Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Memorial Day 2015: A Celebration of the American Civil Religion

Fr John Strickland summarizes a bit of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev’s thoughts on nationhood in his book The Making of Holy Russia (Jordanville, Ny., Holy Trinity Publications, 2013, p. 153):

 . . . he [Soloviev] described how “nationality—either of the people or the nation—represents a positive force and every people has been appointed a special role to serve according to its special character.”  Every nation, he claimed, possessed an essential character that had been impressed upon it by God.  The character given to a Christian nation demanded that it fulfill its calling to preserve and disseminate the kingdom of heaven on earth.  In fact, it was justified exclusively by its fulfillment of this calling.  On the other hand, when a Christian nation ceased to fulfill its mission, or worked in opposition to it, it lost the justification to act on a world-historical plane.  This was true especially when it pursued the ideals of ethnic nationalism, which distorted the otherwise productive force of national self-consciousness.  In such a case, Soloviev claimed, “the positive force of nationality mutates into the negative force of nationalism.”  The result was an “extreme antagonism” toward other nations, wherein “nationalism destroys its own people and makes it an enemy of humanity.”  On the other hand, “Christianity, by abolishing nationalism, saves peoples because to be supranational is not the same as nationless.”  According to Soloviev, then, nationality was a legitimate, God-given form of human community.  Its divine purpose was to focus the community’s attention on the Christian mission to unify humanity and establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.

For those who get swept up in the emotionalism of Memorial Day and other American ‘holy days’, there are important things that need to be brought out from this passage and elsewhere.  First is the truth that ‘America’ is not a nation in the proper sense of the word but rather an assemblage of peoples (Indian tribes, the Southern States, Hawai’i, and various other islands from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean) in thrall to Washington City, held together by little more than force.

Second, in keeping with Soloviev’s words, the current union of Captive American States shows that it is not primarily a Christian folk.  It does not worship the Most Holy Trinity but instead its own greatness.  This has led it to, as Soloviev says, show ‘extreme antagonism’ towards other countries, ‘destroy its own people’ (physically through abortion and endless war and spiritually through mindless ‘fun’ and materialism (the ‘American Dream’)), and ‘make it an enemy of humanity’.

Robert Bellah elaborates on this theme of Americans setting up a religion of nationalism in his essay ‘Civil Religion in America’ (1967, http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm, posted n. d., accessed 13 May 2015).  Writing of Memorial Day, he says,

Memorial Day, which grew out of the Civil War, gave ritual expression to the themes we have been discussing. As Lloyd Warner has so brilliantly analyzed it, the Memorial Day observance, especially in the towns and smaller cities of America, is a major event for the whole community involving a rededication to the martyred dead, to the spirit of sacrifice, and to the American vision.[xi]  Just as Thanksgiving Day, which incidentally was securely institutionalized as an annual national holiday only under the presidency of Lincoln, serves to integrate the family into the civil religion, so Memorial Day has acted to integrate the local community into the national cult. Together with the less overtly religious Fourth of July and the more minor celebrations of Veterans Day and the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, these two holidays provide an annual ritual calendar for the civil religion. The public school system serves as a particularly important context for the cultic celebration of the civil rituals.

A homegrown political idol is bad enough, but what is worse is that the religion of ‘Americanism’ is being used by Bellah, Manly Hall, the Bush family, and others as a stepping stone to their desired end - an antiChristian one world government:

Out of the first and second times of trial have come, as we have seen, the major symbols of the American civil religion. There seems little doubt that a successful negotiation of this third time of trial-the attainment of some kind of viable and coherent world order-would precipitate a major new set of symbolic forms. So far the flickering flame of the United Nations burns too low to be the focus of a cult, but the emergence of a genuine transnational sovereignty would certainly change this. It would necessitate the incorporation of vital international symbolism into our civil religion, or, perhaps a better way of putting it, it would result in American civil religion becoming simply one part of a new civil religion of the world. It is useless to speculate on the form such a civil religion might take, though it obviously would draw on religious traditions beyond the sphere of biblical religion alone. Fortunately, since the American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality, the reorganization entailed by such a new situation need not disrupt the American civil religion's continuity. A world civil religion could be accepted as a fulfillment and not as a denial of American civil religion. Indeed, such an outcome has been the eschatological hope of American civil religion from the beginning. To deny such an outcome would be to deny the meaning of America itself (Bellah, ibid).

Make no mistake - the American civil religion is a real religion, a substitute for Christianity:

 . . . The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.  . . .

With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. Nowhere is it stated more vividly than in the Gettysburg Address, itself part of the Lincolnian "New Testament" among the civil scriptures. Robert Lowell has recently pointed out the "insistent use of birth images" in this speech explicitly devoted to "these honored dead": "brought forth," "conceived," "created," "a new birth of freedom."  . . .

Behind the civil religion at every point lie biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations (ibid).

How can one tell if he is a worshipper of ‘America’ ræther than the one true God?  One place to start is by looking back at what received the most emphasis at one’s church and home these past couple of weeks:  the Church’s holy days of our Lord’s Ascension and Pentecost, or the American holy day of Memorial Day?

Let those who have ears to hear and eyes to see understand and flee from the religion and culture of America the New Babylon, and live instead as much as they are able by þe teachings, calendar, and all the rest of Christ’s Holy Orthodox Church.

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