MOST people in the United States — nearly 80 per cent — describe themselves as Christians, and more than half report that they attend some form of worship service at least once a month. Many “secular” Europeans, therefore, assume, with a mixture of amusement and condescension, that Americans are “Exhibit A” of the stubborn persistence of traditional theism in the modern world.
Yet authentic devotion is revealed less by what people report in surveys, or where they can occasionally be found on Sunday mornings, than it is by the ingrained beliefs, unconscious assumptions, and reflexive actions that reveal their deepest loyalties.
Schoolchildren across America are taught to recite the pledge of allegiance in a daily catechism that has no Christian equivalent. They place their right hands over their hearts symbolising their full devotion to the nation. This religious gesture was adopted in 1942 by a government ruling to distinguish US citizens from the members of another nationalistic faith: before 1942, Americans saluted the flag during the pledge with an extended arm and open palm, almost identical to the Nazi salute.
The flag must never be allowed to touch the ground. When it is worn out, according to the Flag Code passed by Congress in 1923, it should be cremated with great reverence.
The code also specifies how the flag should be displayed in houses of worship. It must be placed “in the position of honor at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker or to the right of the audience.”
On the pulpits of almost every Protestant church across the US (including the ones in which I was raised), the flag is therefore positioned to the pastor’s right hand — the place of highest honour — while the Christian flag, if displayed at all, is located in the position of secondary allegiance to the pastor’s left.
It is a remarkable symbolism when one considers that many early Christians chose to die rather than to burn a small amount of incense in front of a statue of Caesar once a year to show symbolically their loyalty as citizens of Pax Romana.
FEW people in the United States would ever admit in any survey to being followers of a totemic religion of nationalistic flag worship. Yet the flag is the only symbol for which they are willing to kill and die — or send their children away to kill and die. Next to this kind of allegiance, Christianity, along with every other “sectarian” faith, is a pale and distant rival.
And what we are willing to kill and die for, Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle argue in Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (Cambridge University Press), is functionally what is most sacred to us. Violence thus reveals the sacred.
Violence is not simply an accidental or occasional interruption in American political life. Our practices of patriotic flag veneration hint at a disturbing fact: that violence lies at the very heart of our social order.
In an organisation as otherwise cold and abstract as the nation-state, sacrificial blood is the only thing strong enough, Marvin and Ingle suggest, to transcend differences and generate emotions of group solidarity and sacrificial devotion.
This means that every war that a “secular” nation fights beneath the flag is in effect a holy war. On the one hand, the United States — very often accompanied by the UK — has clearly fought many wars for purely secular reasons — for what is euphemistically known as “the national interest” or “national security”, often meaning access to goods and markets. But even the most cynically or pragmatically fought wars are made holy in the US by the blood of American soldiers.
This civil religion dictates that every death in battle be seen as valorous, noble, necessary, and sacred. No soldier’s life, in our political discourse, is ever wasted in an unjust invasion or senseless foreign adventure. Every soldier’s death serves a sacramental function, replenishing the sacred power of the flag, and so binding us together as a nation.
President Obama declared in a speech before American troops in Texas in 2012 that those fighters who made “the ultimate sacrifice” in Iraq and Afghanistan would “live on in the soul of our nation, and we will honour them always”.
To say otherwise — to remind the nation, as a young Senator Obama once did, of the senselessness and mendacity of the invasion and its devastating human costs, not only for US soldiers but also for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians — would violate the tribe’s taboo.
THE centrality of sacrificial bloodshed to the American civil religion might help to explain why the United States has been in a state of almost continuous war — spanning every continent, sustained by Democrats and Republicans alike, beyond all reason or proportion — for more than a century. In the words of Chris Hedges, a journalist, “War is a force that gives us meaning.”
The lines between wartime and peacetime have, in fact, become so blurred in US foreign policy, as Mary Dudziak points out in War Time: An idea, its history, its consequences (OUP), as to now be meaningless. We are both a new Rome, which continually projects violence, or the threat of violence, outward in the name of the national interest, and a new Sparta, which eternally garrisons itself while preparing for the wars of the future.
Under President Obama, this meant the highest levels of military spending during his first term, adjusted for inflation, in American history since the Second World War (greater than under Presidents Reagan or Bush), as well as incredible innovations in killing through drone warfare, including extrajudicial assassinations of American citizens by executive decree.
Under President Trump, military spending has continued to soar. In December 2018, he described the Pentagon’s budget of $716 billion as “crazy” — only to announce one week later that he was requesting a budget increase to $750 billion. President Obama’s military budget during his final year in office was just over $600 billion.
ONE need not be a believer of any particular stripe to see that the relationship of the American civil religion to Christianity — the religion that most Americans still profess — is in many ways one of violent parody. Whenever the logic of sacrificial bloodshed has been exposed for what it is, it is rendered impotent, René Girard, the critical theorist and cultural anthropologist, has suggested — and this, he argues, is precisely what the Gospel narratives set out to do. They sought to expose and so render inoperative the myths and the moral pretensions of blood sacrifice on which the Roman Empire rested.
As the Epistle to the Colossians declares: “When [Christ] had disarmed the rulers and authorities, he made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through him.” In the New Testament, Jesus is described as the final sacrifice who has put an end to all sacrifices.
Through the tortured body of this peasant Jew from a defeated backwater of the Empire, the earliest Christians audaciously proclaimed, God had reconciled former enemies and created a new humanity, a new community that transcended divisions of race, culture, class, ideology, and nationality.
Because the blood sacrifices of the empire and of the nation-state cannot overcome our differences, the unity of any patriotic nationalism — whether American, British, or other — can only, in the final analysis, be a simulacrum of fully human community.
Thus the most urgent task facing religious communities of all kinds, William Cavanaugh, an RC theologian, suggests, “is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company”.
A telephone company might provide us with some useful services, but it does not command our allegiance. It does not hold our moral and political imaginations captive. Whatever goods the nation-state provides for its citizens are relative, not absolute, goods.
Religious communities are doing the greatest political service — not when they attempt to manoeuvre their way into political power, so that they can wield the state’s monopoly on violence for putatively righteous ends, but when they work to create alternative social spaces that make the violence of nation and empire subversively and unmistakably clear.
People do not kill for a telephone company. We also do not put a telephone company’s flag on the pulpit in our churches.
Dr Ronald E Osborn is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Philosophy at La Sierra University and the author of Humanism and the Death of God (Oxford University Press, 2017).