religious services. White believers join the members of African-American churches on Martin Luther King Day. But the trend runs toward treating all holidays as vacations from work, long weekends of escape, not occasions for community rituals.
For some, this connects with a narrative of dissolution and decline that contains an element of truth. Since the end of the military draft in 1973, we honor our veterans without feeling as much solidarity with them as we once did. Race, religion, regional and gender differences continue to divide Americans as they always have, but we are more willing to admit that these divisions are not trivial. Inequality of wealth and income has increased dramatically over the last fifty years, and we are beginning to notice the reality of social class in a way we have not since the 1930s.
Americans also fear that the world is passing us by. Millions, especially young people, think that China is already the world’s dominant power, even though the Chinese economy could be smaller than ours for another decade and the Chinese military has less than ten percent the firepower of our own, with no prospect of surpassing us in the foreseeable future. Long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left us feeling less certain that we can shape the world according to our values, or that we should try.
Yet there has never been more clarity than on July 4, 2014 about the values of American civil religion: freedom, democracy, peace, and tolerance. In some ways, American decline may be making those values clearer. As Hegel said, history can only be understood at the end of an era. The owl of Minerva, the goddess of Wisdom, flies at dusk. But dusk can last a long time. In ancient Rome, the dusk went on for centuries, during which a new world grew.