Let us begin, on Thanksgiving, by giving thanks that we are not French. I say this with no malice. I mean it this way. We both had glorious, liberating revolutions, but ours was not cursed by excessive rationalism, and its twin, hatred of religion.
The French revolutionaries decided to start the world anew. They decreed not just a new state, but a new religion, a religion of pure reason to overthrow Christianity, and a new calendar to go with it. The calendar, too, would abolish everything that went before. Even the week had to be replaced -- by a 10-day stretch (10 being a far more rational number than seven) called a "decade," and free of Sundays!
The purposes of the American revolution were more modest: not to recreate the universe, but to alter a few "of its arrangements. The American revolution repatriated liberty and established a new political order. But its ambitions stopped there. It left the weekend alone.
Religion, too. One result is that we have generally avoided religious wars. France's revolutionaries, bent on extirpating every remnant of the ancien r,egime, ushered in decades of bitter conflict between anti-clericalists and a reactionary religious right.
Sound familiar? In the United States such conflict now begins to stir. For a generation, the Supreme Court has taken the view that that our public life should be not so much religion-neutral as religion-free. The result, while not exactly Jacobinic, has been impressive: a general canvassing about for religious symbols in public life and a somewhat haphazard, but effective, campaign to erase them.
Last year there seemed to be a pause in this trend, when the Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 4, that Pawtucket, Rhode Island, could sponsor the public display of a nativity scene at Christmastime. The secularists may have been disappointed, but this was no great victory for religion. The court's reason was that the crcipally a religious symbol after all. It is "no more an advancement or endorsement of religion" than exhibiting "religious paintings in governmentally sponsored museums." It merely illustrates the origins of a holiday. Moreover the context -- the Pawtucket display included plastic reindeer and other elements with no Christian connotation at all -- shows that Pawtucket's overall intent was secular and thus did not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
The implication is that so long as religious symbolism is secular enough -- empty enough of religious meaning -- it will be permitted in public life. The Ten Commandments may not be posted in public schools if the purpose is "religious admonition." They may only be considered in the context of "an appropriate study" of "ethics, comparative religion or the like." The border between church and state is to be lined with plastic reindeer.
Or as Chesterton once put it unkindly, "Tolerance is the virtue of people who do not believe anything." Yet America managed tolerance fairly well for almost two centuries under a different regime. It did then believe in, and take seriously, the idea of religion in public life. Not Protestantism or Judaism or any other particularist faith, but what has been called the American Civil Religion.
It is a creed (as its finest elaborator, sociologist Robert Bellah, has argued) that sees American history in transcendent terms and endows it with religious meaning. Its Supreme Being is Jefferson's rights-giving Creator, Washington's First Author, Lincoln's Judge -- an American Providence. It has a calendar, which like the civil religion itself, is meant not to replace, but to complement, what has gone before. The calendar has its days set aside to honor the saints (Washington, Lincoln and King), and to celebrate the civic virtues as embodied in the American historical experience: the Fourth of July (liberty), Memorial Day (sacrifice), Veteran's Day (service).
Its supreme holiday is Thanksgiving, originally conceived as a day for celebration of America's bounty and contemplation of America's providential destiny. Which is perhaps why it was Lincoln who, in 1864, made Thanksgiving an annual national holiday. Lincoln, perhaps more than any other president, felt the sense of transcendence of American history. And in the second Inaugural, when he spoke of the agony of the Civil War as divine judgment on American life and the sin of slavery, Lincoln gave that spirituality its most profound expression.
The irony is that if we were to take Thanksgiving and the other elements of the civil religion as seriously as Lincoln, the Supreme Court would now probably have to rule it unconstitutional. In his dissent on the Pawtucket decision, Justice Brennan asks how the religious symbolism in our national life -- everything from "In God We Trust" to Thanksgiving Day -- can be permitted constitutionally. Because, says Brennan, it is nothing more than "ceremonial deism," practices that have "lost through rote repetition any significant religious content."
So, a day for big turkeys and pro football passes muster. But all public devotions had better be mumbled. RELIGION PROHIBITED, EXCEPT WHERE MEANINGLESS. So reads the sign in the public square.
The French would understand.