Rekindling America’s Civic Liturgy
America is a nation torn asunder by debates over its self-identity: our monuments, the proper etiquette during our national anthem, and, as the approach of Columbus Day reminds us, who in our collective past is worthy of celebration. These debates can be worthwhile, particularly as they orient our gaze beyond ourselves to what is most valuable to American self-conception. Essential, though, is that these conversations be contextualized within a broader paradigm of what constitutes a uniquely American “civic liturgy” that is worth preserving both for ourselves and for our children.
Although the word “liturgy” is usually associated with Christian worship, it’s actually a far older concept that the early Christians borrowed from the pagan Greeks. The original word, leitourgia, literally means “work of the people.” The term signified expensive offerings that wealthy Greeks would make in service to the people and thus to the polis. The leitourgia were assigned by the polis and subsequently the Roman Empire, and became obligatory by the third century A.D. The holders of a leitourgia were entrusted with a particular ritual that would be performed publicly. In Demosthenes’ day, there were about 100 liturgical appointments in Athens for festivals.
As the early Church grew and developed more robust ceremonial practices, it adopted the idea of “liturgy” from the Greeks to mean prayer, particularly public participation in the Church’s highest form of prayer, the sacrament of the Eucharist. The idea of a sacrament, so closely tied to the liturgy in Christian theology, is itself also a word borrowed from pagans. The sacramentum was a Roman soldier’s oath of allegiance to the military and the Roman state, a sacred rite that united the individual to the greater polis.
Before he was Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his The Spirit of the Liturgy offered helpful guidance in articulating what a true American civil liturgy should look like. Christian liturgy, Ratzinger explains, is worship oriented outside oneself, conducted in proper order for the sake of making right all aspects of life. He explains, “It is only, therefore, when man’s relationship with God is right that all of his other relationships—his relationships with his fellowmen, his dealings with the rest of creation—can be in good order.” Man needs this externalizing of himself precisely to determine what is most essential to himself. Ratzinger adds, “worship, that is, the right kind of cult, of relationship with God, is essential for the right kind of human existence in the world. It is so precisely because it reaches beyond everyday life.”
In one sense, the most powerful political leaders of the last century understood the value of secular civic liturgy quite well. Fashioning various forms of public memorials, monuments, and shared holidays can strengthen group identity, particularly against “evil” outsiders.” North Korea’s first supreme leader, Kim Il-sung, a descendant of Protestant clergy who was raised in a devout Presbyterian family, sought to replicate Christian liturgy in forming his own state communist religion, a tactic that served his son, and now grandson, quite well. The same can be said of communist China, Soviet Russia, and Nazi Germany, each of which sought to persuade their citizens that their state was itself heaven on earth. Ratzinger notes:
A life without such anticipation, a life no longer opened up to heaven, would be empty, a leaden life. That is why there are in reality no societies altogether lacking in cult. Even the decidedly atheistic, materialistic systems create their own forms of cult, though, of course, they can only be an illusion and strive in vain, by bombastic trumpeting, to conceal their nothingness.
To avoid this nothingness and vanity, an American civic liturgy does not call its adherents to worship the state, but the divine power that created and sustains it. This, as I’ve argued elsewhere in TAC, is an idea common in the writings of the Founders of the American nation, visible in the philosophy of Abraham Lincoln, and even detectable in our contemporary leaders. Yet beyond simply a reference to a higher power to which America owes its existence, our nation requires the sorts of ceremonies, public rituals, and memorials as are found in Christian liturgical practice. This is necessary for the very political union our forefathers aimed to foster. Ratzinger argues, “law and ethics do not hold together when they are not anchored in the liturgical center and inspired by it.”
What, then, constitutes America’s civic liturgy and sacraments? Certainly holidays that honor the most important persons in our shared history, our own “civic saints,” are one element. Yet I would argue that there is far more. For example, the Church’s liturgy includes ancient songs and verses that have been uttered since the earliest centuries of her existence. So should American liturgy include music. Yes, the national anthem, “God Bless America,” and John Philip Sousa, but much else that is uniquely American is worthy of remembrance. The recent death of Aretha Franklin should remind us that we have often abandoned our rich musical heritage. Blues, bluegrass, country, jazz, and rock & roll are all American in origin, and their best manifestations need to be played and known in public civic rituals. Americans should be able to recognize the distinct Motown sound of Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross, the crooning voice of Hank Williams, the thumping beats of John Lee Hooker, the beautiful notes of Chet Baker.
The Church has her Eucharist, so we should perpetuate and strengthen our communal meals—not only Thanksgivings and Christmases, but grilling on Memorial Day and Independence Day, and consuming the many forms of apple products that perpetuate our nation’s fall festivals. Foods that are uniquely American need to be recalled, appreciated, and learned by ourselves and our children. Something as simple as apple picking can reconnect us with our agricultural heritage and provide opportunities to mourn what has been lost and should be rediscovered. Did you know there were once 17,000 varieties of apples in North America? Now there are only about 15 modern choices. How impoverished we’ve become in favoring consumerist ease over the beauty and complexity of our heritage.
In her liturgy, the Church reads from her Holy Scriptures. We Americans have our own great texts—not only our founding political documents, but the great literature that defined the American experience. Before schoolchildren read the kinds of recently published postmodern drivel I was exposed to in high school, they should be intimately familiar with Twain, Hawthorne, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Harper Lee, among many others. These are American voices, and we need to understand how they are our own and shape our identity before we can understand other cultures and people.
Liturgy, Ratzinger explains, is not a “matter of ‘what you please.’” It is rather something we all share, including our checkered historical past, warts and all. If we erase it, as so many progressive zealots seek to do, we cannot learn from it. Even the Catholic liturgy makes room for such confession and repentance, when worshippers declare, “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” We Americans have our own most grievous faults, and remembering and understanding them—and how none of us are free of guilt—should be an integral part of our civil liturgy.
Religious liturgy is ultimately focused on making the past “present,” and then orienting worshippers’ eyes to the future. This is precisely what we should seek to accomplish in our own civic rites, whether they be political, musical, culinary, literary, or athletic. We must learn and know our past so that we might better shape our future. Otherwise our weakened public rites become, as Ratzinger argues, “self-seeking worship,” a “kind of banal self-gratification” defined by “self-initiated and self-seeking worship.” That aptly describes the near-pornography visible during such civic rites as the Super Bowl. This kind of liturgy has “become pointless, just fooling around.” Worse yet, it reflects an apostasy against not only the God who gave us this great land, but against all of our ancestors who worked to fashion one of the greatest nations this earth has ever known.
For the sake of our mothers and fathers, for ourselves, and for our own children, we must work to rekindle a distinctively American civic liturgy worthy of our nation. As with the Church, our very future depends upon it.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.