Resurging nationalism in U.S. culture
By Julissa Trevino
It was practically a riot: people screamed and cheered for the next president in the name of “hope” and “change.” Hundreds of students rallied on the quads of the Ithaca College campus celebrating the election of Democratic nominee Barack Obama. The IC campus became a place of worship.
That night no one was working quietly in their rooms, as many students had been gathering all evening to watch the results of the election unfold on a television screen. Wherever there were people watching the election, there was naturally noise of excitement exuding from the thin walls of the IC dorm rooms.
There were yells and screams (“Obama won!”) outside my door for the next few minutes until a massive crowd congregated outside the Terraces. The excitement picked up momentum until reaching the quads, where people united in celebration of the president-elect. People cheered, “Yes-We-Can, Yes-We-Can” and screamed “Obama” until tears rolled down their eyes.
Obama has been cemented as a symbol for change, hope and belonging, while nationalism is being revived as an undeniable, unavoidable and indefinite religious fact in American society.
Rachel Wagner, professor of religion at IC, referred to the election gathering on campus to show how religious practices can happen anywhere. “People felt a sense of hope, they felt a sense of purpose, they felt like they belonged as part of a group and they were singing songs… they were doing a kind of religious work.”
“Given the election, it’s interesting to see that more people are finding that sense of community… it’s interesting to think about what qualities this particular election may have had — and Barack Obama himself — to inspire this sort of devotion,” Wagner said, sitting in her Park office that looks like an American pop culture museum, filled with books and films that in one way or another relate to religion. “From the Democratic standpoint, Republicans have always been able to invoke religion as a means of supporting aspects of civil religion, but Democrats not so much.” Until Obama.
Civil religion is a set of beliefs, worldviews and practices that unite Americans with a sense of shared purpose and identity. Beliefs are focused on what is meaningful and what it means to live a good life, Wagner said. In American civil religion, the American flag, the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance and national and historical myths and stories all serve as rituals and symbols that hold meaning to Americans. These symbols give us a shared belief that these things are “sacred” in our history.
Civil religion can be either nationalism or patriotism, though both have two distinct connotations. Patriotism is usually defined as a love or devotion for one’s country, while nationalism refers to the ideology and culture of focusing on the nation as a point of unity, belonging and devotion-a more religious kind of patriotism.
“It’s hard to not be Christian in America, and I think that it’s probably harder to practice civil religion in America if you’re not Christian because of the close association that Christianity has had and has with patriotism,” Wagner said. The U.S. has a Christian-dominated history, so it is not surprising that religion and politics are so mixed together. According to David Morgan in his book The Sacred Gaze, Protestantism in American history has thrived when another institution challenges its authority. Following the disestablishment of state-sponsored religion, the increasing threat of non-Protestant immigrants and the rise of democracy through the 19th century, says Morgan, Protestants fought back with a distribution of Christian literature and an encouragement of using the Bible in public education.
“So it’s civil religion and the manifestation in a country where the flag and the Bible seem to be inextricably linked,” said James R. Henery, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Ithaca, during a September sermon about “the politics of faith.”
Morgan suggests that as Protestantism and religion itself were increasingly driven out of the public sector, nationalistic symbols and rituals replaced Christian ones (like the image of Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ as a symbol of American values), but still kept religious value and significance because Christians practiced them.
“[Separation of Church and State] is not a clear line. The line of separation isn’t in practice,” Rodriguez said. “Religion is at the basis of social organizations. There’s a lot of that basis of organization that transfers into politics because there are interests involved. It ends up being politicized.”
The Sallman image of Jesus, Head of Christ, is a 1940 painting that represents Jesus as a white, peaceful, angelic figure. According to Morgan, Protestant missionaries took that image abroad to Africa as a tool for teaching and a representation of America,. It was also used as a nonsectarian image of Jesus to promote the idea that the U.S. was a Christian nation. For many, Head of Christ represented a national icon under which Americans could unite and form a national identity. Another Sallman painting, Christ Our Pilot, in which Jesus leads a young boy to the right path, was inspired by a 1944 World War II poster encouraging sailors to fight the good fight.
During the Jackson administration, the idea of a godly power was used to form a following of Manifest Destiny, the “divine” right of the U.S., the Christian nation, to expand westward.
Today civil religion, especially nationalism, holds a strong connection with Christian values. According to Morgan, nationalism does not supersede religion-it develops from it. Neither Wagner nor Rodriguez believe that separation of church and state is possible.
Civic symbols, Wagner said, are the way “people project their sense of belonging, our sense of being a member of America.” However, she does not believe that to be American, one must participate in civil religion.
Still, civil religion is all around us-it is the symbols and rituals of the United States and, of course, the practice that surrounds them that makes them significant.
“It was spontaneous and crazy and euphoric. There was screaming and sparklers and random people with instruments,” Emily George, IC sophomore, said about the Obama rally on campus. “And we sang patriotic songs.”
The crowd banged pots and pans, hugged and even began to sing the National Anthem at one point. Tears rolled down many faces and people felt truly happy.
Though far from an institutionalized religious ceremony, the campus gathering really did religious work. It united students on campus, gave people a sense of hope and the will to say they’re proud of the U.S.
Religion may not be directly instilled in politics today as it once was, but its presence is still there. Nationalism requires a religious devotion to a country, politics or even politicians themselves. With the election of Obama, nationalism is getting revamped as a positive ideology in politics.
Julissa Treviño is a junior writing major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.