Pastor in Chief: The State of the Union and America’s Civil Religion

Did you know that Donald Trump is a preacher? At least for one night each year.

Tonight, Nancy Pelosi will allow President Donald Trump will deliver the delayed State of the Union address. The State of the Union, as we can all feel, is more than just a speech. It was important enough to President Trump that after Pelosi called his bluff and disinvited him from delivering the address in the halls of Congress last week, he gave in on the Wall-based government shutdown. The administration reportedly brainstormed several alternative venues and formats, but in the end, the traditional SOTU address proved to be too much to give up.

The State of the Union has become one of these symbolic events. It’s not just a speech (and, as far as the Constitution goes, it doesn’t have to be a speech at all – they used to be delivered in writing as a report to Congress). It’s part of America’s pageantry, it’s quasi-sacredness. It’s part of America’s Civil Religion.

I almost named this site The Civil Religion because the concept is so important to American politics and life, even if most people haven’t heard of it. The term “civil religion” was coined by Swiss/French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (you may have heard about him in a political philosophy class or read about him inspiring the French Revolution). The term was then borrowed by an American sociologist, Robert Bellah, to described the United States.

The civil religion in America means two things. One is the way in which Judeo-Christian trappings are weaved into secular political rituals and rhetoric in ways that are moving or effective without being too particular. There are references to God, but not Jesus, as the latter would be too specific and thus too divisive. The God in whom we trust is a general, benevolent one who blesses America.

The Civil Religion also means that the secular aspects of the country’s founding, features and rituals are given a quasi-religious sacredness. The flag becomes a totem, a sacred representation of the country itself. Individuals like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are imagined as prophets and holy men akin to Moses, David and Solomon, ordained by God. Events like the Revolution or the Civil War become as important as Creation or the Exodus, and are commemorated in much the same way (Passover, the Fourth of July). The Constitution is revered, dissected and interpreted like scripture – appeals to the 1st or 2nd Amendment are used to shut down arguments, because who can argue wih the word of God, er, the Founding Fathers? (No one ever appeals to the Third Amendment. Don’t come running to me when soldiers start being quartered in your pool house).

And events like the State of the Union address, something that isn’t even required by the Constitution, take on an aura of sacredness and importance above any mere secular “speech.” There’s pomp and circumstance surrounding the entry into the halls of Congress (and, as Nancy Pelosi has taught us, rules about even being invited). There’s a procedure for who isn’t allowed to attend (which became the premise of Keifer Sutherland’s post 24 acting career).

There’s now even a feature that generally doesn’t exist in religious sermons – the opposition party response. Can you imagine if a church deacon got to get up right after the pastor and deliver her own mini sermon rebuttal of everything he just said? Yet this has been a sometimes powerful, often awkward part of the ceremony since 1966, and that’s what will happen tonight, with not one, but TWO Democratic responses: one from Stacey Abrams, who continues to win afer “losing” a rigged Georgia governor’s election (regardless of party, racial bias is apparently now a requirement for southern governors?), and a Spanish-language response by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. (Edited to add: and like a parishioner jumping up with his own remarks before the congregation disperses, Bernie Sanders will be delivering an Independent response as well).

So with all these trappings of the American Civil Religion, for one night, Donald Trump gets to be a pastor. Donald Trump, a President who doesn’t go to church, or read the Bible, or read period, or do identifiable “work” most days, gets to stand in front of nearly all of the American federal government and the American people and deliver a sermon on the direction in which he wants the country to go.

Now being a pastor doesn’t mean you automatically lead your flock in the right direction, or that you gain newfound wisdom or righteousness – how many of us haven’t heard a wildly inappropriate sermon or two? (especially if you’ve spent most of your life going to Baptist or Pentecostal churches – yes, pastor, your 2 hour explanation of who’s going to Hell is important, but I think we’re all waiting for you to say “you may now kiss the bride.”). So even if the President employs his best speechwriters for tonight, don’t expect a radically transformed Donald Trump from the one who has been Tweeting about the reemerging boogeyman of undocumented immigrants again.

Besides, I think his “best speechwriter” may be Stephen Miller, so heaven help us all.

Regardless of the content, however, the State of the Union will be a religious event, and (to paraphrase words that will most likely be uttered tonight), may God bless it, and may God bless the United States.

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