The Religion of America, I: Tenets and History

There are many reasons attributed to American decline over the past decades. One may look at moral, economic, political, and cultural factors — and many have. To be sure, all of these play their part. But in, with, and under them all is the grinding into dust of the vague but powerful bonds of unity that once held the majority of Americans together in some sort of stasis. In his farewell address to the nation on January 11, 1989, President Reagan made some telling remarks: “Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American, and we absorbed almost in the air a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed, you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-Sixties.” Indeed, it was. But the Great Communicator went on to warn, that despite his apparent successes in rekindling some of that, “…some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style.” Three decades later, that comment seems like an almost cruel understatement. Ronnie’s antidote was relatively simple: “…more attention to American history and a greater emphasis of civic ritual.” The history he had in mind, of course, was not a critical one, but a sort of Salvation history of a particular religion, which for over two centuries had been the unacknowledged State Church of the American Republic. The “civic ritual” was just that — the liturgy of that Church, of that Religion. Reagan was certainly an eloquent exponent of it. Gary Potter has described it more tersely as “our national liberalism.”1

Despite Reagan’s wishes, however, that Religion has continued its decline; as it has done so, the ability it had to unite the widely disparate peoples of these United States has withered. Something must replace it, if this country is to last — and as did Orestes Brownson, this writer prays that it shall be the One True Faith. But before we can speak of replacing it — or even, as did poor President Reagan, of preserving it — we must understand it.

A good place to start in exploring any religion is its Creed — presuming that it has one. In the current case, we are fortunate. Although there had been talk of an “American Creed” as far back as Thomas Jefferson’s time, one was actually enacted by Congress on April 3, 1918. It had been written the previous year by one William Tyler Page (1868-1932), who — as page and clerk — worked for Congress for 61 years. Here it is:

I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed, a democracy in a republic, a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.

I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.

What is intriguing about this document is its tacit spiritualisation of the government, which is seen as an incarnation of “freedom, equality, justice, and humanity.” These lovely words are never defined; but it is basic to Americanism that the first named is the most important — the latter three being both assists to and byproducts of Freedom. In 1921, Page authored a book of the same name in which he analysed the points of his American’s Creed. In the introduction, he declared: “The American’s Creed sums up the things which America stands for and which have made America great. It sets forth the duties of American citizens as well as their rights and privileges.”

“Yet, this summary of American political faith is not to be used or thought of in a narrow or selfish spirit; for there has been nothing narrow or selfish about the great principles of representative democracy, which had their first and fullest growth in America.” It is indeed a summary of uniquely American political faith — and a declaration of American Exceptionalism, which is expanded upon at the opening of the first chapter:

We believe in the United States of America because history shows us that our form of government has provided the greatest measure of liberty, together with the greatest amount of happiness, for the greatest number of people.

The United States has proved that a government of the people may not only be free but also good and strong.

For three hundred years and more, America has been a haven of refuge for all who have sought its shores.

All of these phrases resonate with Reagan’s farewell address — not because he necessarily read Page’s work, but because these are indeed the sentiments of the American Faith. Among its other doctrines are that the government is actually respondent to the “Will of the People,” as expressed through the ballot box. Voting in itself becomes in a sense a sacred act as well as a civic one — the equivalent of receiving Holy Communion. This being the case, the political class so selected become the voice of “the People” — as is the Judiciary; hence the title of innumerable law cases: “The People of the United States versus…” As Reagan put it so eloquently in his speech: “Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: ‘We the People.’ ‘We the People’ tell the Government what to do, it doesn’t tell us. ‘We the people’ are the driver — the Government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which ‘We the People’ tell the Government what it is allowed to do. ‘We the people’ are free.”

The people were themselves all equal — so much so that it was an article of Faith that “Any boy can grow up to be President.” So long as one worked hard and got a good education, he could go as far as his dreams could take him. So ingrained was this belief in the American consciousness, that the word “classless” — which in Britain and the rest of the Anglosphere means — “free from social inequality,” in the United States means “vulgar.” At any rate, free markets and free labour meant that anyone could aspire to material prosperity — the “Pursuit of Happiness,” as the Declaration of Independence calls it.

For this system to work, however, it required some concomitant system of morality. Obviously, morality was bound up with explicit religion. But rather being connected to any single one, it was a generic religiosity. President-Elect Dwight D. Eisenhower, on December 22, 1952, a month before his inauguration, famously declared: “And this is how they [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator…’ not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but ‘all men are endowed by their Creator’. In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.”

In this statement, the future Chief Executive was simply echoing the Supreme Court, which ruled in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States in 1892 that “…no purpose of action against religion can be imputed to any legislation, state or national, because this is a religious people.” After surveying various colonial charters, state constitutions, and other documents, the judges quoted approvingly a Pennsylvania decision: “Christianity, general Christianity, is, and always has been, a part of the common law of Pennsylvania; . . . not Christianity with an established church and tithes and spiritual courts, but Christianity with liberty of conscience to all men.” Turning to everyday life, the Court found that this sort of non-specific Christianity is the actual national religion:

If we pass beyond these matters to a view of American life, as expressed by its laws, its business, its customs, and its society, we find every where a clear recognition of the same truth. Among other matters, note the following: the form of oath universally prevailing, concluding with an appeal to the Almighty; the custom of opening sessions of all deliberative bodies and most conventions with prayer; the prefatory words of all wills, ‘In the name of God, amen;’ the laws respecting the observance of the Sabbath, with the general cessation of all secular business, and the closing of courts, legislatures, and other similar public assemblies on that day; the churches and church organizations which abound in every city, town, and hamlet; the multitude of charitable organizations existing every where under Christian auspices; the gigantic missionary associations, with general support, and aiming to establish Christian missions in every quarter of the globe. These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.

This sort of generic American Christianity provided a certain basic morality — to which Jews too adhered. Not only — as the Supreme Court pointed out — did all of the preambles of all of the State Constitutions invoke Almighty God, but in most States, Public Schools opened their days with a reading from the King James Bible, the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer, and/or some other prayer. As Alan Laats puts it: “In 1949 Bible reading was a part of routine in the public schools of at least thirty-seven states. In twelve of these states, Bible reading was legally required by state laws; 11 states passed these laws after 1913. In 1960, 42 per cent of school districts nationwide tolerated or required Bible reading, and 50 per cent reported some form of homeroom daily devotional exercise.” (“Our schools, our country: American evangelicals, public schools, and the Supreme Court decisions of 1962 and 1963.” Journal of religious history 36.3 (2012): 319-334 at p 321-22). As late as 1955, the Board of Regents of the State of New York could compose a prayer for the use of the schools under their aegis: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.”

Connected to this morning exercise was the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Originally composed in 1892 — and seeing several forms until the addition of the words “Under God” in 1954, a development to which both the Knights of Columbus and President Eisenhower contributed a great deal. This pledge is still required in most States to-day, despite a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing individual students to opt out. Especially by coming on the heels of the afore-mentioned prayers, and most often said in the presence of a national flag, the “sacred” nature of that banner — a key tenet of the National Faith — was reinforced. While all nations have or try to cultivate a reverence for their flag, none can equal that of the Americans to “Old Glory.” The national anthem is an ode to it, there is a body of ritual applied to its use, and its veneration has appeared like idolatry to some. Approaching a close second, however, to the honours our American Religion pays to the flag is that offered to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. This is not merely rendered to the ideals recorded therein, but to the original documents themselves, copies of which are piously enshrined in various places — as are such lesser relics as the Liberty Bell. All of these are taken together to symbolise the core doctrine of the national faith — Freedom in the abstract.

As mentioned earlier, to bolster this arrangement American History was cast as a sort of Mystery Play of Liberty. Again, Reagan summed up this attitude well in his farewell address: “We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important: Why the pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant.” He went on to say: “…I’ve thought a bit of the shining ‘city upon a hill.’ The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important, because he was an early Pilgrim — an early ‘Freedom Man.’ He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat, and, like the other pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.” To say that this assertion was a little off, objectively speaking, would be a huge understatement. Nevertheless, it was the reading of history offered in the National Faith. The Pilgrims and Puritans were the children of Israel seeking refuge from Pharaoh; that much they too would have held. But they original proponents of the American Religion repurposed the memory of their quest; instead of a New World version of Calvin’s Geneva, henceforth they were seeking a place for Freedom. They became the Old Testament of our National Gospel, and the Mayflower Compact our Old Covenant.

Then began the Settling of the Frontier, the next chapter in our National Mythos. Having arrived seeking Freedom, the American pushed ever further inland, becoming Minutemen along the way, and in time throwing off the yoke of the British Monarchy, of which more presently. Freed from Crown restrictions, the American Pioneer pushed ever Westward in his thirst for Liberty. Along the way, he defeated the Indians and Mexicans, established the Old West, rushed through several Gold and Silver rushes, and in general “a thoroughfare for Freedom beat, across the Wilderness!” This continued until 1890, when it was announced that the demarcation line no longer existed.

But while all of that was going on, two other mythic episodes occurred. The first was the American Revolution. Actually, our first civil war (and arguably one in a series of transformative struggles that reshaped the Anglosphere), we are not concerned here with what it really was, but in its place in our American religion. From it came numerous episodes that were treasured up in the American memory: the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s Ride, Lexington and Concord, the Declaration of Independence, Betsy Ross and the Flag, Trenton, Valley Forge, and at last Yorktown. If the Pilgrims were our Old Testament Prophets, then the heroes of the Revolution, the Founding Fathers — Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and above all, Washington — were the Apostles of the New Covenant. This last, of course, was the Constitution.

Almost as soon as the War was over the process of mythologising the founding began. This began with Noah Webster, who coincidentally changed the spelling of our version of English — or, as he termed it, the “American Language.” He played a leading role in the initial shaping of public education in this country, and so declared: “Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country; he should lisp the praise of liberty, and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen, who have wrought a revolution in her favor.” He and a host of early writers, to include Irving, Longfellow, and the inimitable Parson Weems (author of the Washington and the Cherry Tree fable), rose to that challenge. It is also interesting to note that Webster called for the close wedding of that generic Christianity of which we have spoken with the State: “The religion which has introduced civil liberty is the religion of Christ and His apostles, which enjoins humility, piety, and benevolence; which acknowledges in every person, a brother or a sister, and a citizen with equal rights. This is genuine Christianity, and to this we owe our free constitutions of government.” Elsewhere, he declared that “Every civil government is based upon some religion or philosophy of life. Education in a nation will propagate the religion of that nation. In America, the foundational religion was Christianity. And it was sown in the hearts of Americans through the home and private and public schools for centuries. Our liberty, growth, and prosperity was the result of a Biblical philosophy of life. Our continued freedom and success is dependent on our educating the youth of America in the principles of Christianity.” At the same time however, he was extremely hostile to any “denomination” making claims upon the State; in other words, “Christianity,” in a vague sense, was useful for maintaining public order — but no specific version of it could demand allegiance from the government — and he violently opposed any religious tests for public office.

Thus was established the American religion. Time rolled on, and various historic events were added to its pantheon — the Star-Spangled Banner at Fort McHenry and the Battle of New Orleans came to us from the War of 1812, while the Alamo and the Bear Flag Revolt were added during our conflicts with Mexico. Massive waves of immigration began during this time; the flight of the new arrivals from poverty or persecution was transformed into a generic search for Freedom, which itself became a chapter in the National Scriptures — and continues to be so used. Then came the biggest threat to national unity this country has ever faced: the (Second) Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of the Rebellion, the War of Northern Aggression — call it what you will. From it emerged two different legendary narratives. The first had Honest Abe Lincoln and U.S. Grant defending the Glorious Union and Emancipating the Slaves; the second saw Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Cavaliers of Dixie defending the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” The first named had to forget Reconstruction and the second to gloss over Jim Crow; neither really wanted to notice the intimate connexion between the two. Nevertheless, in addition to the afore-named heroes, both sides had their places of glory: Fort Sumter, Antietam, and Gettysburg, on one side; First Manassas, and the sieges of Corinth, Vicksburg, and Petersburg on the other. By the time a half-century had passed, ill-feeling had passed to the degree that battlefield reunions were possible with the actual participants from both sides.

This turned out to be a rather useful thing, because the post-Civil War period featured America’s expansion overseas. This presented a bit of a problem. How could a holy land, consecrated to Liberty and Freedom for all, possibly sully itself with Empire-building? However much Hawaiians, Eastern Samoans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Guamanians, and Cubans might disagree, the answer was simple: we were spreading our own Freedom to the rest of the World — and every time we did so, the event yielded mythic moments of indisputable American heroism. The Spanish American War gave us Dewey in Manila Bay, the Message to Garcia, and Teddy Roosevelt’s Charge up San Juan Hill, while World War I — the War “to make the World safe for Democracy,” gave us Belleau Wood and the Argonne. So too with our innumerable smaller interventions abroad, from the Boxer Rebellion, to Morocco, to Siberia, to the endless Latin American occupations. Then came World War II — with Anzio, Normandy, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and all the rest — in which we accepted the role of Saviour of the world from the Axis menace. That victory paved the way for the Cold War, in which we became the Guardian of the Free World against Godless Communism. A host of smaller conflicts called our attention in those days, with the Korean War and its stirring tales of the Pusan Perimeter, Inchon, and the Chosin Reservoir being the largest.

So things stood on the day John F. Kennedy was elected — November 8, 1960 (coincidentally, the day of this writer’s birth). The American cultus we have examined was lauded by great composers of the likes of George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin and depicted by artists ranging from Currier and Ives to Norman Rockwell. Great preachers — regardless of their doctrinal disagreements — of the like of Fulton Sheen, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Norman Vincent Peale, and Billy Graham called down the blessings of the Almighty upon the land. That ours was a basically good and God-fearing nation was a message repeated endlessly, not only in family, church, and school, but in every conceivable civic, youth, fraternal, hereditary, and veterans’ organisation — and of course, the military, in which every able-bodied, non-deferred young man served. Virtually all of these institutions had — in addition to their underlying message — some sort of “Americanism Program.” It radiated from the pages of books and magazines put out by such companies as American Heritage and National Geographic, and popular journals such as Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, and The Saturday Evening Post. In my lifetime, all of that has crumbled with the America President Reagan and I were born in. The national religion’s tenets once universally held by almost all Americans — Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, Democratic or Republican — have become the belief of a divided faction, in much the way Catholics became foreigners in their own land, in those nations where the Reformation triumphed. In a future instalment we shall look at a) how that came about; and b) what it means for Catholic Americans. But in the next one, we shall look more closely at the practises of what was once our National Faith.

  1. Mr. Potter has made this reference in various of his many talks, but also in pieces published on this website, e.g., Russia’s Putin: Why Liberals Hate Him, Antonin Scalia Viewed as a Liberal, The New Catholic ‘Far Right’ in France, Part III, and The Anti-Trump “Resistance.” Readers unacquainted with the Church’s own concept of Liberalism — as it was condemned by a various popes — should read, Liberalism: An Evil Defined.