Sand in the Gears

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Civic religion

October 11th, 2010 Posted in Theology

Seton Hall history professor William Connell offers an informative defense of Columbus Day:

“The holiday marks the event, not the person. What Columbus gets criticized for nowadays are attitudes that were typical of the European sailing captains and merchants who plied the Mediterranean and the Atlantic in the 15th century. Within that group he was unquestionably a man of daring and unusual ambition. But what really mattered was his landing on San Salvador, which was a momentous, world-changing occasion such as has rarely happened in human history. Sounds to me like a pretty good excuse for taking a day off from work.”

At the same time, Professor Connell opened my eyes to the nation- and state-centered nature of secular national holidays, which gives me, ironically given his intent, more pause than ever about Columbus Day:

“The American system of holidays was constructed mostly around a series of great events and persons in our nation’s history. The aim was to instill a feeling of civic pride. Holidays were chosen as occasions to bring everyone together, not for excluding certain people. They were supposed to be about the recognition of our society’s common struggles and achievements. Civic religion is often used to describe the principle behind America’s calendar of public holidays.”

Put that way, I don’t think I’m really in favor of civic religion. The phrase certainly captures it though. I wish I’d been in possession of it when I was troubled, earlier this year, by so many churches celebrating Mother’s Day while completing forgetting Pentecost. Civic religion sounds a little too much like one of those coffee drinks with all the coffee removed. I’ll take my All Saint’s Day and Annunciation Day and Ascension Day straight up, thank you very much.