The first Catholic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, started his inaugural speech by declaring that he has sworn before the American people and Almighty God, and he ended by calling for God's blessing on the American nation, "knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."
The American civil religion has its own "holy scriptures," the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which are treasured and venerated like the Tables of the Law. It has its own prophets, such as the Pilgrim Fathers. It celebrates its own sacred heroes such as George Washington, the "American Moses" who freed the "new people of Israel" from slavery under the English and led them to the Promised Land of freedom, independence, and democracy. It venerates its martyrs, such as Abraham Lincoln, the sacrificial victim assassinated on Good Friday of 1865, after the American nation had been subjected to the purifying fires of a cruel civil war to expiate its guilt and reestablish the hallowed nature of its unity and mission. John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. then became further examples of martyrdom for this civil religion, alongside the figure of Lincoln. Like all religions, this civil religion has its own temples for the veneration of its leading figures, such as the monument to Washington, the Lincoln Memorial, and Arlington Cemetery, where the tomb of the Unknown Soldier is revered as a symbol for the citizens who fell to save their nation. Finally, the civil religion has its sermons and liturgy: the presidential inaugural speeches, Independence Day on 4 July, Thanksgiving Day, Memorial Day when the war dead are commemorated, and other collective ceremonies that celebrate personalities and events in American history turned by myth into a "sacred history" of a nation elected by God to fulfill its particular mission in the world.
The American civil religion is the first historical example of a religion of politics in the modern era. The civil religion of the United States derived from Protestantism, and for more than a century it displayed the unmistakable imprint of Puritanism and the biblical tradition. As time went on, however, it began to differentiate itself and became an explicit and direct reference point and a purely civic credo that coexisted with both Christian and non-Christian confessions. Given the freedom that the state accords all religions, the American civil religion respects all traditional religions, whether or not they are Christian.
Then came Fascism, here, the myth of the totalitarian, State obtained a decisive position. The initiatives, the choices, the behavioral pattern, the achievements, the ideals of fascism refer constantly, in the diversified attitudes of men and historical situations, to the realization of the totalitarian State. The relationship between myths and organizations in the history of fascism derived from this dominant goal. This relationship was not always coherent in its obvious forms. Nevertheless, it held together thanks to a precise totalitarian and fascist rationale, which rose above the surface of inconsistency and actual circumstance. The centralization of the myth of the state clearly distinguished fascist totalitarianism from Nazi and communist totalitarianism. While for Nazis and communists the State was considered an instrument to achieve race supremacy or a classless society, fascism considered the totalitarian State a value and an end in itself.
Their basic judgement was also to define American civilization as a degenerate derivation of European civilization. According to this concept, America, born out of the rebellion against the European mother-culture, had developed and radicalized in the new world the ideologies of Protestant sectarianism, of democratic liberalism and of materialistic hedonism, ideologies which had already undermined the classical order of Roman and Catholic tradition in the Old Continent.
For Fascism claimed it was a modern movement-regime which provided new solutions to the pressing problems of an ever changing world. Fascism claimed it was accomplishing the national revolution initiated with the Risorgimento, the regeneration, the creator of the "New Man" that had been envisioned by Mazzini.
Fascism was a political religion with a coherent system of beliefs, myths, rites and symbols, with a 'sacred history' and a vision of mystical community. Its most conspicuous symbolic and dramatic representation was the Lictorian cult. Here, 'sacred' and 'secular' stood side-by-side and more often than not intermingled to disseminate and reinforce faith in the fascist religion.
Fascists were convinced, as if possessed by an oneiric rapture, that they had a will-power which could rise above all limitations and the resistance of objective reality, to mold reality and the nature of man in the image of its own myth. The fascist "New Man" was quite different from the "New Man" most young opponents to "gialittisma" had expected. When the latter spoke of a "New Man" they meant a free man able to master his own destiny. The fascist "New Man," on the contrary, was a man devoid of any individual autonomy and responsibility, who would had been trained to consider himself as a mere instrument of the State, and prepared to sacrifice his life for it. In accordance with its aims, fascism led the Italian people to the Second World War.
The various versions of fascist anti-Americanism agreed that American civilization was inferior and hostile to European civilization. For fascists, American economic and political imperialism was less dangerous than the moral contagion engendered by the fascination which the 'American way of life' exerted on Europe. This was the main target of moralistic anti-Americanism, which was perhaps the most widespread. It denounced the imitation of the American lifestyle or the preference for American products, considering these alarming symptoms of an incipient infection, which corrupted Italian customs and had negative economic consequences…
We should point out that the prejudices against Americanism as a mechanical and dehumanizing civilization, inferior to European civilization because it was devoid of culture, tradition and history, were also shared by non-fascist or anti-fascist intellectuals, although for different reasons. In fact like we detailed last month, this is a perception that somehow still is of influence, in Europa today. Protestantism, individualism, liberalism, bureaucratic collectivism were the stages which marked the development of Nordic modernity against Mediterranean, Latin and Catholic civilization. For Catholic reactionaries like Giovanni Papini and Domenico Giuliotti, the discovery of America had been willed by God 'as a repressive and preventative punishment for all the other great discoveries of the Renaissance: i.e. gunpowder, humanism and Protestantism'. (Papini/Giuliotti, Oizionario dell 'Omo salvati co,Florence, 1923, p. 149.)
Some fascist intellectuals advocated a united front of European nations, or even of the Latin countries of Europe and America, against American imperialism. (G. Baldazzi, 'La Latiniti't in lotta nell'America', Augustea, 17 July 1928.)
The greed for wealth, the craze for speculation, individualistic hedonism, the neurotic 'search for happiness' were typical traits of Americanism and the main causes of degenerate American modernity. Individualism and capitalism, behind the hypocritical facade of liberalism and egalitarianism, celebrated the greatest triumph of 'an excessive and insatiable greed for material goods, a devouring and destructive lust', to the extent that even the Bolshevik danger paled before the threat of Americanism, 'the incarnation of the anti-Christian revolution of our time'. America was a 'star-spangled Babylon. (L. Olivero, La Babilonia stellata. Gioventu americana d' oggi , Milan, 1941).
The United States was represented as the home of financial capitalism dominated by Jews who for a long time had been plotting the downfall of European civilization: 'To destroy Europe, and establish the dictatorship of money throughout the world, means to promote the world-wide dictatorship of the Jewish race', claimed a leaflet of the National Institute of Fascist Culture. (Plutocrazia e bolscevismo, Rome 1942, p. 13.)
For the even more extreme German version of this (including graphics), see our previous case study:
Thus the war of the Axis against the United States was seen as the crusade of 'blood' against 'gold' for the salvation of Europe from the plans of conquest of Anglo-Saxon plutocratic Judaism, led by the United States. (P. Cavallo, 'Sangue contro oro. Le immagini dei paesi nemici nel teatro fascista di propaganda' in A. Lepre (ed.), La guerra immaginata, Napels 1989, 137-46.)
According to famous Italian historian Emilio Gentile for followers of integral traditionalism like Julius Evola, American civilization represented the incarnation of an “impending modernity”.(Gentile, The Struggle For Moderity,2003,p.165.) For Evola, Americanism was an even more dangerous kind of barbarism than Bolshevism, because in the United States the last stage of the 'sanctification of the temporal and the secularization of the sacred' was being completed, the catastrophic conclusion of the cycle of degeneration of the human organism, begun by the Protestant revolt, with the advent of mass man, the 'beast without a face'. (J. Evola, 'Due facce del nazionalismo', Vita itaUana, March 1931; 'Americanismo e Bolscevismo', Nuova Antologia, May-June 1929.)
For our case study about post WWII integral traditionalism and extremism see:
In fact many essential elements of fascist culture, along with anticommunism, anti liberalism, antiparliamentarianism, and antiegalitarianism, in the form of for example the Movimenta Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement, MSI) have survived the humiliating defeat of fascist ambitions since the 1950s. The MSI's younger members, who had not directly experienced the fascist period, were attracted by its zealous sense of nationalism, by its idealistic activism, and by its revolutionary and antidemocratic mythology. Yet although postwar right wing nationalism has never denied its fascist roots, it has not accepted its heritage completely. For instance, the militia party, the totalitarian State, the new civilization, and the mania for mass organizations were buried under the rubble of the fascist regime, There is another remarkable difference in the neofascist attitude towards modernity. The strengthening of liberal democracies, the unbounded expansion of technology, the ever-increasing mass conformity to fashion, and the search for well being have radically changed the nationalist perception of modernity.
But after the fall of communism, Americanism again, has become the main enemy for most neofascists, such as the left wing of the MSI, which denounces the moral contagion engendered by the fascination that the American way of life exerts on Europe. They identify modernity with Americanism, that is, materialism, hedonism, the cult of wealth, ruthless capitalism, urban neurosis, and dehumanizing technology that transforms human beings into cogs in a machine. Right wing radicalism actually flees from modernity toward an ideal world remote from mass society and technology.
Recently also, the adoption of symbols and rituals, the establishment of national holidays, and the organization of parades and large collective ceremonies were an important feature of the sacralization of politics in new African and Asian states, and were certainly the most visible ones. But equally important was the development of a system of ideas, principles, and values with the purpose of providing a set of shared beliefs on the meaning and purpose of collective life to give a sense of political identity and national consciousness to heterogeneous populations in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, and language, whose cultures still retained the identification of power with the sacred.
In the majority of new states, democracy was short-lived or stillborn. The prevailing regime in Africa and Asia, even in noncommunist countries, was an authoritarian political system, which in some cases replicated the characteristics of a totalitarian state: the attribution of the monopoly of political power to a single party, the dominance of a charismatic leader, a repressive and terrorist police apparatus, the organization of the masses for their control and indoctrination, a planned anthropological revolution to regenerate and mold the nation in accordance with the principles and values of an ideology presented as an absolute and indisputable truth and, as has already been said, the establishment of a system of beliefs, myths, rituals, and symbols that sacralize the new nation, its history, and its institutions, while demanding devotion and loyalty from the ruled. See our case study:
This last feature was common to all the new states, even those governed by democratic regimes like Israel. Another common feature appears to have been the role of the charismatic leader, at least during the period of achieving independence and founding the new state: Ben Gurion in Israel, Bourguiba in Tunisia, Nasser in Egypt, Nkrumah in Ghana, Senghor in Senegal, Nyerere in Tanzania, Sekou Toure in Guinea, and Sukarno in Indonesia. All these personalities were invested with charismatic authority and became, often intentionally, the center of a system of myths, rituals, and symbols that conferred an aura of sacredness upon the new state, its origins, its institutions, and its policies although not all of them demanded to be deified as did Kwame Nkrumah. The majority of charismatic leaders not only symbolized the unity of the nation, but also carried out the role of theologians and teachers. They took on the task of developing the principles, values, and commandments of the doctrine that defined the meaning and sense of collective life, interpreted the history and will of the new nation, and indicated goals that needed to be achieved by the population. And the sacralization of the power through the figure of the leader had a fundamental role in reconciling religious tradition with modern politics. (See D. E. Apter, "Nkrumah, Charisma and the Coup," in D. A. Rustow (ed.), Philosophers and Kings: Studies in Leadership, New York 1970, pp. 112-47.)
What counts is the deification of the power, the religious dimension that it takes on, and the allusions it evokes, but not the origin, nature, and specificity of this sacralization, as long it has been Africanized. God, Allah, Imana and even Karl Marx can provide the necessary scale for the leader's power, if Sekou Toure or Julius Nyerere naturalize them as Africans. It matters little which text inspires the leader; it matters only the passion of that inspiration. Thus, the continuous expansion on the black continent of two great monotheist religions not only has not upset the traditional realities of black power, but has not provoked the violent clashes that have occurred elsewhere. As Africanized religion became dissociated from political power in a growing number of societies, it became this syncretic melting pot that reconciled not only Yahweh and Allah, but also God and Caesar. If you examine some of the basic texts reflecting Nkrumah's power, particularly the litanies dedicated to Osagye fo Kwame Nkrumah, you will find an incredible fusion of animism, Judaism, Islamism, Christianity, Marxism, and techniques of power developed by the inventors of totalitarianism.
The relationship between religious tradition and modern politics had a decisive role in attempts to construct secular religions and often determined their outcomes. As we have seen, this was very much the case in Western states where the deification of politics took place after secularization, and was therefore even truer of new states in the Third World, where secularization had not yet commenced and traditional religions continued to be the sole source for legitimizing power. The results of the encounter between traditional religion and new secular religion were varied and gave rise to different experiences of the sacralization of politics that are difficult to generalize. In some cases, the attempt to establish a civil religion by reconciling religious tradition and modern politics, in accordance with the needs of the new state, became bogged down because of hostility from the dominant religion, as occurred in Malaysia. (See D. Regan, "Islam, Intellectuals and Civil Religion in Malaysia," Sociological Analysis, 2,1976, pp. 95-110.)
In other cases, such as Sri Lanka following the establishment of the republic in 1972, the civil religion was grafted onto the Buddhist tradition and even incorporated mythical and ritual elements handed down from ancient political traditions that still survived in Singhalese popular culture. Thus the sacralization of politics appeared to conform with the population's religious confessions and its most ancient and venerable beliefs. (See H. L. Seneviratne, "Continuity of Civil Religion in Sri Lanka," Religion, 1, 1984, pp. 1-14.)
61.Akmed Sukarno's regime (1959-1965) carried out a similar experiment in the form of "guided democracy." A great deal of energy was expended in inventive slogans, symbols, and rituals to unify Indonesian national consciousness among a mainly Muslim population that was scattered over thousands of islands. Sukarno proposed the doctrine of Pantja Sila as the foundation for a civil religion that exalted the Indonesian nation as an example to humanity. Pantja Sila was based on five principles: nationalism, internationalism (or humanitarianism), democracy (or consent), social prosperity, and faith in God. He felt he had found an effective formula for the coexistence of civil religion and traditional religion by making faith in the existence of God the common principle. However, the experiment does not appear to have had lasting results after he was deposed in 1965 for his communist sympathies. (See D. Legge, Sukarno: A Political Biography, London 1972, pp. 184 ff. 62, and; S. S. Purdy, "The Civil Religion Thesis as It Applies to a Pluralistic Society: Pancasila Democracy in Indonesia (1945-1965)," Journal of International Affairs, 2, 1982-83, pp. 307-16.)
In other new states such the Union of South Africa, the religious tradition was the principal factor in the construction of an Afrikaner civil religion, following independence in 1948. In this case, the sacralization of politics involved interpreting the history and destiny of the Boers as a people chosen by God. The Calvinist religion was used to assert that a sacred pact had been established between God and the people who, having suffered under British domination through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, had finally reached the promised land of independence with a republican constitution that implemented the divine will to assert and preserve the primacy of the white and Christian race. (See T. D. Moodie, The Rise of Afrikanerdom: Power, Apartheid, and the Afrikaner Civil Religion, Berkeley-Los Angeles 1975; L. Thompson, II mito politico dell'apartheid (1985), Turin 1989; B. Cauthen, The Myth of Divine Election and Afrikaner Ethnogenesis, in G. Hosking, G. Schopflin (ed.), Myths and Nationhood, London 1997, pp. 107-31.)
Sacralization of politics in the state of Israel was wholly unique. It passed through various phases involving various types of civil religion, which can be distinguished mainly by their attitudes toward religious tradition, the Diaspora, and the Holocaust, as well as different ways of understanding the nature of the new state. (See C. S. Liebman, E. Don-Yehiya, Religion in Israel: Traditional Judaism and Political Culture in the Jewish State, Berkeley 1983.) See also our case study about religious Zionism:
Political religion thus, confers sacredness on the state, the regime, and the leader, it provides a mythical representation of a glorious past and sanctifies the conquest of independence, after a period of decadence and suffering, as a regenerative event or "rebirth" that demands the nation free itself of its legacy of decadence so that it can take on its appropriate role in the world. The purpose of political religion in new nations is to confer a sacred nature on authority and achieve unity of the state by removing all the divisions that it had inherited from the past to create a healthy and harmonious community in which each individual lives and works for the good of the nation. Parliamentary democracy, from this point of view, is rejected as a Western colonialist institution foreign to the culture and traditions of the new nations, as it is a system of government based on division and conflict between parties, and therefore considered unsuited to the requirements of a new state that has to assert and develop its own unity. The leader, the party, and the political religion are institutions that embody unity of the nation, express its will, and define its meaning and the ultimate aim of its collective existence. The task of political religion is to provide a sense of belonging and identity and to maintain the unity of the nation through a state of permanent mobilization to achieve its political objectives: for this reason it demands the total politicization of collective life, absolute faith in the leader's authority, and the individual's devotion to the nation to the point of sacrificing his or her life. In this sense, the strictly religious nature of political religions is the provision of an interpretation and definition of the meaning and purpose of life by promising immortality to individual lives devoted to the achievement of the nation's transcendent aims, while the nation itself is perceived as a collective entity that is eternal. This, however, reveals factors that, produce the decline of political religion: the inability to provide an effective response to existential problems and the fate of the individual faced with death; flagging enthusiasm for the myths of regeneration and the national mission in the face of material failures; the advent of new generations that did not take part in the revolutionary fervor of the nation's founders and who are more inclined toward pragmatic and individualistic concepts of life, are impatient of authoritarianism, demand freedom to decide their own destiny, and do not believe their rulers' idealistic appeals. All this makes rebellion against the political religion inevitable or at least means that it cannot last. "If revolt against church religion is iconoclastic, the revolt against political religion tends to be cynical." (See D. E. Apter, "Political Religion in the New Nations," in C. Geertz (ed.), Old Societies and New States: The Quest for Modernity in Asia and Africa, London 1963, p. 96.)
After the Second World War, the sacralization of politics also continued to exist in the Western world, and manifested itself in the mythical, ritual, and symbolic forms that it had taken on during the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth.
In other Western democratic states, the sacralization of politics depended mainly on whether or not there was a tradition of civil religion and on the different configurations of the relationship between the religious and political dimensions, especially in relation to the autonomy of political institutions from the traditional religion and the Established Church. In England, for example, the head of state and head of the Anglican Church continued to be the same throughout the second half of the twentieth century, an indissoluble bond between religion and politics in their traditional meanings, thus making it practically impossible at a national level to create an autonomous religious dimension of politics qua politics, as occurred in the United States and France. However, religious pluralism and nonconfessional recognition of the civil role of the monarchy as the symbolic embodiment of the nation has favored, according to some scholars, the formation of a civil religion that is distinct from the religious confessions in that its prime object is the cult of the nation itself, its history, its traditions, its heroes, its war dead, and its institutions, as well as observance of moral, social, and political values that are acknowledged by the majority of citizens, whatever church they belong to, as the essential constituent principles of British unity and collective identity. This civil religion finds its symbolic unitary center in the monarchy's national role, and its most solemn ritual is the coronation, by which the nation carries out an act of collective communion through its sovereign and reconsecrates its unity by reasserting its loyalty to shared values.
In continental Europe, there were other monarchical states in which traditional religion continued in the second half of the last century to fulfill the role of legitimizing the political order through the consecration of the monarch, even though society, culture, and politics had undergone a process of secularization. But it appears that even in these states, which include Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Holland, the development of secularization and nationalism led to the emergence of some elements of a civil religion, with myths, rituals, and symbols that legitimize the institutions and represent the nation as an entity that is perpetual and transcends the life of individual citizens, and to which citizens have a duty of loyalty and devotion. But in these cases, as in the English case, it is reasonable to ask whether the presence of a civil religion currently constitutes an effective source of legitimization of the political order and a viable representation of shared common values.
As far as European democratic republics are concerned, consistent traces of the sacralization of politics during the twentieth century can be found only in France, where there was a varied tradition of civil religiosity that, commencing with the glorification of the French Revolution as the great founding event of modern France, developed after the Great War the symbiosis between religion of the fatherland and cult of the republic founded on the principles of individual freedom and equality of the citizens, in spite of having experienced bitter and divisive religious and ideological conflicts. Following the lacerating experience of the Vichy regime (1940-1944), the republican myth that emerged from the long internecine war definitively asserted its hegemony as a "true civil religion," complete with its own Pantheon, martyrology, hagiography, varied and omnipresent liturgy, and "prolific polytheism," in which its sacred nature associates the living and the dead. It invented its own myths and rituals, established its own altars and temples, and using a public symbolism created a "permanent educative show" consisting of statues, frescoes, toponymy, and school textbooks. The celebration of national holidays and the liturgy of commemoration helped consolidate the republican myth in spite of the troubled events of the Fourth Republic (1946-1958) and the ideological conflicts of the Cold War, which also involved contrasting perceptions of the tradition of the Revolution and the myth of the republic.
We can therefore speak of a "civil religion a la francaise, which passes through various metamorphoses and manages eventually to find a form of syncretic coexistence between civil religiosity of the republican fatherland and popular Christian religiosity. This phenomenon particularly typified the presidency of Charles de Gaulle (1958-1968). Catholic and nationalist, but also an exponent of the values of revolutionary and republican France, de Gaulle was the prime mover behind the new civil religion now reconciled with the Catholic tradition. He believed in the "religion of French greatness,"76 and his idea of France had a sacred majesty: "France has emerged from the depths of the past. She is a living entity. She responds to the call of the centuries. Yet she remains herself through time." co Since 18 June 1940, when he took on the task of delivering his nation from defeat and the shame of the collaborationist government of Vichy, de Gaulle was convinced that he had maintained the greatness of France in the world. As president, he represented very effectively his mystical concept of the nation through the mastery of his prose and oratory, compelling symbolic gestures, and the impressiveness of his tall and domineering figure. This left a clear imprint on the symbolic representation of the national political liturgy.
Francois Mitterrand, who was a tireless opponent of de Gaulle, became president (1981-1995) and inherited the general's sense of the dramatic and the theatrical in the liturgical representation of the president's role as the high priest of the nation and the republic, while clearly adapting it to his own personality of sophisticated intellectual and socialist politician. A ritual event to display the civil religion occurred on 21 May 1981 shortly after Mitterrand's election to the presidency of the republic when he visited the Pantheon, the most important temple of the republican religion. He went there on his own with the bearing of a pious man engaged in a solemn homage to great men venerated by a grateful nation. Eight years later at the celebrations of the second centenary of the Revolution, the republic made a gesture of syncretic reconciliation between the republican civil religion and popular Christianity by transferring the remains of Abbot Henri Baptiste Gregoire to the Pantheon. The Catholic prelate had been the acknowledged leader of the Constitutional Church after the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790), although his reburial in the Pantheon did not meet with the approval of the church hierarchy.
It was in fact precisely during the fifties that the religious dimension to American politics was considerably bolstered by the portrayal of the Cold War as a crusade against atheist communism, and the exaltation of the American nation's universal mission. God had entrusted the United States with the task of revitalizing humanity by spreading democracy throughout the world. At the same time, the myths, rituals, and symbols of the civil religion continued to be an integral part of the citizens' collective life, or rather part of the life of the American population that felt integrated into society and the political order. This climate of renewed enthusiasm for religious patriotism was the setting for the popular anticommunist campaign that Senator Joseph McCarthy initiated in 1950 during the democratic presidency of Harry Spencer Truman (1945-1953) and which continued until 1954. Favored by the crusading spirit of Cold War anticommunism, the sacralization of politics gained considerable momentum under the republican presidency of Eisenhower (1953-1961), a man of sincere religious feelings who was convinced that "our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is." It was under his administration that the United States Congress adopted "In God We Trust" as the official motto of the American nation and added the phrase "A Nation under God" to the pledge of allegiance to the flag.