Gardella, “American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred”

Next month, Oxford University Press will publish American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred by Peter Gardella (Manhattanville College). The publisher’s description follows.

The United States has never had an officially established national church. Since the time of the first British colonists, it has instead developed a strong civil religion that melds God and nation. In a deft exploration of American civil religious symbols-from the Liberty Bell to the Vietnam Memorial, from Mount Rushmore to Disney World-Peter Gardella explains how the places, objects, and words that Americans hold sacred came into being and how Americans’ feelings about them have changed over time. In addition to examining revered historical sites and structures, he analyzes such sacred texts as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the Kennedy Inaugural, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, and shows how five patriotic songs-“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” and “This Land Is Your Land”-have been elevated into hymns.
Arguing that certain values-personal freedom, political democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance-have held American civil religion together, Gardella chronicles the numerous forms those values have taken, from Jamestown and Plymouth to the September 11, 2001 Memorial in New York.

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One response to “Gardella, “American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred”

  1. I think it is an error to use the word “sacred” so glibly. Sacred to the Roman Catholic are lots of icons, baths, crucifixes and the like. Muslims hold the Koran so sacred that they kill persons who “defile” it.

    Martin Luther and his followers seem to have long since rejected the idea of sacred texts, sacred icons, magic words, blessing of new cars and the like. You won’t get a protestant in a killing mood by stepping on a Gideon Bible, for example. Martin Luther even addressed the Pope with:

    Who commanded you to establish this? “Silence, you heretic! What comes out of our mouth must be kept!” I hear it—which mouth do you mean? The one from which the farts come?

    I think it a direct result of the protestant idea of “priesthood of the believer” that leads him to shun sacraments, icons, magic numbers and sacred texts in general, although there are some superstitious protestants who do take baptism, communion and the Mark of the Beast somewhat seriously.

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