To make sense of the religious overtones in the recent American presidential inaugural ceremony, we need to understand four things that are distinctively American. They are (1) American civil religion; (2) American folk religion; (3) American transcendentalism; and (4) American rugged individualism.
American culture will remain incomprehensible to those who are unaware of these dynamics. Even Americans may see the effects of these influences without recognising them as causes.
American civil religion
Civil religion is found in all societies. It is the ‘lowest common denominator’ in popular religion. American civil religion has a place for a Supreme Being but only in the context of theological pluralism.
Many people believe there is a God, and one who can be known and has authority over human affairs. However, the content of their belief goes undefined. The Lord Jesus Christ is not necessarily part of it.
Civil religion advocates morality for the good of the individual and the nation. But it does so relying on man’s supposed ‘innate goodness’. It therefore lacks the proper foundation of a work of God upon the soul of man.
American civil religion focuses on the individual and is tolerant of all religious expression. It places the source of belief within the individual rather than the church, and does not recognise the need for revelation from God.
American folk religion
Most religious Americans have one thing in common — their faith is ‘conversionistic’. Religious conversion is part of the American psyche and takes many forms. Sects, cults and mainline denominations work to the principle of ‘winning’ converts through evangelistic endeavours.
People describe themselves as ‘born-again’. This biblical notion has become so devalued that one can be a ‘born-again’ golfer, salesman or … anything. People are free to fill in the blank for themselves.
Many people look for a ‘life-changing’ experience of one sort or another, or else they look back to some ‘defining experience’ in their lives. Many believe they have settled all relevant eternal questions with God because they had some religious experience in their youth.
Churches claiming to preach the gospel have Christianised many Americans, but the nation has not been truly evangelised. This only takes place when Christ is powerfully preached in all his fulness and according to God’s Word.
In general, the message preached in American pop or folk religion seeks change for the sake of a new beginning. It is not conversion from slavery to sin to the service of God and righteousness. The God-ward aspects of the gospel are eclipsed by self-help and self-esteem, promoting an illusion of salvation.
Arminianism has a natural appeal in folk religion. Since man must ‘pull himself up by his own bootstraps’, the message preached is one that encourages man to be the arbiter of his own salvation. The unbiblical doctrine of self-help in salvation fits comfortably with the American mindset.
The influence of nineteenth-century pragmatism on American life and thought goes largely unrecognised. Transcendentalism is, at its root, reformed Unitarianism flavoured with a pinch of Quakerism.
It rejected the cold Calvinism of New England, and the rigid rationalism of classical Unitarianism and, instead, promoted the idea that everyone can experience some measure of transcendent reality.
Many of the most celebrated American writers of the nineteenth century were card-carrying transcendentalists, including Emerson, Thoreau, Wm. Ellery Channing, Amos Alcot and Louisa May Alcot.
American transcendentalism had four main tenets: (1) The individual is the centre of his own universe; (2) the form of that universe mirrors the form of the self — the starting point for all knowledge; (3) nature is a living mystery full of symbols to be contemplated and related to the self-universe; and (4) individual happiness depends ultimately on the true-realisation (or actualisation) of the self.
The simple life
These four ideas, we are told, bring the individual to a point of tension. This stress enables the self to rise above the impulses of its material existence and to know the spiritual or divine force that transcends all things. Therefore, each individual must be allowed to find what is important in his own universe, as he seeks contentment through self-actualisation.
A person living in society has two basic needs. The first is to live at one with the world around them; the second is to live simply and alone in transcendental contemplation. Thoreau’s Walden Pond reflects his quest for such a balance. He desired the simple life, but wrote about it to influence others.
The tension is between seeking the good for oneself and desiring the welfare of others. Some have indeed found contentment by helping others. But others pursuing this philosophy found only despair.
Americans may no longer think in these terms — but they live as if they did. They want to forge their own realities. They want to be the determiner in religious matters. They want whatever will improve their quality of life and existence. For all too many, the fundamental question is: ‘What is in it for me?’
One of our historians, Frederick Jackson-Turner, noted the effects of the ‘frontier spirit’ on the American mindset. From the early days of settling this vast land, the people had to rely upon themselves.
They had to be tough to carve out a living in the wilderness. Westward expansion only served to increase the self-reliance and rugged nature of our pioneering forefathers.
There is a movie in which John Wayne does not feed his dog. He wants it to be able to fend for itself. He fosters self-reliance in his best and only friend. Similarly, we admire the self-made man. But self-made men tend to worship their creators!
Americans are also fond of self-expression. They see it as a personal freedom granted to them in the nation’s Constitution. Individualism gave rise to American transcendentalism. It colours folk religion and feeds ‘lowest common denominator’ religious ideals. It is no wonder that the cult of self-expression, self-actualization and self-esteem flourishes in our land. It plays to the American psyche like no other anthem.
What does all this have to do with the recent inauguration of a new president? It provides a context for what might have seemed to be a religious and even Christian ceremony.
American inaugurals are scripted to be expressions of the man entering the office and his party’s concerns. But at a deeper level they reflect the preoccupations of American society. George W. Bush was expressing something of himself to influence others, but the prayers and religious sentiments revealed the religious influences acting upon our new president. Sadly, these influences are not always biblical but are moulded by the traditions and philosophies of men.
If the eloquent inaugural prayers had been wedded to a bold proclamation of the Word, and a gospel that calls men to humble themselves before God, there would have been greater cause for rejoicing.
May God raise up a generation of faithful men who will stare down the prophets of pragmatic philosophies, so that the glory of Christ might be known among us once again. He alone is our hope, whether for the salvation of individual sinners or the transformation of society.