Sep  2016 06
Pieties and Prophets

We U.S. Americans have our national pieties, all of which are expressions of what scholars call “civil religion.” Dr. Martin Marty explains that civil religion is a term used by scholars to describe a cluster of phenomena: no one attends the Church of Civil Religion (although I’ve known some churches that might qualify!).

Civil religion refers to the ways in which a significant number of Americans treat an aspect of national life as sacred or quasi-sacred. Examples of pieties would be hallowing battlefields and the graves of those who “made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country,” saying the Pledge of Allegiance with hand over heart, standing when the U.S. flag passes in a parade, observing a moment of silence at a sporting event when a death or tragedy has occurred, and revering (if not actually reading, marking, and inwardly digesting) the Declaration, the Constitution, and speeches such as the Gettysburg Address.

Another American piety is standing, taking a posture which is the civilian form of “at attention,” and either singing or silently and reverently observing the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback for the National Football League’s San Francisco team has been violating this piety, observed at the opening of professional sporting events. And, as one can predict when any piety is violated, whether observing flag etiquette or political candidates who don’t always wear an American flag pin, the condemnation is swift, loud, and harsh.

It seems that a public person like a sports figure can’t thoughtfully reject a conventional U.S. piety, for whatever reason, without being accused of being anti-American, unpatriotic, disloyal, ungrateful, and worse.

And we seem to have the longest cultural memory of African-Americans in public life who raise a fist or remain seated, rather than, for instance, the hippie or white returned vet during the Vietnam conflict whom I saw turn their backs to the flag during national anthem time at college basketball games.

We all should be careful in how we observe a piety, and the behaviors we view as acceptably loyal.

For those of us who are Christian, we ought to remember that the biblical witness in the prophetic tradition is angry and dismissive of pieties observed for their own sake and without connection to justice.

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:21, 23, 24 NRSV

In the Bible, a sweet smelling or sounding piety cannot cover the stench of injustice.

In American life, no piety can perfume the stink of injustice. So, if we U.S. Americans are going to practice pieties, we should not observe a piety closed to the possibility of correction.

One might respond, “Correction is fine. There is a fitting time and place.”

My response, “Okay, where is that?”

Actually, think about it. Where in American life do We the People expect and allow, even welcome, critical perspectives on our pieties? Clearly, not on our sports fields. A little goes a long way on Oscar night. Not in our political campaigns, not with either party-chosen audiences or one candidate ordering the ejection “of those bad people.”

My goodness, not from the pulpit in predominantly white congregations. Hardly anything can get a pastor in trouble more quickly than taking a side of an issue with a moral charge (and pieties are cloaked in morality) that differs from loud or powerful congregants.

Among racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, maybe there is more tolerance for critique, but most human groups do better at criticizing “them” rather than “us.”

A community that can engage in deep self-criticism is incredibly rare. Most of us, most of the time, would rather observe our pieties and continue as we were.

It may be a very good thing to be open to the persons who choose to disrupt a conventional piety, whether in religious communities or in national life, to remind us of the the event, the courage, the sacrifice, the precept, the aspiration that called the piety into being in the first place.

Expanded Photo Credit:
More than 100 U.S. Sailors from Navy Region Midwest, Navy Recruiting Chicago and Naval Station Great Lakes hold an American Flag during the National Anthem at opening day ceremonies for the Chicago White Sox Major League Baseball team at U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago, Ill., April 7, 2008. Great Lakes Sailors have participated in the White Sox opening day for the past six years.
Date 7 April 2008
Author Scott A. Thornbloom
(Reusing this file)

Public domain photograph from


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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