Peter Gardella, author of American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred, is Professor of World Religions at Manhattanville College, and is the author of three other books on American religion. His thesis is that American civil religion, unified by the values of freedom, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance, is one of the most influential religions in the world. He supports his thesis by considering thirty-two texts, monuments, symbols, and ideas that bear civil religious significance–like the MLK Memorial on the Washington Mall, as pictured on the book’s cover.
Gardella was gracious enough to sit for a phone interview with me this week. His book is persuasive, thorough, and well-argued.
Q: How did you get interested in American civil religion?
A: In my childhood, my oldest brother who is 17 years older than I am, went to the Naval Academy in 1952 and I grew up thinking I should go to the Naval Academy. Civil religion always mattered to me a great deal; my father always flew the flag on all kinds of occasions in front of the house and so I’ve grown up with it.
Q: And haven’t we all?
A: We said the pledge every morning in public school right after the Lord’s Prayer in my case until 1963. But, there’s no question—it’s amazing that people don’t know the phrase. Only 2 weeks ago I had a letter published in the New York Times, and the editor wanted to eliminate the phrase “civil religion” from the letter because, she said, “I don’t know what it is.” I asked one of my colleagues here and he didn’t know either.
It’s a phrase in common use, but it’s amazing how well informed people you run into have never heard the phrase before. In fact, we haven’t educated the public to even the existence of American civil religion, but I think it’s one of the most powerful religions in the world.
Q: This book represents a ten-year project for you, researching American civil religion. As you wrote the book, what struck you to be the tangible elements making American civil religion recognizable?
A: My original sub-title for 10 years was American Civil Religion: Monuments, Texts, and Images. My idea was, here we talk about this thing and nobody has written a book describing what the basic elements of civil religion are. What are the sacred places, sacred texts, symbols in America, and what is their history? When I would teach civil religion, I would use Conrad Cherry’s God’s New Israel—not that it’s not a good book, but it is inadequate to present the kind of thing I wanted to show people.
The president of Oxford University Press intervened with my editor and said, “the sub-title has to be What Americans Hold Sacred.” It makes things a bit vague, but it’s reasonable because most people still don’t know what American civil religion is.
Q: How does civil religion relate to the concept of American exceptionalism?
A: American exceptionalism is an extraordinarily developed civil religion. We have a desperate need for civil religion because we are exceptional in our lack of natural culture. What is our natural culture? We have a borrowed language, a land we took from the Native Americans, no native cuisine, no native perspective on history. Even the other nations in the Americas, like Mexico possess more of a native culture than we do.
Take the Mexican flag—the native symbols of the eagle with the serpent are depicted. The Mexican capital still sits on the old site of the Aztec capital. Mexicans are much more deeply rooted in their place than we are.
We are very unusual in that we have this great void—my family, for example, consists of Italians and Poles who came here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many emigrated after 1965 when we changed the immigration laws. We have no native culture to hold us together, but we do have civil religion. We pledge allegiance, affirm our values, etc. and we need civil religion very much to fill the void in our culture. The strength of our civil religion in effect becomes our exceptionalism.
Our assimilative power is something else that makes America exceptional. We could move to Japan and our third generation descendants wouldn’t be Japanese. But people come to America, their kids become American, they become American. And these things go together.
Another example: what other nation has anything close to a House Un-American Activities Committee? What would the Italian parliament have, an Un-Italian Activities Committee? Italians can be fascists or communists and still be Italian. What makes them Italian is their language and their culture. You can’t be anti-Italian by your activities like you can be anti-American.
I don’t like to follow exceptionalism to these assertions that people make as Jodi Ernst did in her response to Obama [in his State of the Union], that America is the greatest nation in the history of the world. That rubs me the wrong way. But our exceptionalism is an article of faith, that there is something special about America. That goes along with the notion that it is possible to betray the special things about America. If you become a torturer, or a blatant imperialist, denying other people their freedom—these things are anti-American.
Q: How did you arrive at the four values you delineate as central to American civil religion: freedom, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance?
A: I came up with those four values because I gave a talk on civil religion at a synagogue in 2007. I was in the midst of compiling material for the book, and I had to give my talk some focus. I thought, what does civil religion really affirm? Those four struck me as things that enjoy consensus across the political spectrum. The rabbi’s response to those four was so positive, he immediately bought the idea and it stayed with me. Also, four is a magic number!
Q: How does the coherence of the four values bring credibility to civil religion as a real religion?
A: I am sometimes thrilled thinking of this, honestly I really love it. I’m kind of an evangelist for civil religion. I’ve spent days in Arlington Cemetery—they’ve had their problems recently, but the place has amazing power. And other people have felt that power—it’s more popular to be buried there now than ever. The veterans from these latest wars really want to be buried there.
The monuments we’re adding are really special. I can’t wait to see the Museum of African American History and Culture that’s going up. Everything I’ve read about it has been so positive. It’s extraordinary. Washington is one of the best places to live in the country. But it’s not the only civil religious place. One of the things that didn’t get into the book was Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. That’s developed so extraordinarily from its beginnings with Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but recently ending up with Arthur Ashe. It’s wonderful!
It’s a real religion, there’s no question about it. It has everything a real religion needs. Obviously in terms of ultimate things, I don’t count on civil religion for salvation. The Romans didn’t see their civil religion like that either, they were obviously open to Christianity and Isis and lots of other religions when it came to fulfilling spiritual needs. American civil religion is not a religion of salvation. But it is a real religion and one that is doing real good in the world.
People often want to deny civil religion is a real religion because its track record has not always been positive. To those I say, well, think about Christianity. If you’re going to say American civil religion is a terrible thing, what about the Crusades and the Inquisition? Christianity is not invalidated as a religion just because it has had failings; neither is American civil religion.
Q: Let’s talk about the racial diversity in civil religion. Native American influence figures prominently in civil religious symbols. Could you speak to the significance of this influence?
A: I was raised in a tradition that paid no attention to Native Americans at all. My mentor was Sidney Ahlstrom, a very great writer but that monumental book has nothing to say about Native Americans. I came out of my doctoral program knowing nothing about Native American religious history. But I was lucky enough to have an anthropologist colleague who is a Columbia PhD at Manhattanville, who came to me and said, “Why don’t we teach Native American religions together?” I then gradually came to know some things about Native American religion and history through teaching the course five or six times.
When you go to Washington, and if you look at the capital, there’s Native American influence all over the place. In fact, “Potomac” means “great meeting place.” In some ways we are like the Mexicans, although we are not as conscious of it as they are, we have a capital that is located near where the Powhatan had their capital.
[Carl] Jung had some interesting things to say about this: he said the longer we live on this land, the more possessed we are going to become by the spirit of the Native Americans. The longer Europeans live on this land, the more Native American they are going to become.
Q: Does the influence of Native American religion on American civil religion have any significance to the land itself? If so, what are the ramifications to environmental justice?
A: There is a second volume to be written that integrates the land into this. I had to decide not to do natural features in the book because it was getting too large. So I decided to focus on cultural features.
For many people, the land is the heart of American civil religion. We do have a leadership role to play in environmentalism. We are the ones who are talking to the Chinese now, trying to influence them to stop polluting. President Obama was elected in large respect because of that speech when he pledged that this was the point the earth was going to cool, etc. He called on us to make that true. Maybe it will be.
We invented the United Nations—this year is the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. It’s time for us to own the responsibility of leadership, and environmental problems can only be dealt with globally.
We have an extraordinarily blessed continent in terms of river navigation. We have more miles of navigable rivers—three times as much navigable river mileage in the United States as in the whole rest of the world combined.
This kind of thing really does make you think about providence!
There are a lot of people who throb with religious awe at places like the Grand Canyon, at the Mississippi River, the Chesapeake Bay. New York Harbor: what a setting for what Pope John Paul II called the capital of the world!
Q: You have a chapter on King’s speeches—are there any other African American sources of American civil religion you would want to identify?
A: Well, of course, we have the President. He is such a fascinating leader—you couldn’t make a name like his. His name, as I wrote in the book, can be translated as “the blessed messianic leader who prays,” which is so significant in terms of civil religion.
W. E. B. Du Bois is a monumental figure, an amazing thinker. Frederick Douglass is another towering figure. The new passports, as I pointed out in the book, feature a quote from Anna Julia Cooper, the fourth African American woman to earn a doctorate.
I’m writing about Oprah Winfrey now, writing a 30th anniversary edition of my earlier book, Innocent Ecstasy. She’s a religious leader of sorts, one who has had a tremendous amount of spiritual influence and we likely wouldn’t have had President Obama without her.
Q: Dr. Gardella, thank you so much for your time. What’s your next project?
A: I’m working on a book on birds with my anthropologist colleague. It’s a book on birds and the world’s religions.
We’ll all look forward to seeing it! Thank you again.