Spiritual transformation is now an emerging necessity for those whose operative spirituality includes American Civil Religion. Events of the last few weeks and those still going on provide the conditions for transformation.
According to Kenneth I Pargament, spiritual transformation is “primarily … a fundamental change in the place of the sacred or the character of the sacred as an object of significance in life….” Spiritual transformation emerges from and responds to “internal or external trauma and transition.”
I expect no argument to the notion that this is a time in America of trauma and transition. But we need to consider what the “sacred” is in American Civil Religion.
In any discourse, the sacred is that which defines what is good and indispensable as well as that which empowers those essentials in human experience. The sacred is manifested in events. The sacred is symbolized in monumental structures so its ideals may be retained and renewed in celebrations. The sacred impels response. It inspires movement toward that which is good, i.e. that of the sacred which can be accomplished.
There are several levels of sacred things with a sacred unifier uppermost. They are, by definition, superior to mundane things such as politics, health, economics, and safety. Sacred things give those mundane things direction and clarity and maximize their potentiality.
Democracy is a strong candidate for being called American Civil Religion’s unifying sacred, its most sacred concept and ideal. Arguably, it is democracy that provides the necessary condition for politics, health, economics, and security to be optimized. Those mundane abstractions are fabricated as government operations, medical functions, banks and commerce, human development institutions, and safety-net programs. Those undertakings are at their best when they are developed with democracy as an organizing principle.
Over time, however, symbols emerge which stand for the sacred. Often these symbols expand to such an extent that the unifying sacred is unimaginable without them. The symbols then are sacred, too. Religion is about meaning. American Civil Religion functions to designate how America’s symbols are to be understood and venerated. American Civil Religion tells Americans what the American flag stands for; patriotic organizations are influential priests in this. American Civil Religion tells what civic monuments mean. It tells us what the Capitol means, which is more than offices and chambers inside an impressive building. American Civil Religion tells us what level of reverence should be paid to the Capitol and what actions desecrate it.
On January 6, when the mob invaded the US Capitol building they did more than break down doors and windows and loot offices; they desecrated the citadel and prime symbol of American Democracy. They did a number of things that contributed to the desecration, including interrupting a joint session of the US Congress, replacing US flags with Trump flags, erecting a scaffold with a noose to threaten the President Elect with death, as well as recitals (chants and gestures) that voiced opposition to the operation of democracy as it has been described in the US Constitution and procedures for more than two centuries.
This violent action, the well-laid plans that preceded it, the speeches that incited the riot, and the mayhem and bloodshed that resulted, have dismayed and shocked most Americans (and people around the world who respected the USA).
Americans have interpreted the events and assigned blame in contrasting ways. The desecration of the Capitol, combined with the actions of the President, has been described as insurrection. This description must be correct insofar as the attempt was to change the outcome of the election and the smooth transition of power. Even as the invasion of the building was going on blame was being shifted away from the pro-Trump patriots to Antifa (Anti-Fascist) conspirators posing as Trump supporters to slander peaceful protestors to the stolen election who love Trump and would never break the law.
Americans who have developed a high regard for American Civil Religion have been traumatized by this attack on the most important monument to its most sacred concept. The insurrection failed on January 6, but the attempt was an attack on democracy even though it is argued that democracy was already being undermined by all sorts of things; neo-liberalism and white supremacy are two that have been mentioned frequently. No matter whether one considers the actions of January 6 as a despicable insurrection or bold and desperate patriotic action that unfortunately failed, the event and the way it developed was traumatic.
Trauma is the result of an impact that threatens ones sustained physical or mental functioning. That is also true when the matter is in the religious domain. In that the trauma on January 6 was about an important symbol that was considered essential, adjustment one’s dedication and loyalty are going to be necessary. Many Americans were traumatized by what took place. This shook the confidence of some of those who placed trust in President Trump to stay in office and preserve America. It shook others to see how dysfunctional the government of the nation’s capital became when an insurrection occurred. It shook some to realize how deep and dangerous the divisions of opinion are about what makes America great and what the consequences of this division might be.
No matter if one is convinced that without Trump America will be destroyed for America is a way of life we won’t have without him, or if one is certain that America is as great as its protections for the most vulnerable and without social engineering America will be a failure, this election and transition have been traumatic. Trauma is one of the triggers for spiritual transformation.
It’s been less than a week since the attempted insurrection and there is a dark cloud looming over the inauguration of the next President and Vice President next week. Evidence about what happened on January 6 is being reported hour by hour. It’s too early to say how things will shift, but loyalties and devotions have been impacted. It’s been a transformational moment for American Civil Religion, the proprietor of America’s National Narrative.
[Previous blogs about American Civil Religion include: www.kendobson.asia/blog/american-civil-religion.
Reference: Pargament, Kenneth I. 2001. The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. New York: The Guilford Press.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.