A civil religion moment

first_capitol_inaugurationI live in the same neighborhood as the U.S. Capitol where we will inaugurate Barack Obama as our next president. You would not believe the chaos -- some real, some manufactured -- as we head into this Tuesday. There are massive parking restrictions, road closures and bridge closures not to mention restrictions on what even pedestrians can carry within the security perimeter. The mainstream media -- including such heavyweights as the New York Times and Washington Post -- reported that houses in D.C. could be rented for thousands of dollars each night. My neighbors report that they've either had no nibbles for their rental ads or have dropped their prices to a few hundred a night. But when I realized that the media had gotten those stories wrong, I wondered if they hadn't served a ritual purpose. All cultures have chaos leading up to big parties and rites of passage. Think of Black Friday or your basic wedding craziness. Whether real or manufactured, there is clear cultural importance to having chaos leading up to this huge event.

There is, of course, a huge religion ghost here, although it's a civil religion ghost. According to sociologist Robert Bellah, Americans embrace a common civil religion with certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals. These traits may be independent of, parallel to or integrated with people's transcendent religious beliefs.

What's so funny about civil religion is how it's all around us but we never think consciously about it. We discuss the selection of inaugural clergy and the content of their prayers without putting it in the framework of civil religion. And we never think about whether civil religion has upsides and downsides, although, again, we skirt around these issues.

All of this to say that I was pleasantly surprised to come across a story in the Florida Times-Union devoted to the civil religious aspects of the inauguration. He compares the inauguration to a wedding or baptism.

Obama will be just another American citizen Tuesday morning. Tuesday night he will be the leader of one of the most powerful nations on earth. In between, he will undergo a status transformation through a rite of initiation.

"There has to be a ritual way of placing the mantle [of authority] on the person" becoming president, [religion scholar Julie] Ingersoll said. "This is how we legitimize them."

Rites of initiation are rituals that initiate a person or community into a new reality, Ingersoll said. Such ceremonies establish and celebrate the shedding of an older life in favor of a new life and identity.

Prime examples include baptism and weddings.

The story has some major weaknesses. His definition of baptism is a bit esoteric. And it relies on only two sources.

Just as it is in weddings, who's on the invite list sends a message.

By having white evangelist Rick Warren give the opening prayer and black minister and civil rights leader Joseph Lowery give the closing prayer, [associate professor of public policy at George Mason University Jeremy] Mayer said, Obama is sending a message he wants peace between the racial and religious branches of the American family.

I believe the word we're looking for is "evangelical" as opposed to "evangelist." The article looks at something related to what I described earlier -- following the chaos we get "sacred time" with the setting apart of hours and days for special inaugural festivities. There's also the notion of "sacred place" in Washington. And there's more:

The inaugural parade will showcase iconic memorials and monuments - each of them sacred in American imagination. The reviewing stand will be in front of the White House. The swearing in occurs on the steps of the Capitol.

"It's absolutely a civil religion moment," Mayer said, referring to the concept of the merger of American patriotism and faith.

Even the stuff of the ceremony is sacred.

Presidents are sworn in by the chief justice of the Supreme Court - the chief guardian of the nation's sacred Constitution - using a Bible.

Like I said, it's a great idea for a story. It would probably help to distinguish some of the ordinary nature of civil rites from the more religious overtones. Everyone has rituals for transfer of power, that doesn't always make them civil religion. The pressure to subvert religious distinctives while offering a prayer at a civic event might be more interesting. Or the tendency among many Americans to treat their favorite presidents as pastors-in-chief -- or more -- might make for a more interesting conversation as well. But a basic introduction to civil religion is necessary before we can plumb its depths.

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