Memorial Day and Our Civil Religion


Two days ago, President Obama visited Hiroshima, Japan in advance of the 71st anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs there and at Nagasaki, the 71st anniversary of the end of World War II. His remarks, if you heard them, offered a chance to put the human propensity for war and aggression into a larger context of the human ability to choose. “We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said. “We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story, one that describes a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.”

Tomorrow, as you know, is Memorial Day, a federal holiday designed to honor those who died while serving in this country’s armed forces. It’s a day that honors sacrifice, but, inevitably, it’s a day that reminds us that the ideals we cherish, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” are wrapped up in a history of violence and war, death and destruction, conquest and defeat. For us who claim to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person, it is worthwhile to take the time to look more deeply than we usually do at our history and the things we honor by sacred ritual.

Memorial Day was originally called “Decoration Day,” when, after the Civil War, in 1868, an organization of veterans from the Union Army called the Grand Army of the Republic “established it as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the Union war dead with flowers” (Wikipedia). Veterans from the Confederate Army also set aside a day to honor their war dead. Early in the 20th century, survivors of that war, no matter which army they served, and their descendents began to honor their dead with the one holiday we now know as Memorial Day.

The use of the word “holiday,” itself is a bit confusing, isn’t it? We think of holidays as days of celebration, though this day is one of commemoration and mourning, at least nominally. The custom of holidays originated, generally, from religious observances. The intention was to allow individuals to attend to religious duties. The word “holiday,” as applied to Memorial Day or any of our other national holidays, has, at its heart, a religious origin. It’s not quite a “holy day,” but that designation is not too distant from its meaning.

Two days ago, in Friday’s Daily News, a letter was printed in the “Dear Abby” column urging that we all observe a National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day in honor of those who died while in the U.S. armed forces. For pacifists and war resisters, this kind of remembrance presents ambiguities. Are we honoring those who willingly gave their lives in service to their country? Or are we honoring those who were victimized by those more powerful than they, those who drafted individuals into armed service whether their consciences dictated service or not? It’s important, I think, when we take time to honor anyone or anything, to be sure that the honoring is in line with our values. The language used by Jeanne Phillips (who plays the role of “Abby” these days) makes it clear where the honoring lies for her: “the families who have lost beloved family members in wars and military conflicts.” In this formulation, we do not honor the war dead, but the families who mourn. It’s hard to argue that we should do that, but I’m not sure that that interpretation is not a distortion of the day’s significance. And it’s clear, is it not, that the “holiday” is secular in origin? Those who see in such observances the evidence of a civil religion would not be so sure.

The idea of a civil religion goes back to the 19th century, but the way we talk about it now (and argue about it in some quarters) is due to a 1967 article by the American sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, called “American Civil Religion.” More on that later.

For now, I’ll ask you to do something a little unusual– unusual, at least, for this part of the service. And that’s to take from your wallet, pocket or purse, a dollar bill if you are so fortunate to have one. (If not, perhaps your neighbor will allow you to “look on.” Look, but don’t touch!) This little exercise is prompted by my reading in Forrest Church’s book called The American Creed. Some of you may know the late Rev. Church as the co-author with John Buehrens of an introduction to Unitarian Universalism called Our Chosen Faith.

Rev. Church says, “To find our way homeward, we carry a map in our wallets. The very currency that facilitates our commerce reminds us that we trust not in the power of our wealth or might but in a power greater and more abiding.”

To the right of the portrait of George Washington, is the seal of the United States Treasury. It’s in green. On it are a key (representing that the value of your currency is secure under the Treasury’s lock and key). Above that is a set of scales representing balance. Between the two is a carpenter’s square symbolizing rectitude, righteousness. So much for the secular symbols. On the back of your greenback, on top of the large “ONE” denoting the denomination, you see the credo, “In God We Trust.” To the left and right, you see artwork that is labeled, “The Great Seal of the United States.” Along the top of the first circle, the one on the left, is the Latin inscription, “Annuit coeptis,” “(God) has favored our undertaking,” and, at the bottom, “Novus ordo seclorum,” “A new order of the ages [has commenced.]” “The mottoes are illustrated by a pyramid, bright with the eastern sun rising, dark on its western side.” This suggests, says Rev. Church, that the American experiment has just dawned. The pyramid comes from Masonic symbolism and is expresses “Enlightenment religious values.” It’s “uncapped to symbolize that the foundation (crafted by human arts) (is) completed transcendentally by a luminous, all-seeing eye, an ancient symbol for divinity.”

Immediately after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Congress charged three men to work together to design the Great Seal, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. According to a report from John Adams to his wife, Abigail, Franklin “proposed picturing ‘Moses lifting up his wand and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh in his chariot overwhelmed with the waters.’” Adams suggested picturing Hercules with the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Jefferson “imagined the children of Israel in the wilderness on one side and Saxon chiefs (“whose political principles and form of government [the Congress had] assumed) on the other. The idea, in all cases, was that faith and freedom had to work together. On the front of the seal is the pyramid, as we’ve said. On the obverse is the eagle, the national bird, holding in its feet an olive branch, representing peace, and a fistful of arrows representing a willingness to fight for our ideals. The eagle faces in the direction of the olive branch to express a desire for peace over war. Above the eagle are thirteen stars arranged as a constellation, representing the thirteen original states. On the banner between the eagle and the stars is the motto E pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one” which Forrest Church points out, is an entirely new concept in the formation of government.

In between the two sides of the Great Seal is the slogan “In God We Trust.” Though we herald the principle of separation of church and state, the understanding among the deists who were our founders was that God (not a Christian God or the God of any particular religion or denomination) was inherently bound up in our human fate and affairs. Something to think about when we celebrate even our most secular holidays. (Even the material out of which the “paper” currency is made, says Church, is symbolic. It’s woven from a blend of linen and cotton, so that it’s difficult to tear as “the ideals on which the nation was founded” should be difficult to tear.)

Forrest Church calls the preamble to the Declaration of Independence our “American creed;” something that binds us together in our shared belief in the founders’ ideals:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.


This is a belief statement, a creed, America’s founding creed, according to Forrest Church. It unites freedom with faith in claiming that the rights enshrined in the document derive from a divine creator. On one occasion, Jefferson referred to the document as “an expression of the American mind.” On another, he called it, “The genuine effusion of the soul of our country.”

This sense that government and religious belief are bound together in the history of the United States is not something that was invented by the revolutionists who wrote the ringing words of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The belief is rooted in the piety of the first English-speaking immigrants to these shores, the Pilgrims and the Puritans and the foundation of the Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Winthrop was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He gave a sermon to the passengers of the flagship Arabella just before disembarking to found the city of Boston. Its title was “A Model of Christian Charity.”

That sermon strove in religious language and sensibility to do what our government and our country’s citizens continue to strive to do today, to balance the rights of the individual and the needs of the community. In the ideal community that the Puritans envisioned, “all citizens would focus their lives on the word of God” (Comm 149: Rhetoric and Public Life). Personal ambitions were to be sacrificed to a higher goal. The Puritans believed that they could be a blessed people, chosen by God to set an example for others– but “God’s wrath would fall swiftly upon a people who strayed from his Divine path.” To the extent that they could curb individual ambition for the sake of the larger community, to the degree that they could confirm to a high moral purpose as enshrined in the Bible, they could succeed and be a model for others. To the extent that they could not find a successful balance between personal ambition and communal success, God would punish them for their sinfulness. Whether or not you agree with this formulation, it’s clear that from the very start, religion and government have been intertwined in our history.

There is not time enough today to make our way through all the permutations in American history of the twin developments of religion and government, the sacred (or that which aims to be) and the secular. But consider some of the names you’ll remember from your elementary school history lessons.

Roger Williams (and Anne Hutchinson) could not get their consciences to submit to the imposition of religious views on free citizens. Though Williams certainly considered himself a religious man and a Christian, he would not submit to a theocratic form of government. He was devoted to what Forrest Church calls “soul freedom.” He believed in religious pluralism. “To him, free association and expression were essential conditions for genuine religious conviction. For truth to be embraced, it could not be coerced,” says Rev. Church.

In November of 1630, a local resident of Boston was “whipped for hunting on the Sabbath.” Roger Williams, new to the town (or village, more properly), protested. Government is formed to provide “civil order and peace,” not to enforce religious beliefs. By 1635, he found himself placed on trial for protesting the right of the government to collect taxes for the support of the clergy. He was found guilty “on both civil and religious grounds.”

Roger Williams, then, believed in religious liberty. As Forrest Church tells it, these are the three principles on which he defends his position: (1) All forms of religious persecution are (themselves), irreligious; (2) enforced religious conformity strips beliefs of (their) conviction and endangers the commonweal; and (3) both institutionally and morally, church and state are protected and thrive only when fully independent from each other. This is the framework for what would become the separation of church and state in the United States. Though Williams plainly believed that church and state should be kept separate, he also plainly believed that each is important, even essential, in the creation of a just society.

Of the symbols of American freedom, perhaps the most important is the Liberty Bell which was commissioned for the Pennsylvania statehouse in 1751 “to mark the Golden Jubilee of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges” (which were granted by the king of England). It was sounded “on September 17, 1787, (when) Congress met in Philadelphia to adopt the federal Constitution.” The words that were chosen “to be engraved on a band encircling the bell’s circumference” are “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Clearly a statement of freedom untinged by religious faith, yes? Well, no. The words are from the Book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible, aka the Old Testament. And Pennsylvania itself, you will remember, was a place dedicated to William Penn’s vision, a “Quaker experiment… pacific in temperament, democratic in spirit, and neighborly in affection.”

The Quakers, otherwise known as the Society of Friends, proposed and endorsed a vision of Christianity that was not based, as the Puritans’ was on the inherent sinfulness of humanity, but, instead, “espoused a deep faith in natural goodness.” But, faith, noneless. Wherever you look in the prelude, founding and early history of the United States, you come across a mixture of some sort of a desire for freedom and a reliance on Providence– faith, in another word.

This short journey through American history and religious development is meant to provide some concrete examples of the foundations of what Robert Bellah refers to as the American civil religion. Though it’s a long time since faith and freedom were inextricably mixed in a conscious and determined way, the habit of framing national celebration in religious language and rites which echo religious ritual continues even today– to our benefit– or our detriment– or perhaps a little of both.

There are some ways that the Christian religion still saturates American so-called secular life. On our currency is the slogan, “In God We Trust.” When you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” in a court of law, you generally do so with your hand placed on a Bible. The President of the United States is sworn into office with his hand placed on a Bible. The Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag has included in its body since 1954 the phrase not “one nation indivisible,” but “one nation under God, indivisible.” But the idea of an American civil religion goes further than the inclusion of specifically religious language in our governmental functions. The theory claims that we adopt even our secular symbols in ways that had previously been within the province of religion.

In a civil religion, statesmen and national heroes play the roles that religious leaders play in the Bible. In this rendering, Wikipedia suggests that the American Revolution “produced a Moses-like leader [in] (George Washington), prophets (Thomas Jefferson (and) Tom Paine), apostles (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin) and martyrs [in the] (Boston Massacre… and in… Nathan Hale).” Benedict Arnold can be seen as a devil. Valley Forge as a sacred place. July 4th is a sacred holiday. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are holy scripture. Betsy Ross’s flag has sacred meaning.

If you have been to the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., you have almost certainly seen the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights displayed in cases quite like shrines. The sensibility which surrounds them and which visitors are encouraged to observe constitute something much like what we call “piety.” Are they secular documents or sacred? Temporal or evocative of the eternal? Are they documents which served a particular purpose at a particular place and time (the Declaration of Independence) or meant to serve as guiding principles for a free and democratic society (the Constitution)? Or are they scripture and worthy of worship?

In his Farewell Address, George Washington made a plea that the Constitution “be sacredly maintained.” Madison believed that “veneration” of the Constitution would lend stability in times of national stress and strain. Jefferson, though, offered a critique of those who “look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.” He believed that if institutions are to advance, they must be open to change; no document should be considered so sacred as to be beyond imperfection and change.

One scholar [Linder] believes that Presidents perform certain sacred roles and that the roles change as the circumstances of the nation change. During the Civil War, the nation needed a prophet; Abraham Lincoln served that role. During the fifties, we need a pastor; Dwight Eisenhower filled that role. Scholar Robert Linder believes that Ronald Reagan served the role of a high priest. He delineates the roles in this way,

In prophetic civil religion, the president assesses the nation’s values in relation to transcendent values and calls upon the people to make sacrifices in times of crisis and to repent of their corporate sins when their behavior falls short of the national ideals. As the national pastor, he provides spiritual inspiration to the people by affirming American core values and urging them to appropriate those values, and by comforting them in their afflictions. In the priestly role, the president makes America itself the ultimate reference point. He leads the citizenry in affirming and celebrating the nation, and reminds them of the national mission, while at the same time glorifying and praising his political flock.

It’s this priestly role that concerns me, I must say. To make America the ultimate reference point means to glorify nationalism rather than assigning the nation its appropriate place in our scale of values. The Unitarian Universalist values of questioning, assessing, engaging in conversation with others in order to discern things that are truthful and things that provide meanings that are sustaining is, I believe, a healthier higher value, of course, than blind nationalism.

Demographic studies suggest that college graduates and liberals whether political or theological, tend to be less enthusiastic than others about civil religion. “Religions that were created in the United States… have the highest civil religiosity.” This includes the Mormons (Latter Day Saints), Adventists and Pentecostals. Those with the lowest civil religion include Jews, those with no religious preference, and– Unitarian Universalists.

The most touching moment for me of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was the hug shared between him and a high-ranking Japanese official who was sobbing as the President held him in his arms. This human expression of grief and the human response of comfort lie at the heart of who we are when we can see past superficial differences and the deep-seated fears and insecurities that lead us to aggression.

Is American civil religion to be cherished or denigrated, supported or condemned? As in most things that tend to polarize, the answer may lie somewhere between the two extremes. I’ll close with a quotation from the American historian and social critic, Arthur M. Schlesinger:

When we talk of the American democratic faith, we must understand it in its true dimensions. It is not an impervious, final, and complacent orthodoxy, intolerant of deviation and dissent, fulfilled in flag salutes, oaths of allegiance, and hands over the heart. It is an ever-evolving philosophy, fulfilling its ideals through debate, self-criticism, protest, disrespect, and irreverence; a tradition in which all have rights of heterodoxy and opportunities for self-assertion. The Creed has been the means by which Americans have haltingly but persistently narrowed the gap between performance and principle. It is what all Americans should learn, because it is what binds all Americans together.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. I hope that you will celebrate it, if “celebrate” is the right word, in a way that is respectful of the sacrifices made by those who died because they believed in serving the cause of American democracy, respectful of those family members who grieve those losses and in acknowledgment of the complex task it is to be a patriotic American.


  • The American Creed by Forrest Church. St. Martin’s Press, NY, NY. 2002.
  • “Memorial Day;” “American Civil Religion; “Political Religion;” “Robert Neeley Bellah”
  • Bowling Green Daily News, May 27, 2016. “Dear Abby: Remember Memorial Day accordingly.”
  • www. Comm 149, “Rhetoric and Public Life: Summary of John Winthrop’s ‘Model of Christian Charity’”. Dr. Andrew Wood.
  • www. “text of President Obama’s speech in Hiroshima, Japan.” May 27, 2016.

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY on May 29, 2016, for Memorial Day

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.