On my very first day in Anthropology 121 (Religion, witchcraft, and magic), the two topics of religion and politics melded with the upcoming holiday. During the discussion of our term paper a possible prompt was given; “Discuss an institution that is not an official religion, but is still treated as such.” Being the man I am my mind automatically turned towards politics and how I could mold American nationalism into a type of religion. Many would say that the driving religion behind our nation is Christianity. However I would argue that if an anthropologist were to study our culture thousands of years from now when we are all gone he or she would conclude that our society’s predominant religion was patriotism.
One way to determine the religion of a society is to examine its architecture and how it was shaped based on the belief system of said society. If an archaeologist thousands or years from now were to see Mount Rushmore they would logically assume that it depicted the great Gods of our society. And who’s to say they would be wrong? There are countless architectural examples of “common citizens” (as the founding fathers intended presidents to be) being portrayed as god like figures of a major religion. This can be found most notably in our nation’s capital where we have the grand statue of President Abraham Lincoln looking over the reflecting pool towards yet another religious icon, the Washington monument. The Jefferson and Lincoln memorials look like they should belong in the temples of ancient Greece rather than Washington DC.
Christians have the Bible, Muslims, the Quran, and Americans have the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These sacred documents are as adored by the people than the texts of every religion on the planet. So much so that a copy of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Gettysburg Address are kept in tomb in Mount Rushmore for future historians to know of our culture. Symbolism in religions is very important as it is in American nationalism. The symbol of the United States has been made into a religious icon. An eagle clenching arrows in one claw and an olive branch in the other has been analyzed and pictured in almost as many places as a cross. The American flag can be seen as important a religious icon as any other. To burn one is seen as offensive as burning a holy book. Every day, as if in a religious ceremony, children across the nation must stand up, put there right hand over their heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. To an observer this would seem no less a religious ceremony than reciting bible verses during mass.
Myths and legends are common for any religion, including American nationalism. Whether it is the tale of “Honest Abe” or of George Washington and the Cherry tree, many of the stories surrounding our founding fathers are not based in fact and yet are so interwoven in American culture that they become so. If one were to walk the streets of our capitol or enter its buildings he or she would be blown away at the magnificent hallowed statues and temples which celebrate our founding fathers. I have been to both the Vatican and the US Capitol Building and absolutely everything that is in one is in the other. The Capitol Building even has a tomb that was originally built to house the body of George Washington.
I am in no way, shape, or form attempting to label these things as wrong or in need of change. Even I feel a sense of religious awe when visiting Washington DC and those hallowed sites. The point of this post was to highlight the irony of the holiday we enjoy today, Presidents Day. Having this holiday would imply that only now do we appreciate and reflect on these great men when in reality every day is Presidents Day in the US.