When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, my work-study job one year was in the library helping to catalogue early American ephemera, mostly sermons and religious pamphlets published between independence and the Civil War. Among the items were funeral sermons, sermons preached at gatherings of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, and sermons preached on the occasions of fast days proclaimed apparently annually. The thought of regular state-wide fast days was particularly amusing given that it was while I was a student that the harsh blue laws that prohibited most stores from opening were finally repealed.
Like the blue laws, fast days were an example of the Protestant hegemony that had held sway in early America and was still slowly receding in the 1980s. While culturally Boston was dominated by Irish and Italian Catholics, the legacy of mainline Protestant remained particularly strong. Its monuments lined the streets of the Back Bay: Trinity Church, Old South Church, First Baptist, Emmanuel Church, Arlington St. Unitarian. Similarly, almost every suburb and town in the state had tall-steeple churches of the major denominations.
But things were changing. Many of those churches were already struggling. First Baptist, where I interned had an average Sunday attendance of roughly 50 in a church that could comfortably seat 500. Harvard Divinity School recognized the importance of world religions both globally and nationally. We were required to take courses in World Religions as part of our M.Div. Curriculum and we had classmates who were Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and many who had no personal religious commitments.
I quickly connected the fast days of Federalist Massachusetts with the “Buss- und Bettag” (day of prayer and repentance) that was observed in the Federal Republic of Germany when I studied there in 1979-1980. In Germany, with its state churches, such a day was a reminder of the role played by the church, especially Protestant churches. The notion that Fast Days might be observed in twentieth-century America seemed far-fetched.
So I was surprised to read the news last week that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church was encouraging people to “fast for the soul of the country.” It seemed to me to be very much an appeal to this old version of Protestant hegemony and American Civil Religion, that had reigned in the US from its founding up to the late 20thcentury. As a denomination that has profited from and capitalized on its quasi-establishment as America’s Civil Religion (the National Cathedral and all that), we are struggling to make our way in this new America of religious pluralism and the rapid growth of those who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. We struggle with the way our rituals are coopted as civic rituals, for example in the funerals of George Bush and his wife Barbara, who were both Episcopalian, and traditional observances like services on Inauguration Day.
How does calling for a “fast for the soul of our country” complicate our already strained relationship with America’s civil religion? At its heart, fasting is a profoundly personal act of spiritual discipline, a way for our bodies to engage in our religious experience, indeed, an expression of our body at prayer. While fasting may have significance on a personal level and for religious communities, the shared experience of fasting may be a crucial part of the experience, as during the season of Lent, as a public, civic ritual in a secular nation, fasting seems deeply problematic.
But the call to fast is only one aspect of my concern with the Presiding Bishop’s appeal. Equally problematic to me is the use of the phrase “the soul of the country.” In the first place, do countries have “souls”? The use of such language, while it may appeal to us on a visceral level as an attempt to describe the core values and ideals of a nation seems to be an attempt to imbue a nation with religious significance. To do so seems inevitably to lead to the idolatry of nationalism.
Moreover, if the US has a soul, how might we best define it? No doubt those who use such language want to appeal to the founding documents and the democratic ideals of the founders. But at the core of the nation’s founding was racism, white supremacy, and the removal and genocide of indigenous peoples. So is not all that part of the country’s soul as well? “The soul of the country” seems to me to be problematic political theology, a term that needs interrogation and critique It is particularly unfortunate that it has recently entered the rhetoric of the presidential campaign, used by Joe Biden in a recent town hall.
It seems to me that religious leaders, rather than encouraging us to deepen our commitments and rituals to the American project, to its soul, ought to be calling us to deeper commitment to Jesus Christ, deeper and more meaningful discipleship, and to work more diligently for justice and peace.
Many of us will read these verses during our Ash Wednesday services this week. They seem especially appropriate:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)