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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.