Posted in civil religion, commemoration, material culture, memorials, military, monuments, myths, religion, rituals

Monuments of Civil Religion

Caterine, Darryl. “Monuments of Civil Religion.” In The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture, edited by John Lyden and Eric Michael Mazur. London; New York: Routledge, 2015.

In this chapter, Caterine presents religious and national notions of memorial space as distinct. He bookends his argument with Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay on American civil religion to show that the Puritan-derived national mythology has not unified the nation. According to Caterine, “Bellah hoped that by directing public attention to the mythic core of national identity—an amalgam of biblical ideals inherited from the Puritans—scholars of American religion could lend a hand to the cause of national reconciliation.” (393) But memorials since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial have “enshrined dissent as the unifying ideal of the citizenry. (Bellah’s essay was written at the height of the Vietnam War.) These memorials speak to American pluralism rather than a unified identity.

Caterine describes the creation of the National Parks Service and Washington, D.C. as national tourism spaces. As a transportation infrastructure developed, tourism provided Washington with a new way of conceptualizing and showcasing national memory. The National Mall became the memorial hub of the nation with the Washington Monument at its center. War memorials, which commemorated and sanctified the ultimate sacrifice that citizens undergo for their nation, “come closest to traditional religious monuments—analogous to temples of human sacrifice dedicated to the gods, or shrines built to house the holy remains of martyrs.” (388) Sacrifice is venerated because it is through sacrifice that the nation continues.

Caterine notes that during the 1960s, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the mass protests against the Vietnam War, the National Mall was transformed from “a memorial space of unity into a theater of protest.” (390)

Interestingly, he also points out that national unity was originally undercut by the Republican ethos of political decentralization and individualism. He states,

A striking example of this perspective was reflected in the proposal made by John Nicholas, a Virginian congressman and close friend of Thomas Jefferson, during the first debates over how to memorialize George Washington. Rather than building a crypt or erecting a statue, Nicholas suggested leaving a plain tablet in the nation’s capital, upon which each citizen could express what the Revolutionary hero meant to him. Further, the ambiguous meanings of Civil War battlefields, as interpreted alternatively by Northerners and Southerners during the heyday of national consolidation, offers a precedent for the political battles over national memory in the late twentieth century. (391)

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