Sacred America

We sit here in the wake of yet another mass shooting in America (Uvalde), in the wake of a gun-rights convention in the immediate wake of that, and in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling loosening gun control laws in the wake of that (NEW YORK STATE RIFLE & PISTOL ASSOCIATION, INC., ET AL. v. BRUEN, SUPERINTENDENT OF NEW YORK STATE POLICE, ET AL).  We offer thoughts and prayers to the victims and the family of those victims; we see the community band together to offer services that they shouldn’t have to; we cry as the stories come out of the lives lost, the loves snuffed, the laughter silenced.  As the stories hit the national airwaves and we feel in our hearts the reflected anguish of the affected community, we gnash our teeth and rend our garments and scream at the sky.  Then the same old thinkpieces start appearing:  Why haven’t our politicians done anything about this?  Why can’t we be more like the rest of the world?  Why are we beholden to the lobbyists and the gun manufacturers and the almighty dollar?  And nothing changes.  We wait for it to happen again.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the problem is not the dollar or the lobbyists or the gun manufacturers.  Yes, they play a role, but if it were just them, we could overcome the problem.  The problem is much deeper-seeded, and needs to be looked at.  It would be fairly vain of me to say that I know what the problem is and how to solve it; I do not know this with any more certainty than anybody else.  I do have an idea – a hypothesis – that I would like to offer up as a way to begin to explain this.  It is likely that others have said this and made these same observations; if they have, I would add my voice to theirs.  But I have not heard these ideas so voiced before, and would like to think that they are, at least in little part, mine own.

I would ask you to be patient with me here.  The road to this conclusion is long, but I hope not too windy.  If you can reach the same conclusion I do before I get there, I would take it as some evidence that there is some merit to these thoughts.  But I beg your indulgence in allowing me to take you on the journey anyway.  I would also note that the conclusion reached at the destination is based on observation and extrapolation rather than a systematic survey and a rigorous data-collection process.  In short, it is a conjecture, a hypothesis, that would need some data to back it up.  But we must start somewhere.

I would like to start with Mircea Eliade.  Eliade was, among other things, a scholar and professor of historical religion – a subject about how humans experience religion, not the theology of any particular religion.  Eliade’s theory is that we make a sharp distinction between the sacred – that which is holy and religious – and the profane – the common mundanities of the world itself.  It is worth noting that in this theory the profane is not anti-sacred; these are not opposing forces trying to wipe each other out.  Each has a role in our lives.

Before moving any farther along this journey, I would recognize the various problematic components of Eliade – his attempts to distill all religious experience across all cultures to a simple “essence,” his ignoring the social aspects of religion, his approach of using histories rather than field research to come up with this theories, and even his ties to far-right Romanian nationalism.  These are issues, yes, but on this journey I would offer that they inconsequential.  We will not be discussing various cultures that do not fit this paradigm; we will instead see how the paradigm does fit one particular culture.  As for the last point, it is important to separate the ideas from the person creating the ideas (indeed, that is a point I would like to make later, although not in relation to Eliade).

That said, a brief synopsis of Eliade’s theory is in order.  In his book The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, Eliade lays out his basic theory.  Religion, he argues, is based on our interactions with the sacred.  The sacred reflects our desire to return to a primordial state of being.  To achieve this, humans construct sacred space (churches, Mecca, the Ganges river, roadside temples, etc.) and sacred times (Christmas, Ramadan, Diwali, Obon, etc.).  Sacred space and sacred time are structured; they are set apart and reserved for specific use.   Nature also plays an important part in religion, but not just nature as plant-life.  The sky and the rivers are also important components of nature, and it from these natural sources that the religious experience eminates.  Finally, all these components come together in how a person experiences religion, and in that experience they see themselves as a reflection of that religion, as an imitation of that religion, as representative of the religion as a whole.

A key component to this theory is that the sacred space and sacred times, as experienced by the religions person, are not different to each other.  For example, when a Christian celebrates the Eucharist, they are not merely commemorating the Last Supper of Christ, they are actively participating in it.  They are, experientially if not physically, transported from their church and the present day to that place and time where Christ was breaking the bread and pouring the wine.  For them, the re-enactment of the thing becomes the actual thing itself.

Tying all of this together is the myth.  In Eliade’s parlance, a myth is not a story that is false or even one that cannot be proven true or false.  In Eliade’s usage, a myth is a story that is true to the person experience it.  It is the retelling of a story of great heroes of the past or great deeds that were done.  The myths happened in the distant, primordial past – once upon a time, or “in that time” (Latin, in illo tempore) as Eliade uses it.  It is the myth that combines nature with sacred time and space and provides the structure to that sacredness and allows the religious person to transcend from the profane space and time to the sacred space and time and actively participate in the actions presented in the myth.

I shan’t expand on the theory any more; if you should be interested, The Sacred and the Profane is just a library away.  As a student of comparative religion, Eliade’s work was at the same time enlightening and dense, simultaneously crystal clear and murky.  It was obvious, yet there was something about the theory that felt very subtle.  (This is separate from the language used in the work.  Eliade was a Romanian writing in French of which I was reading an English translation, and he liberally used Latin terms for his ideas.  The language was often precise and dry and oddly humorous at times – “Such mythical conceptions have their counterparts in beliefs concerning the spontaneous fecundity of woman and in her occult magico-religious powers, which exert a determining influence on plant life”, p 145, was a particular favorite to try to unravel.)  The obvious thing for a student to do with his work was to test it and probe it, and see if they understood it by applying it to different situations.  So that I did.  To me, the obvious thing to to was to apply this to America.

America clearly has sacred spaces:  from the Statue of Liberty to Independence Hall to Gettysburg to the Smithsonian, there are these spaces set aside and structured in such as way as to commemorate the various aspects of American history.

America clearly has sacred time.  The Fourth of July is perhaps the most conspicuous example, but Thanksgiving, Presidents’ Day, Flag Day, Columbus Day – these are all American holidays.  (And just think about the etymology of “holiday” – literally, “holy day”.)

America clearly has a veneration of Nature.  From the national park system to the stories of American wilderness to the patriotic songs of America – Purple mountain majesties, amber waves of grain, the redwood forests and the Gulf Stream waters.  Even as America venerated nature, still our heroes against and tame it:  Washington suffering and overcoming the winter at Valley Forge, the Hoover Dam, Theodore Roosevelt riding a moose.

America, too, has myths.  Paul Revere’s ride, the aforementioned Valley Forge and Roosevelt stories, Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan – all these are examples of such myths.  And from these myths rise the American pantheon:  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and others that are to be emulated, to be imitated, to be held as the archetype of proper behavior.

So America has all the components of a religion – but is it one?  To me, as a student, it obviously wasn’t, so what was missing?  The answer is that the experience is not the same.  The myths do not transport  a person out of profane space to sacred space, they do not transport them back to that time.  That is what was missing, and is the key component to the difference between something like patriotism and a religion.  Eliade himself recognizes this; in his book Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, he draws a comparison between a Christian re-actualizing the Passion of the Christ and that same person taking part in a celebration commemorating the Fourth of July (p 31).  There’s a difference in degree, if not substance.


The chapter of Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries in which Eliade observes that Fourth of July celebrations are merely commemorations and not re-actualizations is entitled The Myths of the Modern World.  In it, Eliade notes that, while participation in traditional sacred experiences is declining in the modern world (specifically, Christianity and its rites and rituals), there must be some other form of participation in myth that is taking its place.  Eliade puts forth the notion that reading fills that niche in modern society.  While this may be true in 1957 when the work was first published, it is not a stretch to include all forms of modern storytelling in this in 2022.  Not only reading, but (and possibly moreso in the sixty-five years hence), cinema and video games.  In these media we can find stories that can be relived again and again – heroes coming of age and villains vanquished.  If it seems like fans of certain stories seem to experience them on a different level, it is perhaps that they do.  Eliade posits that the myth plays an important role in human society, and if organized religion is not the source of it, humans will find other sources, and these stories would fill that need.

What does this have to do with America as a religion?  Just that observation that, just as fandoms of other stories grow, so too can the fandom of America.  Perhaps – and it is here that I venture into the realm of conjecture – there are people who do experience these stories of America as Eliade’s myths.

I am neither stating not implying that this American fandom is, in fact, a religion.  But if we consider it a sort of proto-religion, can this be used to explain the actions – or inactions – that we set out to explain that the start of this rather long-winded thought experiment?  Eliade writes in The Sacred and the Profane that, “The ultimate aim of the historian of religions is to understand, and to make understandable to others, religious man’s behavior and mental universe” (p. 162).  Can we see the same effects that religion creates in people echoed in how they behave in regards to America?  I think so; otherwise, I wouldn’t have written this.

We’ll work through, at a high level, Eliade’s description of how a religious person acts (chapter 4 of The Sacred and the Profane), using a certain stereotype of an American, and showing how they view America as their “cosmos” – the things on which their religion is based.  This is, perhaps, the most fraught problem with this hypothesis, as there is no evidence to support that such a person actually exists, but I will defend this with the simple fact that there are various people I do know personally that fit various aspects of the stereotype, so it is not too far of a stretch to imagine a person who fits all components of the stereotype.  For ease of reference, we will name this stereotypical American “Storm.”

Back to Eliade.  Eliade’s first assertion is that for the religion person, life is sanctified.  Here we are not talking about the “all life is precious,” type of sanctified life, but rather the notion that for the religious person their day-to-day activities are a reflection of their religion.  We do not, to my knowledge, see Storm believing that their sexual acts or acts of relieving themselves reflect America – although one could argue that the common truck-window-decal image of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes urinating on some enemy reflects this.  We do see Storm believing that their food choice reflects their being an American – grilled steaks, burgers – hot dogs, etc.  Food commonly associated with traditional American holidays becomes their day-to-day diet, simply because they are “American.”

Eliade also states that there is a “body-house-cosmos” connection, and we can see that in the American sentiment that “a man’s home is his castle.”  This is not just a right-to-privacy-in-ones-own-home idea, but also the idea that there is an innate right to defend that home from any and all intruders, just as one might defend America.  Here, we see “Storm” reflected not only in those people whose argument for keeping a gun is home defense, but also in people like George Zimmerman, who take this doctrine to a personal level, even outside their own homes.  Yes, I do acknowledge that there is a right to self-defense, but this attitude is taken to an extreme degree by these people – literally, the “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality – people who do not assess the situation and find any attack on themselves is akin to an attack on America.  So here, too, is a congruency with Eliade’s predictions.

Eliade’s fourth chapter includes sections on “death” and “rebirth”; I will not try to fit these to Storm, in part because I think any such attempt would be feeble and in part because I think this has gone on too long as it is.  I will, however, talk about Storm in the context of “rites of passage” and “societies.”  For Storm, we see the “first deer kill” in their first hunting season as such a rite of passage.  (Or perhaps it’s an opossum or a raccoon or even a stray cat – you can pick your stereotype here.)  For a society to be initiated into, there is that society of hunters, yes, but even above that we have the American Military.  Here, we see not only the society to be entered into, but one that creates heroes.  Storm views a veteran of the military as not just a veteran of one particular war, but of all wars in American history.  They uphold the traditions that have been passed down from the founding of the country, and are thus to be emulated.  If Storm cannot enlist in the military, perhaps he can join a militia that emulates the military.  For Storm, this society reflects what America is about.  Eliade even nods to this, writing that ” A good example [of modern initiation scenarios] is war, and especially individual combats  (particularly between aviators)~exploits that involve ‘ordeals’ that can be homologized to those of traditional military initiations, even if in our day the combatants are no longer aware of the deeper significance of their ‘ordeals’ and hence scarcely benefit by their initiatory meaning.”  (The Sacred and the Profane, pp 208-209).

So, to my mind, it is not too much of a stretch to see that “Storm” is a religious person, but their religion is a “little religion” of America.  And here we see part of the problem already, as guns are heavily involved in the initiation rites of this proto-religion.  (This idea is even reflected in popular culture, where Din Djarin in The Mandolorian says that “Weapons are part of my religion” (Season one, Episode Two).  Depending on your own political leanings, this is either something you innately agree with or see as an indictment of the problem.)

Adding to this problem is the fact that the model religions that the proto-religion of Americanism can draw from are scriptured religions – primarily Christianity, but Storm is also aware that Judaism and Islam have scriptures as well.  Thus Americanism should be scriptured as well, and that scripture is the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (and, perhaps, some other minor scriptures, such as the Gettysburg Address).  The problem with scriptures is that they cannot change.  Scripture is intended to come from a time when the law was created; American scriptures were handed down by the American Pantheon of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, by Madison and Adams and Monroe.   In the musical 1776, Benjamin Franklin – in an argument with John Adams – says the following: “…what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We’re men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed.”  It would seem that posterity has turned them into demi-gods, and the Constitution and Declaration of Independence into scripture.

Oddly enough, popular culture has even provided a glimpse of what happens if the Constitution is treated as a scripture.  In the original Star Trek series episode “The Omega Glory,” we see the Yangs of a parallel-Earth planet having the American Constitution as their holy document, and they recite the words (in a chopped-up manner) without understanding the meaning.  Though this episode is problematic about a great number of things (it is generally considered one of the worst episodes across the entire Star Trek franchise), the points Captain Kirk makes  – that “Liberty and freedom have to be more than just words.” and “They [the words/ideals] must apply to everyone or they mean nothing!” are very much on-point to the discussion at hand.

So where does that leave us?  How does this lengthy diatribe help understand why nothing ever changes?  I think it shows that, for a good percentage of the US population, there is a certain idea that the Constitution is a “holy document” and that the words are recited without truly understanding their meaning.  It also shows the degree to which guns are embedded in the American psyche – not just as cultural, but bordering on the religious.  And that is why change is impossibly slow in coming; any attempts to implement any reform are not met with logical refutations, but with feelings of being attacked on a personal-belief level.

How, then, do we proceed?  I do not have any suggestions for that.  A change to the Constitution would be the only way I can see anything moving, but such changes are certainly not a political reality.  I am not an Originalist when it comes to interpreting the Constitution (I do lean more toward being a Textualist), but the “promote the general welfare” portion of the preamble is generally clear, and I do believe that any portions of the Constitution that fail to promote that general welfare must be addressed.  Times do change, after all, and we are not beholden to the demi-gods of the American pantheon for what we should do, but rather to our own selves.  This is what Lincoln was fighting for when he talked about “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and why those self-same demi-gods embedded the ability to amend the Constitution into itself so that future generations could secure their own liberties.  The question is, can we do it?