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It was an unusual Easter sermon, to say the least. At least unusual for this well-trained CRC boy. We were worshiping at Christ Church in the old center of Philadelphia, a venerable Episcopal parish founded in 1695 and claiming all sorts of historic figures on its rolls. Many of these were Christians. Others were, well, like Ben Franklin. So maybe an Easter sermon off the well-worn West Michigan path was to be expected. I didn’t expect, however, that it would culminate with Marian Anderson.

Singing at the Lincoln Memorial

Turns out that it was on an Easter Sunday eighty years before, in 1939, that Anderson had given her epochal recital at the Lincoln Memorial. A crowd of 75,000, stretching across the Mall all the way to the Washington Monument, heard it live, and millions more tuned in by radio. This spelled apt vengeance upon the Daughters of the American Revolution whose policies restricted the use of their Constitution Hall, the venue originally proposed for Anderson’s concert, to whites only. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned her DAR membership over the incident and helped arrange for the Mall venue instead, was only the most prominent among the great many Americans who denounced the DAR’s decision. They were looking at the injustice of the situation. They were also looking across the Atlantic Ocean at the racist policies of the Third Reich which just five months later would explode across Europe.

Anderson herself did not make an issue over the DAR debacle. She let her songs speak for themselves. She served up Shubert’s “Ave Maria.” She offered an opera aria and closed with three spirituals, including “Gospel Train” and “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord.” But she opened with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Aretha Franklin did the same at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009, at the other end of the Mall.

What’s Easter Got to Do with It?

Anderson’s mixture of religion and patriotism poses an important question to ponder here. But first, how did her story become central to an Easter sermon? Well, as the good rector said in an effective connection to his congregation, Marian Anderson’s is a Philadelphia story. She was born and reared in South Philly to a family one generation removed from slavery. She discovered her talent at Union Baptist Church there, and she persevered in developing it against racist policies in the local schools and conservatories. With any number of black jazz and classical musicians, she finally had to go to Europe to get the audience and make the living that she deserved. For her belated coming-out party at the Lincoln Memorial she faced logistical difficulties due to segregated transportation and lodging facilities. Even had the DAR allowed her to sing at Constitution Hall, she would not have been allowed to use the restroom there, it being designated for whites, and city law at the time prohibiting mixed-use bathrooms. Which kinda rings a bell, right, North Carolina?

Ok, a moving Philadelphia story, but what’s the connection to Easter? The sermon got around to that at the very end. Maybe that’s effective homiletics, maybe not—I’ll leave it to Twelver Scott Hoezee and other experts in the field to weigh in on that. Marian Anderson, the pastor said, was living out of something hoped for, by the conviction of something not yet seen. That is, she was living by faith (Heb 11:1) along with all the other saints of that chapter. And so should we too live by the assurance of Christ’s resurrection, which we have not seen and probably, like Thomas, would not have credited in the moment. The resurrection which insists that life, not death, has the final word, and so also love, not fear, forms the lodestar of our lives. Putting paid to all the jealousies and possessiveness and piecemeal cruelties and negligence—that is to say, sin—which arise when we live out of fear—that is, in the shadow of death. Marian Anderson showed us the way.

Revisiting Civil Religion

I went away well instructed. As we filed out, the church bells were ringing out with Easter gladness. Perhaps also punctuating the fundraising appeal that the rector had referenced just before the offering: namely, that the 1754 steeple, originally financed by a lottery organized by Ben Franklin, was in the process of a $2.4 million restoration (2/3s already pledged by outside agencies, happily, but nearly $900k still to go). This is America’s steeple, people! It had made Christ Church the tallest building in North America for two generations, and its bells had rung out over the conventions and congresses and personages that had founded the nation.

Coming of age during the Vietnam War I developed severe allergies to the easy mixing of religion and nationalism that became dubbed “American civil religion.” The notion that the USA is God’s chosen people, that its wars are automatically righteous, its economy divinely appointed, its history a glorious saga, its promise infinite. These notions have become gospel on the American Right, its “evangelical” wing not excepted, and thus have become toxic to many on the Left, the religious among them again not excepted. But maybe Marian Anderson’s concert—along with any number of other expressions—should give us pause to reconsider so reflex a judgment.

First, the sociologist Robert Bellah, who put American civil religion on the agenda in 1967, did so to offer up a better and self-critical notion of the nation’s worth and destiny. Specifically, he was vaunting the Puritan and republican strains of American ideals over against the two types of individualism he saw (accurately enough) being produced by the 1960s—a Romantic expressive version on the Left, and a capitalist possessive sort on the Right. Second, disciple of Emile Durkheim as he was, Bellah saw that some sort of common appeal, some shared set of hopes and standard of measure, is necessary to hold any nation together, especially one so polyglot as the USA. He saw the best possibility in the overlap between Christian and republican values, a mixed chorus of Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature.”

Maybe the bells of Christ Church were echoing that chorus Easter Sunday. Not, to my mind, that its steeple was rising above the Founders and Framers to bless everything they did; far from it. But that it raised above them—and still raises above us—a reminder of a transcendent set of values by which we all will be judged, also in our common life together. And that by God’s common grace (there! I got in a Kuyper allusion!) there has been in the American past enough which is consonant with the better part of Christian aspiration to keep alive the hope that we may someday more closely attain their professed ideals on these shores.

This nation, like any nation, must remain a secondary love and loyalty for people of Christian conviction. But these days we are seeing that this land too, like the kingdom of heaven, the violent would bear away. Resistance requires offering up a better story, with better possibilities. Marian Anderson’s will do for starters.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

19 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for this. Puts the whole problem poignantly and devotionally. And you got to hear another good sermon! (And take Holy Communion.)

  • JoAnne Wagner says:

    “But that it raised above them—and still raises above us—a reminder of a transcendent set of values by which we all will be judged, also in our common life together.” Thank you. We need to retain a sense of humility about our country as well as about ourselves. And a willingness to be corrected and to strive for a nation of love, justice, and compassion.

  • Jon says:

    Your essay pairs well with Jill Lapore’s new little book, This America. She says America has lost track of a larger narrative of those core values that unite us. She calls for a rebirth of civic nationalism rooted in universal values that have always been a part of America’s core values. Here’s a link to an NPR story about it: https://www.npr.org/2019/05/31/728511801/this-america-pits-rise-in-nationalism-against-championing-of-liberal-democracy.

  • Jon says:

    And, for a somewhat crunchier take on the context that gives rise to this concern, see Michèle Lamont‘s essay, “From ‘having’ to ‘being’: self‐worth and the current crisis of American society,” available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1468-4446.12667. Lamont is a cultural sociologist, and she seeks here also to offer some words of hope.

    And just today, a response to Lamont’s essay appeared from British sociologist Mike Savage (not the American radio host), who though largely agreeing with Lamont’s cultural analysis, says any attempt to address it must take into account the larger economic structure and it’s impacts. His essay is available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1468-4446.12665#.XQHuAj6diLE.twitter.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    I loved the essay. Who would not agree that we all must embrace and strive to live out our country’s higher values? However, there is a tendency to forget the horror and evil our country has inflicted on people throughout the years. The genocide of native Americans, the slaughter of the Vietnamese and the massive death toll in the Philippine-American War to name just a few. Our continuing obscene systemic racism, our incarceration rate which exceeds that of any other nation, our unredeemed capitalism, our poverty amidst unprecedented plenty, our involvement in wars where we do not belong, and the staggering damage often done to people by our system of medical care do not speak highly of our nation. A “secondary love” of our country? That means being deliberately blind to a lot of things past and present. As an American I can say I love the high ideals of my country. I love that you can hardly find a village or town in my country without a Christian church. As a Christian, I see so much for which we must repent and which we must reform. We are awash in idolatry of the USA. By the way, I have no problem with that sermon, though the interpretation of Hebrews 11:1 is shaky.

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      “A “secondary love” of our country? That means being deliberately blind to a lot of things past and present.”

      Not so, Fred, lest you want to claim that we can love nothing or no one on this earth below so marked with sin. My wife loves me *despite* my many flaws – not by looking past them as if they don’t exist, but by recognizing that they don’t define me.

      I also notice that of all the genocides and atrocities you mention, abortion and a host of other leftward evils are conspicuously absent. It’s almost as if you meant to illustrate “the tendency to forget the horror and evil our country has inflicted on people throughout the years”. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you are not revealing your own idolatrous worship of leftist political philosophy.

    • Jim says:

      Fred: I see and have taught all the horrors and flaws you mention. But to teach _only_ that is to leave people either hopeless or totally alienated or more nationalistic by reaction. The way–civilly speaking–to redress the evils is IMO to take cognizance of them but also to underscore the better ideals that have sometimes been approximated, and to urge re-dedication to a better realization thereof by our own work. Certainly in the historical profession today there is no “tendency to forgot” the horrors and evils. Maybe too much the other way, in fact. Which tends to catalyze the three reactions named above. JB

      • Fred Mueller says:

        I love that your students are exposed to the sadder side of our nation’s history, Jim. By the way, my eyes were opened and I was taught my point of view at my very first semester at my beloved Hope College in an amazing history class. I will forever be grateful to the RCA, Hope and my church for my education.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    My cousin Laura (also the curator at Van Cordtland House in Bronx, NY) and her husband Billy Myers are members at Christ Church in Philly; they were married there a handful of years ago. Both are also avid historical re-enactors (colonial/Revolutionary era), and at the Sunday morning wedding, the officiant remarked what I also was thinking about the guests: “Never have I seen so many pony-tailed men in church before.”

  • Janice Heerspink says:

    Thanks, Jim. A good reminder to not get too mixed up with God and (this) country.

  • David Stravers says:

    Thanks for this. I especially appreciated that you have not given up the hopefulness that was expressed in your 2015 essay (https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2015/07/03/one-cheer-for-civil-religion/) that preceded the new era of intensifying divisiveness in both politics and evangelicalism. We have a lot of reflecting to do.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    “But these days we are seeing that this land too, like the kingdom of heaven, the violent would bear away. Resistance requires offering up a better story, with better possibilities. Marian Anderson’s will do for starters.”

    The last sentence gives me a semblance of hope for your Progressive Civil Religion – one I can respect (if not entirely get on board with). Our current path seems destined for ‘the terrible speed of mercy’, in which our country is simultaneously baptized and drowned. Most can’t see that, perhaps you do. Go warn the children.

    • Jim says:

      “simultaneously baptized and drowned.” A great line! An awfully great line….

    • Matt Huisman says:

      It is a great line, which makes sense since it’s not really original to me. ‘The Violent Bear it Away’ may be from Matthew 11, but the baptism/drowning idea is from Flannery O’Connor’s novel of the same name. If you weren’t intentionally referencing it with your closing line, you out to look into it. I think affirms that your post and subsequent comments are prophetic.

  • Ronald Vander Molen sr. says:

    When Rousseau first defined and promoted “civil religion” he was trying to provide an alternative to Christian transcendence. I hope that the Left’s civil religion does not meet Rousseau’s definition – as the Right so often has.

    • Jim says:

      Ron: Exactly! I’m looking for something that hangs, or functions, “in between.” So that people hold on to their traditional faith, whatever it might be–or to their “none” position, with its own covert functional religion–and yet derive out of that faith a commitment to pursing a shared common good in the nation in which we find ourselves. That shared good will necessarily find grounding in a set of shared stories, symbols, and documents: D-Day, Gettysburg, the Constitution and Declaration, MLK’s address at the March on Washington, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, etc etc. The problem w/ American Civil Religion as promoted by Bellah et al. lies in over-sacralizing these things. The problem w/ ACR a la the current Religious Right is in narrowing its frame of reference (exaggerating white actors and military might) and propounding an exclusively Christian foundation beneath and meaning behind it all. The problem w/ the lack of ACR on the Left is a failure of purchase upon people who do not resonate to their own shibboleths. The challenge for all religious believers is to give ourselves emotionally to something earthly without vaunting it onto the kingdom of heaven. That is, to have and hold a compelling but still secondary commitment. That takes persistent discernment and correction within/by the body of believers. Hope The Twelve contributes something toward such ends.

  • […] couple posts ago I reflected on the possibilities of a progressive civil religion. Last time, on key moments in the religious life of Franklin Roosevelt. Staying with that thread, […]

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