Posted in 19th century America, Christianity, civil religion, commemoration, journal articles, material culture, memorials, military, monuments, religion, tourism, WWI, WWII

Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire

Ebel, Jonathan H. “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire.” Material Religion 8, no. 2 (2012): 183-214.

In “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire,” Jonathan H. Ebel examines twenty-three American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) cemeteries as American sacred space.[1] The cemeteries are dedicated to fallen soldiers and war workers of World Wars I and II and stand as “powerful symbols for America’s commitment to peace overseas.”[2] By first discerning the fused Christian and American symbolism and their related theologies and mythologies, which are embedded within the memorials and markers, Ebel revealed tensions between these sacred narratives and the histories they contain and conceal.

Ebel presents a concise, consistent, and coherent argument throughout the article. He opens with a quote from a sermon presented to the congregation of Astoria, Oregon’s First Methodist Church by Reverend Aaron Allen Heist on Christmas Day 1919, which compared the Christian incarnation to soldiering. Ebel infers, “Soldiers were to America as Christ was to God: the suffering, serving incarnation of the divine will.” This analogy, connecting Christ’s sacrifice to the sacrifice of the fallen soldier, can be seen throughout the article. In the first three pages, Ebel presents his main thesis, outlines the physical sites he will analyze in order to argue his points, and then explains how he will complicate his argument. His main thesis is that the ABMC intentionally developed these cemeteries as sacred space on foreign soil as a way to legitimize both Christian and American sacrifice. His arguments and evidence show how this organization accomplished their goal. Ebel’s final section explores “spatial and narrative challenges” to the ABMC’s claims of sacrality and their implications for future American sacred spaces.[3]

Ebel, who is a religious history scholar, interpreted the symbolism and landscape of ABMC’s cemeteries through primary source materials provided on their official website. Supplementary primary source materials were gathered from Stars & Stripes; a daily United States military newspaper, an unpublished manuscript written by Major General Thomas North, who served with the ABMC for over forty-five years; War Department (now the Department of Defense) reports; documents found in several archives of personal papers; and PBS’s 2009 documentary, Hallowed Grounds: America’s Overseas Military Cemeteries. Ebel’s secondary resources include some of the most important works in this field, which include Ed Linenthal’s Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefelds (1993), Ed Linenthal and David Chidester’s American Sacred Space (1995), Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle’s Blood Sacrifce and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (1999), and Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (2009).

The article is divided into seven distinct sections. The first section establishes Ebel’s thesis and the intended approach to his argument. Within this section, he offers an overview to established scholarship. Section two, “Burying the Dead, American Style,” outlines the history of ABMC’s policy development for burying American soldiers on foreign soil. Ebel emphasizes two very important observations at the end of this section. First, he notes that “the ABMC marked the graves of unknown Great War soldiers with crosses or Stars of David in proportion to their rates of service, the graves of all unknown World War II soldiers—with a single exception in Manila—are marked with crosses.”[4] This assertion supports his claims that these American memorials on foreign soil increasingly act to legitimate Christian sacrifice. Second, Ebel claims that eight ABMC World War I cemeteries were dedicated twenty years after entry into the war, acting to reassert America’s greatness for “anyone—French, English, Belgian, German—who might think the American war effort unimpressive.”[5]

The next three sections offer case studies of specific ABMC cemeteries located in France: Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Normandy American Cemetery, and Suresnes American Cemetery. Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is a World War I cemetery and Normandy American Cemetery is from World War II. Suresnes American Cemetery, which houses the war dead from both wars, is unique in that it has been dedicated three times by major American voices: President Woodrow Wilson, American Ambassador to France William C. Bullitt, and General George C. Marshall.

Ebel complicates ABMC’s sacralizing mission in the sixth section, “Ideals, Bodies, and the National Sacred,” although, he moved far too quickly through this section. He mentions various examples of people buried at these sites whose stories do not fit the overarching narrative. However, I was left with more questions than answers. The article’s conclusion calls for a more expansive understanding of these cemeteries and the soldiers buried in them. Ebel points to the heroism and saintliness expounded at these site, but he notes that “the graves hold the bodies of particular people whose own narratives of war may or may not validate this saintly narrative.”[6]

It is interesting that the article appeared in Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief, a journal whose mission is to “explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts.”[7] Ebel’s article does indeed focus on religious symbolism, but it strongly concentrates on nationality, government process, and the military. Searching the journal’s online portal, numerous articles that address issues of war, the military, and soldiers have been published in this journal. If I had read this article without knowing where it was published, I would not have considered this particular journal; however, after further consideration, I am not sure that a journal dedicated to military history or religious history would publish content containing a strong symbolic interpretation such as this article.

[1] According to the ABMC’s official website, they are responsible for 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 27 federal memorials, monuments and markers, which are located in 16 foreign countries, the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the British Dependency of Gibraltar; three of the memorials are located within the United States. “Cemeteries & Memorials,” American Battle Monuments Commission, accessed February 1, 2017, Ebel’s research focuses on the twenty-three cemeteries that were under the ABMC’s jurisdiction as of 2012.

[2] Hallowed Grounds: America’s Overseas Military Cemeteries, directed by Robert Uth (PBS Home Video, 2009).

[3] Jonathan H. Ebel, “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire,” Material Religion 8, no. 2 (2012): 188.

[4] Ibid., 195-96.

[5] Ibid., 196.

[6] Ibid., 211.

[7] Journal website:

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)

Posted in civil religion, commemoration, religion, rituals

Civil Religion in America

Bellah, Robert N. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 134, no. 4 (2005): 40-55.

In “Civil Religion in America,” Robert Bellah examines Presidential addresses from Lincoln and Kennedy to argue that American civil religion is distinct from traditional religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, etc., although it exhibits the defining characteristics and features of those religions.

The phrase “civil religion” comes from Rousseau’s The Social Contract, where he outlines the simple dogmas of the civil religion: 1) the existence of God, 2) the life to come, 3) the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and 4) the exclusion of religious intolerance. Bellah points out that Rousseau was a contemporary of the founding fathers, pointing specifically to Benjamin Franklin.[1]

Bellah notes that most Americans are familiar with certain stories and archetypes, which originate in Judeo-Christian traditions, regardless of religious affiliation. Some of these ideas include the Exodus story of Moses and the Hebrews leaving Egypt, the concept of a promised land (found in multiple incarnations throughout the Old and New Testaments), and act of sacrificial death and rebirth to make way for a new world. Bellah writes,

Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.[2]

The important turning point for America’s civil religion was the Civil War. This is when “a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the civil religion,” according to Bellah. [3] This change is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address became the “New Testament” of the civil scriptures. Bellah asserts that Lincoln, “our martyred president,” became linked to the war dead, “those who ‘gave the last full measure of devotion.’” [4] He also notes that the “theme of sacrifice was indelibly written into the civil religion” through physical and ritualistic expression. Bellah writes,

The great number of the war dead required the establishment of a number of national cemeteries. Of these, the Gettysburg National Cemetery, which Lincoln’s famous address served to dedicate, has been overshadowed only by the Arlington National Cemetery. Begun somewhat vindictively on the Lee estate across the river from Washington, partly with the end that the Lee family could never reclaim it, it has subsequently become the most hallowed monument of the civil religion. Not only was a section set aside for the Confederate dead, but it has received the dead of each succeeding American war. It is the site of the one important new symbol to come out of World War I, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; more recently it has become the site of the tomb of another martyred president and its symbolic eternal flame.[5]

America’s civil religion incorporates many of the same types of religious elements found in traditional religions: beliefs  and events that seem to reveal God’s purposes (most notably the American Revolution and the Civil War), prophets (especially Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln), sacred places (shrines to wars and presidents), sacred texts (such as the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address), ceremonies (Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans’ Day celebrations, etc.), and rituals (prayers at public events and saluting the flag).

Bellah wrote this essay in 1967, near the height of the Vietnam War (and a year before the Tet Offensive). He reflects on the dangers of a country that feels that it answers to no one: “Without an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment, the tradition of the civil religion would be dangerous indeed.”[6]

[1] Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 134, no. 4 (2005): 43.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Ibid., 48.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 54.

Posted in African Americans, civil religion, commemoration, material culture, paternalism, racism, religion, rituals, slavery

In the Name of the Father

Furstenberg, François. In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

In In the Name of the Father, Francois Furstenberg argues that American nationalism was created in the aftermath of George Washington’s death through public engagement with material culture, especially civic texts. To a large degree, Washington was deified and his 1796 Farewell Address was canonized, along with The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. A prominent feature of evangelical Protestantism was the action of “engraving” key words on the heart.[1] Furstenberg asserts that Americans were taught to “take Washington into their hearts just as they took Jesus into their hearts.”[2] The Constitution was to be read in the same manner as citizens read the Ten Commandments. Furstenberg notes that American nationalism developed like other cultural systems, such as religion.[3] Furstenberg’s arguments build from Benedict Anderson’s work that stresses the power of print and education to construct national bonds.

Washington’s legacy was manipulated through popular civic texts. Furstenberg argues that through reading civic texts, such as Washington’s Farewell Address, Mason Locke Weems’s Life of Washington, and schoolbooks like the Columbian Orator and English Reader, Americans “learned the meaning of citizenship, and future generations learned to subscribe to the values of their fathers.”[4] Furstenberg shows how nationalism was promoted through “affective, emotive, even patriarchal appeals.”[5] Washington was to be venerated as the father of a new nation.

National identity was generated through two concepts that were diametrically opposed: “consent” and “slavery.” Even as the Founding Fathers articulated their vision of government grounded in consent, slavery was woven into the fabric of everyday life. “The presence of slavery, in short, undermined both the meaning of consent in the republic, and the very unity post-Revolutionary nationalism sought to enact.”[6]

Washington’s last will and testament, which legally freed some of his slaves, was added to the canon of nationalist texts. His will was “widely republished and quickly became a celebrated document.”[7]  Eulogies that followed Washington’s death focused on the threat slavery and slave insurrections posed to the nation’s future.[8]  Furstenberg also notes that slave insurrection were real fears of this time. News of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), and Gabriel’s slave conspiracy (1800) traveled far. Even Martha Washington, wife of the “father of the nation,” lived her last days among “hundreds of enslaved people she called family, people she believed would try to kill her.”[9] In addition, Jefferson’s grandchild-in-law feared that her black “family” would murder her.[10]

Furstenberg identifies two distinct narratives of Washington and slavery that emerged after his death. The first was an abolitionist interpretation that dwelled on Washington’s decision to free his slaves. It helped to mute fears of slave insurrection and threats to national unity by advancing a teleological understanding that all slaves would eventually be emancipated. The second narrative promoted the myth of plantation benevolence and slavery as a benign institution based on paternal affection. Furstenberg points out that both narratives promoted a “paternalist ideology of early American nationalism” which placed slavery at the center of Washington’s life.[11]

The particular challenge for those building American nationalism was to reconcile the consent of the governed with the enslaved, who could not give their consent. In a painting, “Death of Washington Dec. 14 AD 1799,” crying slaves and stoic white people surround Washington on his deathbed.[12] Furstenberg claims, “the Washington mythology opened a space for the incorporation of slaves into this national family, with slaves, like white Americans, united in bonds of affection and gratitude to Washington.”[13] Furstenberg claims that the enslaved’s bonds of affection (e.g., tears at Washington’s death) signaled a tacit consent to their enslavement, which allowed for a reconciliation between slavery and the new U.S. nationalism.[14]

The autonomous American identity was constructed against the idea of “the slave.” Schoolbooks taught free, white American children how to be “industrious, virtuous, thrifty, and religious” autonomous individuals.[15] However, white people imagined slaves to be “lazy, immoral, dissolute, and heathen.”[16] Different texts instilled an ethic of self-control, subordination, and obedience in enslaved black children, which helped to abate concerns about slave unrest. But, as Furstenberg shows through Frederick Douglass and his story “The Heroic Slave,” slaves also valued and fought for autonomy. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the conception of the autonomous individual was extended to slaves. Citizenship began with an individual choice.[17] Yet, this allowed white people to blame slaves for their enslavement. Furstenberg claims that this valorization of individual autonomy grounded citizenship and slavery in tacit consent.

[1] François Furstenberg, In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 58.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Ibid., 63.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 84.

[8] Ibid., 82-83.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Ibid., 81.

[11] Ibid., 83.

[12] Ibid., 93.

[13] Ibid., 21.

[14] Ibid., 103.

[15] Ibid., 150.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 220.