Toxic Religion in the American Empire

Michael Northcott argues that the dominant religion of the USA is the religion of America with its rituals of the American flag, demanding constant human sacrifice.

Few in Britain in the last six years have really understood the deeply religious character of the reaction of the United States to the events of September 11th, 2001. And this is because few in this country understand that the dominant religion in the United States is not historic Christianity but a civil religion in which God is the Father of the nation while the apparatus of the nation-state, including its omnipresent military, is the embodied presence of America as the new Chosen People in the world. Therefore the religion of the New World is not so much the anti-imperial Christianity of the founder, Jesus Christ, as it is a religion of America whose core values are more American than New Testament. As I show in more detail in my book An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire these values represent a curious combination of individual liberty and patriotism which requires individuals regularly to commit themselves and their children, and a substantial proportion of their taxes and their nation’s resources, to war and preparations for war. This is why it was not hard for Bush to enlist so many American Christians, whose churches carry the flag in the sanctuary, in his neo-imperial crusade.

So strong are the demands of the American State on its citizens for their loyalty, and their preparedness to fight for America, that some suggest that the dominant religion in America is not the weekly attendance of Americans at their myriad churches and synagogues (and more recently temples and mosques) but the collective religion of America which some call civil religion, and others nationalism. It was civil religion, more than any particular Christian tradition or teaching, which paved the way for Bush’s sacralisation of his war on terror and the larger neo-conservative imperial agenda. Jean Jacques Rousseau might be said to have originated the concept of civil religion when he suggested in his The Social Contract that there is ‘a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject’. Such a faith does not compete with other religions, but rather it is grounded on tolerance of all religions ‘so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship’. Civil religion of this kind was seen by Rousseau, as by the influential sociologist Emile Durkheim, as providing the ritual focus for citizen commitment to the new society, a kind of social cement for the new Republic.

Rousseau’s ideas were embraced even more enthusiastically in America. While children in American public schools are not supposed to participate in public prayer, they do participate in a daily patriotic ritual before the American flag, in which they repeat a vow of allegiance to American values. Similarly would-be citizens must similarly salute the flag and profess that they own the values and beliefs that make a person an American. As Robert Bellah argues, Americans through their history have developed ‘a collection of beliefs, symbols and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalised in a collectivity’ which amounts to a civil religion: ‘American civil religion 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 the nations.’ In a very real sense America is a religion and participation in this religion is required of all American citizens to a lesser or greater extent depending on the kind of community they inhabit.

At the core of the religion which is America are the rituals of the American flag. In their book Blood Sacrifice and the Nation Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle argue that the flag is the primitive totem which lies at the heart of a sacrificial system that binds American citizens together as a nation. Drawing on the totemic theory of Durkheim they propose that the flag is ‘the emblem of the group’s agreement to be a group’. The flag is marked as magical and sacred by legal attempts to outlaw the burning of the flag, by rituals which require children to salute the flag in school, in uniformed organisations, and on camps, by its placement in the sanctuary of many churches as well as in all government and court buildings, and above all by its use to wrap the coffins of America’s war dead, and its precise ritual folding and gifting to the parents or relatives of the slain as a lasting totemic reminder of the victim. The sacrificial system of which the flag is the totem is ‘endlessly re-enacted in patriotic life and ritual’ from the everyday ceremonial saluting of the flag to special events such as Presidential election campaigns sustained with masses of flag-waving supporters and images of the flag on hustings, and the use of the flag by America’s military in America’s wars. But while the structure of the mythic life of the nation which the flag rituals sustain is familiar to Americans, the secret that the totem conceals is that:

blood sacrifice preserves the nation. Nor is the sacrifice that counts that of our enemy. The totem secret, the collective group taboo, is the knowledge that society depends on the death of its own members, at the hands of the group’.

That the United States has at its heart a religion that requires the regular sacrificial death of the adult children of its older citizens in its numerous and regular wars is obscured by the mythology of American individualism. As the overt ‘defining myth of America’ individualism disguises the reality of blood sacrifice that the collective requires by identifying the victims of this violent blood letting as ‘sacrificial heroes’ who freely choose to give their lives in a heroic and virtuous fashion for the noble cause of America. The taboo which the enduring myth of American individualism helps to maintain is the totemic need for violence which is at the heart of American nationalism.

Of course Americans do not consciously see themselves as inhabiting such a sacred and sacrificial victim system. Blood sacrifice is seen as a feature of primitive societies – for example of Native American communities – rather than of the modern enlightened and progressive society which is America. The anthropologist René Girard argues that violent sacrifice is at the core of all ritual systems such as those which surround the American flag as a magical object. According to Girard rituals with a sacrificial element – not all sacrificial rituals involve the death of a victim – are means that societies utilise to contain competition and rivalry, and to prohibit murder and violence outside of legally and ritually defined contexts. The individual who is chosen as the victim is in effect a scapegoat for the community. In order to deal with crises which seem to threaten the community’s identity – sickness, climatic events, sibling or group rivalry – the scapegoat is burdened with the threats or shortcomings which the group experiences and is persecuted or cast out, shamed or killed. Moderns imagine that they no longer inhabit such ritual systems of victimage and killing, and that they have cleansed their societies of the need to identify and persecute scapegoats. But on the contrary Girard finds that such systems exist in almost all societies including the modern, and the combination of ritual victimage with science and technology is moreover particularly dangerous, because the existence of modern weapons of mass destruction threatens humanity not just with the occasional ritual slaughter of individuals, or even large numbers of individuals, but with complete annihilation.

In their account of blood sacrifice in America, Marvin and Ingle acknowledge their debt to Girard when they suggest that the ‘collective victimage’ associated with the American flag ‘constructs American national identity’. And they identify an ambiguous relation between the denominational religions of America with this collective victimage system. Officially the United States gives freedom to all religious groups as denominations or sects but this freedom implies that there is no religious monopoly in America. But this is ironic because while denominationalism gives up the claim of religious monopoly to the State, it sustains the reality that the State in America is in effect the deity of American civil religion because only the State, and not the deity, is capable of demanding sacrifice. The State, and not the denomination, has the monopoly on violence and on killing:

The first principle of every religious system is that only the deity may kill. The State, which does kill, allows whoever accepts these terms to exist, to pursue their own beliefs and call themselves what they like in the process. In the broadest sense, the purpose of religion is to organise killing energy. This is how it accomplishes its social function of defining and organising the group. By this standard, nationalism is unquestionably the most powerful religion in the United States.

It is however taboo to admit that blood sacrifice is the organising principle of the United States, although this is the reality of America’s successive engagement of its young men, and more recently young women, in wars both at home and overseas. The extensive mobilisation of the flag in military institutions and rituals, including the complex death rituals which require the return of the bodies of American war dead to the soil of the United States shrouded in the flag, indicates the true proximity of the flag rituals of the stars and stripes to the enduring practice of bloody sacrifice.

There could be no more powerful illustration of the extent to which the flag is the transcendent symbol at the heart of the American victimage cult of nationalism than the mass mobilisation of the flag right across America after the events of September 11th. After 9/11 it was normal for householders to erect a large cloth Stars and Stripes in the grounds of their homes, so much so that those who chose not to do this were subjected to accusations of a lack of patriotism by their neighbours and friends. As cars and coat lapels were also used for flag display – George W. Bush and his team all began wearing flag badges on their clothing after 9/11 – the association between the violent death of Americans in New York and the Pentagon and patriotic displays of the stars and stripes has now become culturally ubiquitous in America post-September 11th.

The association of the flag with a mass out-pouring of patriotism which united the vast majority of Americans behind a formerly deeply unpopular President after September 11th indicates a central element in Marvin and Ingle’s thesis, which is that it is the violent death of Americans and not of America’s enemies which is the true sacrifice that is effective in uniting the nation around its totem flag. This insight may also indicate why Americans have been so quick to fall away in their support of the Bush administration in its decision to go to war in Iraq, because while there were many tens of thousands of Iraqi dead, there were, thanks to America’s overwhelming technological superiority, less than one hundred killed in action before the formal phase of the war was declared over. According to Marvin and Ingle, ‘not winning or losing but serious bloodletting is the important factor in ritual success.’

The argument that the civil religion of America is a totemic sacrificial system involving regular militarised conflict and death is obviously controversial. And yet it makes a great deal of sense of the extent to which America as a nation has been, and remains, prepared to commit so many of its people, and so much of its resources, to the military, and to weapons of killing. More than 6 million people served in the Korean war, almost 9 million in the Vietnam War; half a million were engaged in the first Gulf War, and almost as many in the second Gulf War. In these four wars America had more than 110,000 war dead, and 250,000 wounded. None of these were wars involved any threat to the territorial integrity of the United States. But they served a larger purpose, in advancing the religion of America.

If this thesis is correct then the religion of America is truly a toxic and death-dealing religion. How is it that American Christianity has so thoroughly acceded the ground to the American nation state in the maintenance of this cult of blood sacrifice around its totem? A core part of the answer lies in the church-state relationship carved out by the Founding Fathers which left the churches in charge of the faith and religious experiences of Americans, and the State in charge of their bodies. This division of labour is legitimated by the extent to which churches have embraced the totem symbol of the flag, and the larger civil religion which surrounds it. The vast majority of churches and synagogues display the American flag in or around their church buildings, and many place it in the Sanctuary. Denominational religious services will include reference to such key civil religious festivals as Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July, and the more recently inaugurated Martin Luther King Day. American churches also participate in the American dream and celebrate the American way of life in a whole range of ways, from incorporating reference to consumer products in church magazines to celebrating in religious services the prosperity or career advancement of their members through public testimony to the blessing of God. The phenomenon of the megachurch takes this celebration to new heights when the church building becomes a mall surrounded like other malls by a massive car park and offering everything from sports and leisure facilities and shopping outlets to computer chat rooms, cafés and counselling and therapy rooms to its members, as well as a cinema-style worship auditorium where again the flag is typically prominently displayed.

The pervasive influence of the flag and civil religion on American Christians is indicated also by the role the churches played in the swell of patriotic feeling and national mourning which occurred after 9/11. It was particularly notable that President Bush used an address at the prayer service held on 14th September 2001 in the National Cathedral in Washington DC both to praise the fortitude of Americans in their response to the tragedy and to indicate an intent to ‘rid the world of evil’, an intent to which not even Jesus Christ ever laid claim: ‘Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history, but our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.’ This statement in this ritual context indicates that Bush goes much further than Ronald Reagan in a preparedness to mobilise American civil religion in garnering support to his sense of divine mission in taking up the battle against ‘America’s enemies’. Bush, like Reagan, believes that America alone stands fully and with strength against the evils of totalitarianism and tyranny. In just the same way conservative Christian evangelist Timothy LaHaye, head of the American Coalition for Traditional Values, argues that were it not for America ‘our contemporary world would have completely lost the battle for the mind and would doubtless live in a totalitarian, one-world, humanistic state’.

This contiguity between conservative Protestantism and civil religion indicates the roots of American civil religion in Protestant Christianity. But the dogmas of civil religion are significantly different from orthodox Christianity, neglecting as they do Trinitarian belief, and in particular the Incarnation of Jesus Christ who resists evil non-violently Christianity. But the dogmas of civil religion are significantly different and is put to death at the hands of Empire, and stressing instead the Deist account of a distant creator God who sets the world in motion, and whose divine purposes for human history, and in particular American history, are revealed as a kind of latent providence. America’s God is not so much a God who stands in judgment over the nations, including an unfaithful Israel – the God of the Old Testament – nor the God of the New Testament who intervenes in human history on behalf of the poor and the oppressed in the midst of a decadent and all-powerful Roman empire. He (and it is really a he that is meant here) is rather a national deity, a kind of divine Father of the nation who prospers America and fights with America against her enemies, and who receives the bloody sacrifice of America’s own with gratitude. As Robert Bellah argues in his classic essay on American civil religion, it seems to function most effectively when it appeals to a ‘transcendent religious reality’, a reality which is ‘revealed through the experience of the American people’. It is to this sense of the transcendent significance of the experience of being American that Bush appeals so often in his speeches. America’s God is a God who acts on the world in and through America, and through America’s military, and not in and through Jesus Christ and the Spirit who indwells his people.

The sacred vision of America as standing in some crucial and exceptional sense at the end of history, as the first and last truly Biblical nation, has played a key role in the history of America, for the idea that America is the Kingdom of God on Earth, that it stands at the beginning of the Biblically predicted millennium of peace has become deeply established in the American psyche. Bush drew on this imagery for his first inaugural address as President, and even more so in his announcement of an apocalyptic ‘war on terror’ in which those who were not with America were said to be against her. This sacralisation of a crusade against terrorism and America’s enemies is not though simply some strange aberration from the secular drift of American liberalism. On the contrary it has profound and long-standing roots in the religious and political history of America.

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