If you attended the dedication ceremony on Sept. 19 at Remembrance Park, did you notice how much it felt like a church service?
It lasted a little over an hour. God was mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance and alluded to when the piper played Amazing Grace. There was a procession. Most of those leading the ceremony were dressed in their Sunday best. Two clergy, Fr. Kuca and Rev. Teague, prayed. The mood was respectful and sometimes solemn. There seemed to be an awareness that we were connecting with something bigger than ourselves, something transcendent. Mayor Calderone used the word “forever” at least twice.
Sociologist Robert Bellah used the term “civil religion” to refer to that composite of symbols, rituals and quasi-religious beliefs that the majority of people in a society — a village like Forest Park or a nation like the United States — look to in order to place their everyday lives in the context of a higher purpose and transcendent power.
The language of civil religion puts into words an often unspoken belief by the majority of people that somehow, even though we say that political action should express the will of the people, that action will ultimately be judged by a higher authority.
Bellah writes, “Beyond the Constitution, then, the president’s [or mayor’s] obligation extends not only to the people but to God. What difference does it make that sovereignty belongs to God? Though the will of the people as expressed in the majority vote is carefully institutionalized as the operative source of political authority, it is deprived of an ultimate significance. The will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong. There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged; it is possible that the people may be wrong. The president’s obligation extends to the higher criterion.”
That’s why you will hear people mutter, “I don’t care if what the president or senator or governor or mayor or council member is doing is legal. It’s just plain wrong.” Many pundits commented that the pope’s speech to Congress had the effect of putting what goes on there — or doesn’t go on there — in a light that transcended business as usual.
One symbol of that belief are the words “In God We Trust,” which are chiseled in stone above an American flag that hangs right above the chair of the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. and printed, often with great irony in my opinion, on our paper money.
The language used to express this belief is always non-sectarian. Bellah calls it “Unitarian.” Did you notice that in the pope’s speech to Congress, he didn’t say the name of Jesus once? When I mentioned that to a nun with whom I was watching the speech on TV, she said he was being sensitive to the audience he was addressing. Fr. Kuca and Pastor Teague, likewise, were careful to cast as large a spiritual net as possible in their prayers at the dedication on Sept. 19.
While on the one hand we value the separation of church and state in this country, on the other hand we also value the linking of important events to a transcendent source of meaning and authority, and we expect our political leaders, including Mayor Calderone all the way up to President Obama, to somehow put that into words.
So here goes my attempt to describe Forest Park’s civil religion, i.e. that collection of symbols, values and beliefs to which we look to find meaning, purpose and direction for our lives.
Respect for Authority. In the wake of the series of white cops shooting unarmed black young men, Shannon Wood chose to launch her Our Hearts Bleed Blue Campaign instead of staging a Black Lives Matter rally. Oak Park did just the opposite. She has empathy for both the police and victims of racism, but when she decided to take action, she chose to support the police.
Relationships are Paramount. Sometimes to a fault, we Forest Parkers value relationships more than resumes. Wood urged her neighbors to tie a blue ribbon ’round the old oak tree to support the police because she knows many of them personally. Chief Aftanas said he started going to the monthly Chamber of Commerce luncheons because community policing requires that he get out and meet people. Now, he says, he goes because he will be with friends.
God of the Bible. For many years, I lived next door to two families of Muslims who emigrated from Monte Negro, but there is no mosque in Forest Park, and no synagogue and no Buddhist meditation center. My Muslim neighbors and I got along really well, partly because we respected each other’s beliefs, but when it came to public events, they did not expect to hear God named as Allah. No offense taken. Likewise, when I’m in Thailand where Christians are a 1% minority, I don’t expect to hear the name of Jesus spoken at public gatherings. When I pray at the start of every Chamber luncheon, I don’t go into theological contortions in an attempt to not offend someone who believes differently than I do, not out of disrespect but because I sense that our civil religion permits that kind of thing.
Live and Let Live. Forest Park civil religion lacks the “missionary urge.” Residents here are more concerned about getting along than with converting you, i.e. winning an argument about climate change or immigration or exactly when life begins. The Review often has no letters to the editor. Contrast that with Wednesday Journal in which letters to the editor usually require a whole section of the paper.
I’m sure I left out major pieces of what David Brooks calls our “moral ecology,” but at least I hope that I raised to consciousness some of what, a major part of what influences us, often flies under the radar.