Very few of us who truly care about religious freedom in America would put our faith in a civic religion. Although 2,000 years of history can offer us many shining examples of church cooperating with state, the idea of a “state church” would be almost laughable in our country today. When I imagine a hypothetical American state church, I can only think of gay pride flags or of preachers who hold a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. I think of political candidate “messiahs” and a foreign policy sprinkled with apocalyptic imagery. None of it reminds me of the Gospel. In America, the state inevitably subordinates Christianity’s message to politics when the two become closely allied.
Whatever future we may predict for the American project, it is clear that our enlightenment and reformation origins have led to a radical departure from the ancient Christian tradition. Our history has inevitably placed our religious freedom in a precarious position.
The natural hostility between the civic and the sacred in the United States is intensified wherever legality clashes with sacramentality. The state redefines marriage and the family as contracts and associations. Psychologists warp sin and confession into pathology and catharsis. Priests and monastics are often singled out as eccentrics or deviants. The idea of apostolic authority is feared as a threat to national sovereignty and the rule of law. As Peter J. Leithart once pointed out on First Things, Hegel foresaw that nations with strong devotion to the sacraments would be least conducive to his notion of modern statism. Even a totalistic government can only exercise control over what is earthly; the sacraments will forever lie beyond its grip.
This is why sacramentality must never be forced out of religion, nor out of the public consciousness. Herein lies the greatest danger to American religious freedom: Christians in the United States have long been guilty of eroding their own sacramentality. Emotional sensationalism has turned pastors into performers. Materialism has replaced ancient saints with Hollywood celebrities. Hyper-modernism has eschewed tradition, even in the most traditional churches. But have we found anything to replace the faith of our fathers? Now nothing is meaningful, nothing is valuable, nothing is serious.
My heart was heavy with these thoughts when I happened recently to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in our nation’s capital. As I watched the faithful 3rd Infantry Regiment (appropriately nicknamed “The Old Guard”) meticulously perform their guard-changing routine, I realized that I was looking at the sacramental backbone of America. That is, in the old Roman sense of sacramentum: giving one’s self fully to one’s sacred duties. Here was patriotic honor, respect for the dead, and all that was left of gravitas in the American project. Vested in parade dress as he precisely marched his twenty-one steps back and forth (symbolic of the twenty-one gun salute), the soldier on duty celebrated this militaristic liturgy with a focused joy.
I was also startled when the rather intense sentry turned and snapped at an onlooker for sitting down in the presence of the Tomb. Having been present several years ago when my priest gave a similar reprimand to a youth who remained seated during the Lord’s Prayer, I immediately felt the resonance of the two moments. The soldier was not being rude or punctilious; he was calling us observers to take the high road, to participate as we ought. In a stirring secular echo of Christian sacramentality, we had all been reminded that there was something more to this moment than met the eye.
It was thanks to these faithful American servicemen that I realized what church and state can aspire to in this country. Though our thoroughly un-sacramental country may never be ready for full symphonia between church and state, our finest hours are those when sacraments rub off on society—when the sacred bears witness to the Gospel and truly impacts the saeculum. The Trappist spiritual author Thomas Merton once remarked, “If the monks stopped praying for just a moment, the world would spin off its axis.” I will dare to offer a secular corollary: if the Old Guard ever stops marching back and forth at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we can start the countdown on the end of our republic.
One might have expected the guards’ ritual to take a break during last month’s polar vortex, which saw record snowfall in the tri-states area over the course of several days. As a matter of fact, several churches saw their Sunday services cancelled. But as several news sources reported, the perpetual guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier continued. Some online commenters took this opportunity to chastise the military for such a “frivolous waste of time and money.” “Why on earth would I be more proud to be an American,” asked one, “because of a man standing in the snow in a cemetery, guarding what is, in practical terms, a large pile of dirt and stone?” Another neatly summarized modernity’s anti-sacramental mindset: “I can't believe we're this primitive (they should build a fire and dance around it) but we are.”
Ignorant, disrespectful comments such as these should be unsurprising in a desacralized America. This is the country where a presidential candidate can court evangelicals by referring to the Eucharist as a “little wine and little cracker” (which he eats even though he’s “never asked God for forgiveness”). A Roman Catholic congresswoman can refer to late-term abortion as “sacred ground” (you know, like Moses’ burning bush). A conservative politician can utter the infamous phrase, “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists” (is that by triple immersion?). You could distill a terrifying systematic theology from sound bites out of Washington, D.C.Such widespread confusion among cultural elites is a stark reminder of how desperately America needs the Church and her authoritative tradition in our time. We don’t need an American Church, we need an America that goes to church. We need to insist upon faithful leaders whose lives reflect the gospel, and a culture whose sacramentality can resist modernity. We need ordinary people with the faith to believe in more than the physical world. We need prayer, we need sacrifice, and we need morality. We need (for example) to honor our dead. Perhaps the Church and her sacraments can remind the cultural conscience of these basic human needs. There is little evidence that American Christians have been successful with this reminder, but some fragments still remain. Observe the silent, unbroken march of Arlington Cemetery’s Old Guard and witness, in a small way, the cultural impact that sacraments can make.
Andrew Jacob Cuff is a Ph.D. student in Church history at the Catholic University of America.