Civic religion and political priesthood

Gwen Hope argues that “the U.S. has its own civic religion. Born in pews, raised by wars, and cemented by money. An abominable worship of state and capitalism fused.” -promoted by Laura Belin

The United States has a religion problem. Primarily colonized by various factions of Puritan Separatists in the 17th century, this isn’t surprising. However, these original colonists’ faith in the Abrahamic deity has mutated over time – monarchic “divine right of kings” became democratic “divine right of nations.”

In place of worshiping the Judeo-Christian god, they instead worship the nation (or, rather, their conception of the nation.) This is the issue we have seen developing for some time now – civic religion – society in which the state and its history is regarded as sacred in the same way as sacraments and saints.

Expansionist Origins

There are various facets of this civic religion one can easily read about in history books as established concepts: Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, Americanism. All of these views stem from a central tenet – Americans (the white, western-European, and typically-Protestant colonists) had an inherent right, either divine or natural, to conquer the continents, subdue the natives, and take the New World for themselves.

This belief is an offshoot of the much more explicitly racist Eurocentrism, often known as “White Man’s Burden,” which states that European civilizations had a duty to colonize and “civilize” non-white and non-European populations by force of arms, economics, and religion. These racist, ethnocentric, and dehumanizing narratives were and are the foundations of imperialist dogma which led to European attempts to control and subdue the rest of the world throughout the last five centuries.

As the North American colonies established themselves and European technological might drove war and disease across the continent, the American Revolution was a turning point. Before, individual colonies (which we now view as states) were often heavily insular and typically based on different Christian religious sects – Puritans, Mennonites, Anabaptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Amish, Quakers, and so forth.

Now, they became united under a single banner, and the success of this nation would come upon the backs of tens of millions of natives (killed by European diseases and weapons) and millions of Africans (enslaved to enrich the colonists). This exploitative success seemed to herald divine endorsement of these practices to those not subject to exploit.

Revolutionary Religion

The American Revolution had, in part, arrived on the backs of Protestant Christianity itself. Only decades prior to the Revolution had come the first great religious revival – the First Great Awakening. The Revolution was seen not only necessary politically but religiously. When the diminutive colonies won out against Britain, one of the foremost world superpowers of its time, it was all more evidence for many that Americanism was divinely approved.

After a half-century since the first religious revival, the Constitution was ratified in the late 18th century, shortly followed by another, the Second Great Awakening. The architects of this new nation were increasingly lauded and civil worship began. The Sons of Liberty, the Founding Fathers, the Framers of the Constitution, most of them well-off white landowners, all of them men, had and still have serious celebrity. Folk tales surrounding famous figures, such as George Washington and Paul Revere, only served to increase their deification.

While Americans still attended churches, increasingly political figures became worshiped as saints of democracy – Saints of the United States – in their own right. However popular, this has not cemented until after the Civil War. Slowly, the fledgling country had come to grammatically drift from a collection to a single mass, the Civil War had politically made it clear that the whole of the United States was, as the pledge suggests now, “one nation, indivisible.”

War Forged

Forged back together in the Civil War, further conflicts had driven and propagandized Americans into a more central, coherent devotion to country. While previous “Indian Wars” had solidified European-origin people against natives and other non-white immigrants, the country still was not unified between whites. These wars continued against natives throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries but were sadly too commonplace, and in turn didn’t do much to unite the disparate white subgroups.

This would change, however, with the large scale wars of the early and mid 20th centuries. The sheer size and resources of World War I, and especially II, required that government galvanize American against Europeans (seen as fellow whites) for the first significant time since the Revolutionary Era. With first propaganda against “the Hun” in WWI and “the Nazi” and “the Jap” in WWII, Americans had been propaganda-forged, with the help of early modern mass media technologies, into a coherent whole for the first true, lasting time.

Cold Forging

Entering the post-WWII world, the Cold War would change everything yet again. If the World Wars forged the blade of the US, surely the Cold War hardened it in the quench, and tempered it in Vietnam. While American propaganda had always been pro-country, it wasn’t typically explicitly ideological until the Cold War. A place of experimentation since its birth, the Cold War saw the government declare the United States inexorably tied with capitalism.

Civil and governmental institutions both tied the US to religion and capitalism in a way not previously achieved. What is important to note is that this is the origin of the corporate capitalist religion that is now present across the United States and chiefly advocated-for by the Republican party. It is also evident both spheres of influence had become two sides of the same coin – advocating for the same systems.

Turbulence

The American public in the late-mid 20th century was weary and tired. Beaten down by decades of failed war in Vietnam, rocked by assassinations of prominent political figures, scorched by scandals from Watergate to the Pentagon Papers, domestic conflict between civil rights advocates and racist stalwarts from Selma to DC, and even a presidential resignation, the populace had had enough. Countercultural revolutions in sex and society were buzzing through the 60s and 70s and greatly changed what Americans were aware of as possibilities and ways of life – and all of it was easily viewable on public television or recordable on tapes and records.

During periods of turbulence, populist figures, often those with grandiose claims, tend to rise to power – ideologues, demagogues, and autocrats. Out of the muck and mire of the mid-late-20th century rose a populist figure, a former actor and governor of California – Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s strong man politics, worship of capitalism, and declarations that he would end the woes of America won him the presidency. Reagan, with his Congress, destroyed social programs, sociopolitical infrastructure, and instead gave massive tax breaks to corporations, a move which would eventually lead to the modern income inequality and corruption we see today a half-century hence.

However, Reagan’s rise gave birth to the final turning point in this terrifying true story. By worshiping capitalism in the way he did, viewed by an America saturated in Cold War propaganda, Reagan became the first modern Pope of the US. Supplanting the Christian religion, which the government stoked during the Cold War to counter the “godless” communists, the cult of Reagan began the modern American religion of power – the Christian Capitalist. Viewable from televangelists to the halls of DC, the religious in the US have developed less worship of their god and more a worship of capitalism and the country they believe synonymous with it.

Ignorant Worship

While venerated previously, most civic veneration traditionally occurs after-the-fact – after the politician has retired or passed away. The modern civic religion of the United States is the exception to this typicality for western countries. While the individual who occupies the White House matters significantly, in modern America, it is not a specific President which is typically venerated. American Patriotism, a pillar of the American civic religion, and those who adhere to it, venerate and worship the offices and branches of government. Public regard for the President, above all, exemplifies this.

Most campaigns and post-election articles call for a similar stability and veneration. It doesn’t matter who was voted in or what they plan to do, however beneficial or horrendous, calls are for unity and respect for those voted in. As if winning gave them some immunity because they now occupied the oft-regarded sacred offices. American Presidents since Reagan are typically regarded by most centrists, neoliberals, and establishment conservatives as not only a political figurehead but the Pope of the civic religion – the Pope of Americanism.

The presidential office is respected similarly to how the hierarchical Roman Catholic priesthood operates. As for how they are venerated, the President is Pope, SCOTUS and the Vice President are Cardinals; the Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and Cabinet Members are Archbishops; Senators, Agency Heads, and State Governors are Bishops, and so forth. This civic religion is why calls to “respect the office” go out continually, but most often around elections.

While the Catholic Church might have their grand Cathedrals and Basilicas, the Church of the United States has monuments. Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Mount Rushmore, etc. all dedicated to specific political figure(s) who have achieved the true, last nod of the civic religion. They are canonized into the United States’s canon. Declared Saints of the United States. When this happens, these figures become part of storied, venerated history – part person, part myth to modern veneration.

Forgotten Tragedies

When canonized in the United States, a curious thing happens. All negatives associated with that individual tend to fall by the wayside, and only positives found for public worship. We can see this recently with the passing of George H.W. Bush. Freshly dead, many centrist and establishment sources are asking to remember him fondly and think of him, like most former figures, as a great American. Luckily, some aren’t giving in and sticking up for the truth, decrying H.W. Bush’s racism, homophobia, obstruction of justice, war crimes, and more.

This process has already begun with H.W.’s son, another former president, George W. Bush. Since Trump’s insanity has made W. Bush’s lackluster, warmongering presidency look paltry by comparison, even liberal figures such as Michelle Obama have shown narratives of W. Bush as a sweet, old man that she can get along with. A nice grandpa figure. As if that negates the scapegoat oil wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the murder of millions of middle eastern civilians, the indiscriminate bombings, the use of infinite imprisonment for those mostly innocent at Guantanamo, and the profiteering from the death, destruction, and degradation of people and economy, not to even mention his other atrocities.

This isn’t just a Republican thing either, however being more typically religious-adherent, they tend to worship the government harder. Democrats have worshiped Obama too. While I’d love to be able to look back at Obama fondly and remember someone who wanted to improve healthcare and LGBTQ rights, Obama is as guilty as his recent fellow presidents. He reigned over countless war crimes, foreign civilian deaths, deportations, capitalist exploitations, and ruinations as the rest. His socially-liberal positions, coupled with his minority status, merely made mass incarceration, deportation, and drone bombing more palatable for many. His economic and foreign policy positions made him in no way much different from his predecessor.

Unable To Improve

There are better ways to live, to govern, to orient one’s life ethically. They’re not some fantasy, they exist. However one of the worst problems of civic religion is that government becomes sacred, status quo becomes virtue, and founding laws become canon. Think of any time you’ve seen (or been) a person super ardent defending the Constitution. They defend it much more intently and fervently than just saying “this is the law.” Because laws can be changed, and often, should be. We can improve the ways laws are written and what should be legislated.

This fervor is religious fervor, because the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are, to those adherents of the American religion, as the Bible is to Christians or the Qu’ran is to Muslims. It is not just law. It is sacred canon holding sacred designs given to them by the first saints and prophets of the American religion, the Founding Fathers. This is the reason chimeric abominations such as The Founder’s Bible exist. This attachment to the traditional canons of law and organization make them very difficult to improve.

Like all human-created works, they can be changed, improved, and bettered for future posterity. However when regarded as sacred, as America’s civic religion does, improvement is regarded as blasphemy, heresy, and evil, not the virtue it should be regarded as. That is because adherents refuse to view the works as they are – just concepts on paper some person(s) wrote down. They are reluctant to change because they have so ingrained “America” with this civic religion that they can’t see the country being anything else than it already is or has been.

Through amendments to the Constitution, we can very readily begin curtailing the corruption found in this nation’s political system, by eliminating corporate personhood and unlimited bribery. We could require a reasonably-balanced budget. We could institute greater political access by expanding the ease of voting with automatic registration, eliminating rules minimizing and preventing third parties, and making a truly representative system which includes preferential voting and voting schemes which minimize the impact of gerrymandering (such as multi-member proportional systems). There are tons of ways we could make this country better. Ways we could use to change this bloated behemoth, which mostly feeds on and produces for special interests, into a true bastion of democracy and freedom, which to be quite honest, the US has never truly been.

Until this civic religion is disregarded or minimized, and until it can be decoupled with economic systems, it will continue to wreak havoc stagnating US cultural, economic, legal, political, and social progress. Status-quo-ism isn’t a virtue. It’s a death sentence. One sadly most Americans are all-to-eager to sentence themselves and their fellow citizens with.


Gwen is a queer trans woman in her mid-20s who was born and raised in central Iowa. A diverse generalist, Gwen’s passion lies in speaking, writing, community education, and activism. One can find her periodically lecturing at DMACC as a guest speaker.

The article graphic, “Civic Religion” by Gwen Hope, is the author’s own original artwork and used with permission. The work may be downloaded or purchased as a print on deviantArt.

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