Today’s the last Monday in May, which means it’s Memorial Day — the day Americans have set aside to specially remember and honor the men and women who have given their lives in the armed service of the nation. A day that remembers this profound sacrifice from our fallen soldiers, especially on a national level, especially in the face of an ever increasingly selfish, petty, and nihilistic culture is important now more than ever.
Unlike many of the federal holidays, Memorial Day actually has some ritual observances associated with it that aren’t merely excuses for consumerism or gluttony. It used to be called ‘Decoration Day’, so named because of the tradition of decorating the graves of soldiers. The national custom of flag etiquette for Memorial Day is to fly the flag at half-mast until noon in memory of the fallen soldiers, and then to raise the flag to full-mast to indicate resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain. There’s also a national “moment of remembrance”, observed in local time zones at 3pm, and other customs in which people can participate.
Customs, traditions, and rituals like these used to form a much greater portion of the lives of Americans, or at least, they used to occupy a greater portion of the American collective consciousness. For most of human history, and for most of humanity on the planet today, ritual actions are the natural way of acknowledging and connecting to realities that can be neither weighed nor measured. These are more than mere external expressions of subjective emotions; these are incarnated actions of the soul touching universal realities like honor, loyalty, and justice.
Traditionally, rituals have permeated every aspect of human life, from home life, to business and trade, to socializing and leisure. But most substantially, ritual has been employed in the cult of religion — all religions: the various ancient paganisms, monotheistic Judaism, Buddhism, the more philosophic ones like Taoism, and of course classical Christianity. In fact, the rituals of the cult usually set the tone for the rest of life. So from this way of life flowing from the common cult, you get a “culture.”
It’s hard to say whether America has ever had a truly common cult. The American colonies, like the British Isles and Western Europe, drew borders between many of the various Christian denominations. But as the plurality of denominations grew, there grew up alongside it a philosophy known as Deism which acknowledged a generalized God, rejecting any God of revelation and all the particulars of any Church or confession. This is the philosophy that built “God” into the artifacts of the nation (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Pledge of Allegiance) which would enfold all those pluralities into itself. America would place itself “under God” as long as he couldn’t be named, and would establish itself on the universal moral order and inalienable rights established by “nature’s God” (Jefferson’s words).
And so, unofficially, a national religion is formed. An important part of that national civic religion is the universal moral order, which is indeed an objective, though transcendent, reality. And that moral order has been the impetus for every victory of life and freedom won in this country thus far — including the abolition of slavery, the civil rights victories, and we can only hope the abolition of abortion as well. Every Church and confession within this nation can affirm that moral order, but the danger for them becomes confusing themselves with the Deistic, civic religion. This religion has its scriptures (Declaration/Constitution), its temples (national monuments), and its holy days (federal holidays). I’m not denigrating any of these things (in fact, I think they’re good and necessary), but in the service of the Deistic national religion, they can be used to subvert and replace real Christianity.
Even in the service of Deism, though, the monuments and rituals of the national religion have an efficacy insofar as they connect people, albeit imperfectly and weakly, to those objective realities, and even to a “Creator”, like the altar to an “unknown god” in Athens (Acts 17:23). But the vitality of Deism is weak, and with only the steam of human reason sans the revealed Tradition of the Church, the path to secularism, materialism, and atheism is sure, corresponding respectively to a society that is selfish, petty, and nihilistic. So a national day of honoring and ritualizing the memorial of fallen soldiers is welcome, especially for those who have few ways to connect ritually to these important realities. But for Christians, the question should be, are we making this memorial as Christians, or as Deists? As merely citizens of America, or citizens of Heaven? Are we commending the fallen to “God”, or to the Father, in the Son, by the Holy Spirit?
The danger of mingling Christianity in America with national Deism is widespread and serious. Christianity worships a particular God, not a generalized one, and generalizing the revealed God in trinity of persons is like saying I was raised by “parenthood” instead of my own Mom and Dad. This isn’t a rejection of patriotism by any means. Perfect patriotism, in fact, finds its perfection and fulfillment in Christ — as all things will be summed up and fulfilled in Christ (Eph 1:10, Col 1:20). It’s our responsibility as Christians to bring our heavenly citizenship to bear on our American citizenship, not the other way around. Let’s take a cue from the Memorial Day flag ritual — first bowing our heads in memory of our fallen soldiers, but then rising in resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain. Let’s not acquiesce to the sterile “national religion” of Deism which has given the cues for this land on a federal level since the beginning, but rather let’s work to change our culture by converting it to one cult, the Faith “once for all delivered to the saints”, to the glory of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, in whose hands are the living and the dead: We give thee thanks for all those thy servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Grant to them thy mercy and the light of thy presence, that the good work which thou hast begun in them may be perfected; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.