The Religion of America II: Practitioners and Practise

Having looked at the tenets and history of our national cultus, we must now examine those who conducted it, its shrines, and its liturgies. We have in these pages examined the role of the President of the United States as High Priest, and the quasi-religious nature of the ceremonial surrounding Inaugurations, Presidential Funerals, and the like. Similar ceremonies surrounded and surround Congress, where the proceedings are opened each day with prayers conducted by the respective chaplains of the Senate and the House of Representatives. There are sacred spaces within the Capitol Building, including the rotunda (adorned by The Apotheosis of George Washington), where Lyings-in-State are conducted, and the Congressional Prayer Room. Indeed, in its early days the building often provided interdenominational church services for its members — and offered space to local congregations of various sorts just starting out. Both Houses of Congress jointly host the annual National Prayer Breakfast and conduct separate weekly ones for their own members. It was Congress that in 1956 replaced E Pluribus Unum with “In God We Trust” as the country’s national motto, that added “Under God,” to the pledge, and that since its inception has decreed various days to be observes with prayer and thanksgiving — “…requiring the President to issue a proclamation calling upon officials to display the Flag on all government buildings on each Armistice Day, and inviting the people of the United States to observe the Day in schools, churches and other suitable places with appropriate ceremonies expressive…” of whatever it is to be commemorated.

As noticed last time, the Supreme Court ruled in 1892 that the United States are a “Christian Country.” Despite the work of SCOTUS since then in secularising the country, tell-tale signs of the Old Religion remain even in this temple of injustice. Among other friezes in the courtroom, there remains one of Moses with the Ten Commandments (ironic given the Court’s attack on them in lesser jurisdictions), and he and they are also to be found elsewhere in the building. Each judicial session opens with the Marshal of the Court solemnly intoning, “God Save the United States and this honourable court!”

This sort of ceremonial was and is repeated at all the lower levels of government — State and Local. But the Military was and is another major factor in the American Faith — not least because soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen all fight better with some sort of spiritual backing — and because, as we saw last time, America’s Wars have played an extremely important part in her national faith. So it is that the army, navy, air force, and coast guard all have their own chaplain corps — and they play a key role at West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs. Oddly enough, the Associations of officers of Combat Arms — Armor/Cavalry, Infantry, Artillery, and the rest — invoke the memories of their given patron saints in their highest awards. There is a Catholic Military Archdiocese, a mere diocese for the Episcopalians, and various denominational offices for the Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and the rest.

Given this kind of religion-under-fire, it was not too surprising that Veterans’ organisations became bastions of the national piety. The American Legion became renowned for its non-denominational Duty to God and Country programmes and its national chaplaincy, as did the VFW and sundry others. Specifically religious Veterans’ organisations, such as the Catholic and Jewish, were even more so. The descendants of those who fought in the nation’s wars followed suit — the Daughters of the American Revolution among the most prominent and featuring not only a chaplain general but a “missal” and devotions of their own. So too did various historic militia units.

Fraternal organisations also contributed to this secular religiosity. Not too surprisingly, given their role in the formation of the United States, the Freemasons excelled at this sort of thing — glorying in their relationship to the Founding Fathers. But so too did the Elks, the Moose, Kiwanis, Rotary, and our very own Knights of Columbus — of whose Fourth, “Patriotic,” degree, this writer is a proud member. Following their lead were ethnic organisations, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Sons of Italy — even the Pro-Nazi German American Bund had literally to wrap their Swastikas in the Flag and show pictures of Washington. The Boy Scouts too upheld an intertwined duty to God and Country, whose limits were not defined but required respect for the beliefs of others as much for one’s own. It was the same for the Girl Scouts (God and Country again), the YMCA, and other youth organisations.

While to-day they are considered rather differently, at the height of the American religion’s sway, the Public Schools were considered one of its three pillars, alongside the church (of whatever denomination) and the family. As recounted last time, the Pledge of Allegiance was recited alongside school prayer, textbooks inspired a vaguely religious patriotism, and saintly pictures of Washington and Lincoln were featured in schoolrooms. In an age of mass immigration, public schools in urban centres were seen as key elements of “Americanisation,” and imparting the national faith to the children of immigrants was seen as a key duty in education.

The Churches too, as noticed earlier, also provided support for the national religion — and in some cases, key elements of its makeup. The Episcopal Church gloried in its own connexion to many of the Founding Fathers (while tacitly forgetting its Loyalist members), enjoyed the role as national shrines held by many of its historic buildings, and lent the sonorous language of its Book of Common Prayer to many civic prayers. The Methodists also played up the role their members had played in American history — and their revivalism and Chautauqua movement were instrumental in innumerable reform efforts, from Prohibition to the Civil Rights Movement. The Congregationalists treasured their Puritan and Pilgrim roots, as did their Unitarian former co-religionists — who however, also contributed to the formation of the American ideology of non-specific spiritual freedom. Americanist Catholics, in the meantime dutifully supported the regime, while doing their best to transform “foreign” Catholics into “good” Americans. As Richard Brookhiser recounted in his Way of the Wasp, “Of course the Catholic Church was still the One True Church. But so were all the others.”

All of these players contributed to the proliferation of national shrines. In addition to the White House, Capitol, and Supreme Court Building, there were nondenominational temples such as New Hampshire’s Cathedral of the Pines (near Saint Benedict Center), Philadelphia’s Chapel of the Four Chaplains, and the DAR’s Constitution Hall in Washington, DC — or the Masonic Museums in Lexington, Massachusetts and Alexandria, Virginia (the last associated with George Washington). Of course, every presidential site was also sacred. As noted, the Episcopal Church had more than their fair share of national shrines: the National Cathedral and St. John’s Church in Washington, Old North Church in Boston, Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City, the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, Christ Church in Philadelphia, Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church, and on and on. But the Unitarians boasted King’s Chapel, Boston, the Church of the Presidents in Quincy, Massachusetts, and several others, while the Zion German Reformed Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania is called the Liberty Bell Church. Plymouth Rock and Pilgrim Hall, Jamestown Memorial Church, Boston’s Freedom Trail, New York’s Federal Hall, Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, and sundry Revolutionary and Civil War Battlefields all became centres of devotion. So too with the war memorials in cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Kansas City. The Far West may have lacked a direct link to this side of American History, but in far-off Southern California locals created temples to the national cult out of whole cloth: thus were born the Lincoln Shrine in Redlands, and Dr. Hubert Eaton’s string of Forest Lawn Cemeteries. In the South, Richmond’s Battle Abbey and Confederate White House, Petersburg’s Blandford Church, Mississippi’s Beauvoir, the Confederate Memorial Halls in Washington and New Orleans, Lee’s Tomb and Chapel, and sundry other places enshrined the memory of the Lost Cause — itself a somewhat dissident sect from the national cult, but united to the mainstream by pre- and post-Civil War allegiances. Arlington National Cemetery, the jewel in the crown of national cemeteries, was likewise the centre of the veneration of the fallen. Such government agencies as the National Park Service, the Veteran’s Administration, and the Smithsonian Institution acted and act as guardians of such shrines on a national level, as did and do innumerable State Parks and hereditary and historical societies on the state and local scene.

Apart from daily ceremonial in government, military, and public school — and the presence of the above-named and many other shrines — the American Religion became most obvious in its feast days. Often enough, these were precisely the Congressionally decreed, presidentially proclaimed, “appropriate ceremonies expressive” of the given day noted earlier. Some of these were and are of Christian origin, others commemorate various historical figures and events, while still other are dedicated to abstract concepts or qualities. As with any calendar system, some feasts are greater, some lesser, and others purely state or local. We shall run through the year — and when applicable, we shall link to the Our American Holidays books edited by Robert Haven Schauffler. Each of these offer a wonderful snapshot of the given feast day as celebrated when the American religion was in its prime — and their guidelines for “exercises” in schools point out the significance that each feast had for American educators of the time. One could start with the actual civil calendar in January. But given the importance of the Public School in inculcating the national faith into the hearts of successive generations, perhaps it is best to start as school does, in September.

The first Monday in September, since it became a Federal holiday in 1894, is Labour Day. Established only twelve years after the first organised labour parade in New York City, it is perhaps ironic that it was placed into the national calendar before some of the bloodiest strike suppressions in American history. Still, the Labour Movement commemorates its history on this day. Given the left-wing connotations of labour unions in their historical origins and to-day, it is easy to forget that for a long period American organised labour considered itself an integral part of America as a whole. Walter Reuther, for example, made a point of anti-Communism, and trumpeted Labour’s “Americanism.” There was always a religious element in American trade unionism — both from the Protestant “Social Gospel” and the Church’s own social teaching. This odd mix is still commemorated in many places by the “Labour Day Masses” that in many places precede Union-led parades featuring huge American flags on that day — the one in New York is held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. One of the products of this uniquely American phenomenon was the clashes between “Hard Hats” and anti-war protesters that were a part of this writer’s childhood. In any case, for many decades the patriotic and religious side of American Labour set it aside from that of many countries.

If not observing Labour Day Parades, most Americans observed the holiday by at the very least barbequing or picnicking. But September 17 is much less widely known. To-day called “Constitution Day,” it is the anniversary of the signing of that key piece of American secular scripture. Since its very first inception in Iowa in 1911, it has gone through various permutations. Celebrations have primarily been restricted to schools offering intensive education in the foundational legal document. In 1954 by act of Congress it absorbed the short-lived celebration of “I am an American Day” — originally held in May, and briefly redubbed “Citizenship Day” before its transfer to and amalgamation with Constitution Day.

October 12, the anniversary of the discovery of the New World, is Columbus Day. From the mid-19th century on, more and more communities and then States began to observe it; Columbus Day was particularly popular among Italians. As Wikipedia informs us, “During the [400th] anniversary in 1892, teachers, preachers, poets and politicians used rituals to teach ideals of patriotism. These rituals took themes such as citizenship boundaries, the importance of loyalty to the nation, and the celebration of social progress.” These observances spread to other communities, especially at the urging if the fledgling Knights of Columbus. At last, in 1934, Congress made it a Federal holiday, passing a resolution urging the President “…to issue each year a proclamation (1) designating October 12 as Columbus Day; (2) calling on United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Columbus Day; and (3) inviting the people of the United States to observe Columbus Day, in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies that express the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of the discovery of America.” Until recent decades, school pageants celebrated Columbus’ heroic discovery of America, and Italian-Americans used the opportunity literally to parade their loyalty to the United States. Other nationalities followed suit with days commemorating worthies of their blood in these United States: so the previous day, the Poles celebrated Pulaski Day; Mid-September saw the German-Americans venerating von Steuben; and on October 9, the Norwegians showed how American they were by honouring Leif Erikson. Gratifying to all of the groups as the chance to celebrate “one of their own” was, as with Columbus, the natives saw these observances purely as a way of making the immigrants “good Americans.”

As all the world now knows, Halloween falls on October 31. Hardly a civic holiday, it nevertheless is an important observance, because it shows how American culture could repurpose anything. Schauffler rightly tells us “Originally inspired by serious religious convictions, this holiday has been progressively lightened, secularised, and jollified until now it is the most frivolous and sportive of all the year’s festivals.” But he also recounts the beginning of a process whereby the often destructive highjinx of his time were being transformed by the action of countless municipalities across the country into the fun-but-harmless custom of trick-or-treating.

Obviously, Armistice/Veterans Day on November 11 owes its origins to the United States’ participation in World War I, and is celebrated in tandem with their allies in that war — the British Commonwealth and France. After World War II the focus shifted from the First War to honouring veterans of all our wars, which have continued with dreary regularity since 1945. Thus, we have church services, parades, observances in cemeteries and the like. But, as we shall see, it is now a reflection of the more sombre though similar observance in March. Even so, since 1919, it has given a spiritual sheen to the sacrifice of the veteran. As Schauffler tells us in his book about this day, “The 60th Congress passed a resolution requiring the President to issue a proclamation calling upon officials to display the Flag on all government buildings on each Armistice Day, and inviting the people of the United States to observe the Day in schools, churches and other suitable places with appropriate ceremonies expressive of their gratitude for peace and their desire for the continuance of friendly relations with all other peoples.”

Thanksgiving Day has an intriguing history. Although primarily associated in the popular mind with the Pilgrims and their supposed “first Thanksgiving,” Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Virginia, and Maryland have each laid claim to having hosted the real first Thanksgiving. The day’s legal observance is traced by some to Washington, others to Lincoln, and still other to various colonial and state governors and legislators. The current date goes back a Congressional action in 1941, fixing the date on the fourth Thursday in November. The redoutable Schauffler’s volume on the day tells us “Thus the first thanksgiving festival was celebrated in America and by little and little the custom spread, and its influence deepened until it has become a national holiday, proclaimed by the President, reproclaimed by the Governor of each State, and observed on the third Thursday in November by every good American and true.” While most Americans to-day may think primarily of that annual home ritual called the Thanksgiving Dinner — or perhaps the Macy’s parade and various ballgames and television marathons — the parareligious nature of the observance is annually spelled out in successive presidential proclamations (to say nothing of the pardoning of the turkeys) and the church services universally held on the day. Even the Catholic Church in America now has Mass propers for this secular feast; but Ven. Pius XII was so aware of how widespread the turkey custom was in our country that he gave Catholic Americans an indult allowing them to eat meat the following day.

Christmas was and is — despite the sporadic “Holiday” attacks — a universal feast. But “Holiday” aside, it too was made part of the civic calendar. Its acceptance there was rather late however: it did not become a Federal holiday until 1870, when the lingering Puritan antipathy toward it had died down. But Schauffler, our guide in these matters, gives us the secular religion’s understanding of Christ: “Christmas is the birthday of one whose chief contribution to the human heart and mind was his message of boundless, universal love. He brought to the world the greatest thing in the world and that is why the season of his birth has won such an intimate place in our hearts and why its jubilant bells find this echo there.” In a word, the least possible mention of His divinity, and a tacit reduction of the Nativity to the level of veracity of Santa Claus and his reindeer. Nevertheless, this watered-down understanding of Christ allowed for Nativity displays on government property, community carol singalongs, Christmas pageants in public schools (this writer participated in two), the annual presidential Christmas Message — and, of course, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. It was of course the ancillary celebrations that made Christmas such an important part of the national calendar, as Schauffler again points out: “No other holiday has so rich an heritage of old customs and observances as Christmas. The Yule Log has from time immemorial been haled to the open fire-place on Christmas Eve, and lighted with the embers of its predecessor to sanctify the roof-tree and protect it against those evil spirits over whom the season is in everyway a triumph. Then the wassail bowl full of swimming roasted apples, goes its merry round. Then the gift-shadowing Christmas tree sheds its divine brilliance down the path of the coming year; or stockings are hung for Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) to fill during the night. Then the mistletoe becomes a precarious shelter for maids, and the Waits—descendants of the minstrels of old—go through the snow from door to door, singing their mellow old carols, while masquerades and the merry Christmas game of Snapdragon are not forgotten.”

New Year’s Day too has been a Federal holiday since 1870. From the beginning of the presidency until Herbert Hoover’s day, the great civic observance of the day was a reception at the White House, similar to that given by other Chiefs-of-State. There were certainly religious observances of various kinds — and not so religious ones — on both the day and the Eve before. But despite its legal status, New Year’s was of little significance for the civic religion. Of course, in Southern California the Tournament of Roses and the Rose Bowl is a faith unto itself, but that is another matter entirely!

Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 has never been a Federal holiday. But it nevertheless is celebrated by a number of States and has always been widely observed in an unofficial manner — and never more than when the National Faith was at its strongest. As Schauffler observes “In its inspirational value to youth Lincoln’s Birthday stands among the most important of our American holidays. Its celebration in school and home can not be made too impressive. ‘Rising as Lincoln did,’ writes Edward Deems, ‘from social obscurity through a youth of manual toil and poverty, steadily upward to the highest level of honor in the world, and all this as the fruit of earnest purpose, hard work, humane feeling and integrity of character, he is an example and an inspiration to youth unparalleled in history. At the same time he is the best specimen of the possibilities attainable by genius in our land and under our free institutions.’” And so the old railsplitter was held up to generations of Americans. Lincoln has a horde of shrines sacred to his memory, and the Presbyterian church in Washington his family worshipped in treasures a number of relics associated with him. So too does the one in Springfield, Illinois. Thus it will come as no surprise that a large number of Protestant congregations of different denominations across the land commemorate his birthday.

Ten days later fell Washington’s Birthday; if Lincoln was honoured as the national Saviour, Washington was its Creator. Schauffler approvingly quotes a then contemporary commentator: “The general who never won a battle is now understood to have been the Revolution itself, and one of the great generals of history. The statesman who never made a motion, nor devised a measure, nor constructed a proposition in the convention of which he was president, is appreciated as the spirit, the energy, the force, the wisdom which initiated, organized, and directed the formation of the Constitution of the United States and the Union by, through, and under it; and therefore it seems now possible to present him as the Virginian soldier, gentleman, and planter, as a man, the evolution of the society of which he formed a part, representative of his epoch, and his surroundings, developed by circumstances into the greatest character of all time the first and most illustrious of Americans.” If his shrines are by no means as numerous as those of Lincoln, they are impressive: Mount Vernon, the Washington Monument, his birthplace and his boyhood home — even his ancestral home in England. The churches in Alexandria and Falls Church, Virginia that are associated with him cling to his memory — as does, we saw earlier, his Masonic Lodge. There are and have been all sort of church services associated with his birthday — and the First Congregational Church in Methuen, Massachusetts, is proud of having served over a century’s worth of dinners in honour of the day.

March brings St. Patrick’s Day — which might seem at first glance merely to be a celebration of all things Irish. But like the adoption of Corned Beef and Cabbage (NOT an Irish dish, much as this writer loves it), the widespread celebration of this feast was a sign of how completely assimilated into the American matrix the Irish had become. Indeed, the importance of politicians of all ethnicities and religions joining in on the day’s parade in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other major cities showed how important the Irish political machines in those spots were — even as the current participation by political supporters of abortion and other unsavoury things shows how little the faith of Irish-American politicians would come to mean.

If Lent did not take its place in the American civil calendar, Easter most certainly did, for all that it had suffered from the same Puritanical disabilities that had afflicted Christmas. But the price of secular acceptance was similar process to that which Christmas had undergone. As that feast became a vague celebration of joy, so Easter would deal with Resurrection in a far more general manner than Christ’s. Writing in 1916, Schauffler commented about the feast: “Never before have men had such need of the Easter message. Yesterday the world underwent its Golgotha. To-day it hangs tortured on the cross. Are we to see the powers of darkness prevail, or, in the glow of some ecstatic dawn, see the stone rolled away from the planet’s tomb?” So it was that not merely the Bunny and his eggs, but the Easter Parade in various cities and the Easter Egg rolling contest at the White House made their way into national practise. But there was also a generic “religious” exercise as well — the once ubiquitous “Easter Sunrise Service” — often celebrated on public property. As with his White Christmas, so with Easter Parade — America’s foremost tunesmith, Irving Berlin, had a knack for secularising holiday songs.

May 1 in many countries is celebrated as a festival of socialist labour. To counteract that, the relatively little-known celebration of “Loyalty Day” was initiated n the 1920s. Congress made it a legal holiday in 1955, declaring it to be “a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.” Three years later, Eisenhower and the Congress added to it on the same date “Law Day.” The Congressional Resolution declared that the new observance was to be “a special day of celebration by the people of the United States in appreciation of their liberties and the reaffirmation of their loyalty to the United States and of their rededication to the ideals of equality and justice under law in their relations with each other and with other countries; and for the cultivation of the respect for law that is so vital to the democratic way of life.” Loyalty day is still observed in smaller communities across the country with parades (often VFW organised) and church services (often — but far from exclusively — Baptist). By way of contrast, Law Day is celebrated primarily by the legal industry — courts, bar associations, law schools, and the like. Not too surprisingly, these celebrations usually feature lectures on one or another aspect of the law.

Since 1952, by an Act of Congress and presidential proclamation, the first Thursday in May is National Prayer Day — upon which all Americans are urged to pray. In recent years it has become virtually an evangelical monopoly, but the president continues to proclaim it every year.

Mother’s Day — the Second Sunday in May — was the culmination of several late 19th century attempts to establish a holiday honouring Motherhood. In 1908, Anna Jarvis organised the first Mother’s Day service at St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia (now the International Mother’s Day Shrine). Its popularity spread quickly, so that by 1914, Congress proclaimed the observance officially. Writing shortly thereafter in his book on the day, Schauffler opined that it was a wonderful addition to our national holidays, as a “triumph of sentiment.” An American Mothers Committee looks after the celebration to this day, and awards the Mother of the Year” Award. The central place of Motherhood in the American mythos is well expressed by the phrase “Mother, Apple Pie, and the Flag.”

By way of contrast, we have Memorial Day, honouring those killed in the service of their country — originally both sides in the Civil War, but since successively expanded to include the dead of every war this nation has fought since then. Its observance remains well-nigh universal, even to-day. The familiar pattern of presidential proclamation holds true; but since its inception after the War Between the States, it has become and remains the second most popular civil holiday. Even to-day, the parades and church services are almost universal. Interestingly enough, as Schauffler says, “Our Memorial Day is simply a secular All Souls’ Day.” It allowed millions of Americans, whose actual churches would not normally have condoned the practise for theological reasons, to venerate their dead — at least those who died in combat.

June 14 is Flag Day — the anniversary of the Continental Congress adopting the Star-Spangled Banner as the official flag of the United States. Given the key role that flag plays in the national religion, it is interesting that there is not more attention paid to the day. But as with Loyalty Day, a sprinkling of communities, such as Three Oaks, Michigan and Dedham, Massachusetts offer parades. Schauffler was predictably excited about the day in his book. Baltimore’s Star-Spangled Banner House, Fort McHenry, and Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross House are very celebrative at this time. But one supposes that the constant praise of the flag the rest of the year — coupled with the Pledge of Allegiance to it — somewhat diminished the fervour of a single day.

The Third Sunday in June — at least in relatively recent decades — has been Father’s Day. An obvious counterpart to the May observance for the Maternal Parent, it was actually resisted by may at first, being seen as more of a commercial venture. But like that day, it has a Methodist shrine to itself in West Virginia — in this case Fairmont’s Central Methodist Church. So too, Protestant services and civic observances mark this day throughout the nation.

At last comes the greatest feast of the national faith, Independence Day — July Fourth. All the panoply of celebration used before the Revolution for the King’s Birthday was and is brought to bear: parades, fireworks (even if these have been taken out of private hands for the most part), speeches, and of course, church services. From the publication of the first edition in 1789, every version of the American Book of Common Prayer until 1976 offered this collect for the great feast: “O Eternal God, through whose mighty power our fathers won their liberties of old; Grant, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” In less sonorous language, but with the same intent, the American Catholic Bishops created propers for the day after 1969, the collect of which reads: “Father of all nations and ages, we recall the day when our country claimed its place among the family of nations; for what has been achieved we give you thanks, for the work that still remains we ask your help, and as you have called us from many peoples to be one nation, grant that, under your providence, our country may share your blessings with all the peoples of the earth. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.” Schauffler quotes an anonymous source: “Among all the holidays of the year, one stands out as preeminently American; one appeals especially to that sentiment of patriotism and national pride which glows in every loyal American heart. Independence Day the Fourth of July is observed in every State in the Union as our distinctive national holiday; and rightly so, for the event which it celebrates is by far the most important in American history an event no less, indeed, than the birth of the nation.”

So it was on this day and around the calendar, Americans pulled together natural patriotism, historical mythologising and varied ecclesiastical sanction continually to praise their nation and themselves with it — just as they and it were. For indeed, there was a great deal of self-congratulation implicit in the festivals and practise of the National Faith — and that tends to leave little room for improvement or conversion. At any rate, serenaded by Irving Berlin and depicted by Norman Rockwell, so things stood when this writer was born on the day our first — and so far, only — Catholic president was elected. What no one knew was that the cultus that had served effectively as a point of national unity was about to begin a precipitate collapse.