The Deeper Florida Drama

The unfolding election saga is really about a new understanding of America's 'civil religion.'

The unfolding drama surrounding Florida's voter recount raises many questions about how we go about electing our national leaders, and what might be done to improve the political process. But there is also something deeper going on. Call it a drama about national self-understanding at a basic religious level.

Other recent national dramas--say, the O.J. Simpson trial and the Monica Lewinsky affair--aroused Americans, but none has touched their moral and political nerves quite like this. The presidential election is not just an election procedure--it is a ritual that, like all rituals, affirms shared views and convictions about our social order.

In this instance, we're affirming a set of values, symbols, and sentiments that, taken together, make up what is sometimes called the nation's "civil religion." This is an Americanized belief system that includes sacred texts such as the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, sacred places such as Arlington Cemetery, sacred symbols such as the American flag, and sacred rituals such as Memorial Day celebrations and presidential elections. Crucial to this belief system is the deeply-felt notion that Americans are a "chosen people," divinely endowed with a special purpose to embody principles of justice and fairness and to defend the democratic way of life--to be as the early Puritans said, a "city set on a hill."


Since it is a national faith, Americans of all religious traditions are united in a common understanding of themselves and of America and its destiny. That is why god-talk is common around election time. This election generated a lot of it, primarily because Joseph Lieberman was the first Jewish candidate on a national ticket. But such talk is not all that unusual in national elections. In the 1950s, there was Eisenhower's talk about faith and its importance. There were the issues surrounding Kennedy's Catholicism in 1960, and of course the "born-again Christian" politics beginning with Carter in 1976 and its even greater embrace of Reagan in 1980.

The point is, rhetoric about religion and politics come together for Americans, expressing who they are and what is most important to them. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in the 1830s, politics is a platform for Americans to affirm their deepest religious impulses. Thus it is that politicians speak of God and country in the same breath, and preachers almost never fail to comment on what is happening morally and spiritually to the nation. America is, as has often been said, "a nation with the soul of a church."

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Wade Clark Roof
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