Popular Civil Religion and the Making of a Texas Convert

Popular Civil Religion and the Making of a Texas Convert July 6, 2012

On our trek across the mid-Atlantic states recently, I experienced what I might describe as a new awareness of my Texanization (new word, copyright pending). We were at the National Harbor (near Washington DC), a neat plaza-like area flanked on 3 sides by streets and stores and 1 side facing the harbor (I still prefer to say that word like I remember hearing it from locals in South Bend, IN: “hhar-ber”). I was looking down the pier and gazed up at the many flags waving in the soft breeze. And it was at this moment I realized that something in me had changed.

I started looking for the Texas flag.

It took 8 years but who’s counting? Truth be told, understanding Texas culture was a part of my daily experience as the many symbols I saw seemed to add-up to what I describe as a popular civil religion. Civil religion is as Margarita Mooney pointed out earlier, quoting Robert Bellah:

“from the earliest years of the [American] republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion-there seems no other word for it-while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.”

It is a way of describing the kind of sacred qualities that imbue much of our national culture, from invoking God in speeches and anthems to the use of Biblical allusions and imagery in monuments, memorials and film. With the infusion of the sacred in our national pride we tend to associate American-ness as a kind of semi-religious experience. Indeed many modern nations have some examples of civil religion if one looks closely enough.

But Texas is unique in this regard. It’s not that its civil religious sensibility with respect to the US is so much greater than any other state. It’s that its civil religious sensibility with itself is so remarkable. Texas has its own heroes (e.g. Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin), its own sacred sites (e.g. Alamo, San Jacinto) to be sure. My emphasis here is on the popular dimension of civil religion, which I describe as the everyday faith of civil religion. Texas has this in spades. Much as “God bless America” pins would be an example of popular American civil religion, “God bless Texas” would be a similar example for this state. To point out how unique this is, can you name one other state that with this kind of religious infusion?

This popular civil religion is bundled together with other examples of how the state identity is so deeply emblazoned (sometimes literally on the body) in the everyday experience of Texas life. I often like to use my home state of Pennsylvania as a counterexample. I have never seen:

Pennsylvania shaped ice cube trays

Pennsylvania shaped tortilla chips



Pennsylvania shaped handicap-parking symbols (!)

The other image that one sees with remarkable frequency is the state flag. It’s not just that car dealerships seem to compete for the biggest version of the state flag, it’s that the flag is visible in all manner of clothing and art (note the tattoo above).

It would not surprise me one bit if young Texans could well draw the shape of their state AND the state flag given the way these images are branded everywhere. I know of no other state with this degree of commitment to brainwashing, er, socializing the residents and visitors with Texas pride. Indeed I’ve grown so accustomed to these popular civic symbols that I now look for it (or even other state equivalents) whenever I am traveling.


What other states emphasize their identity in ways that resemble the Lone Star state? Any curious examples of Texas tchotchke come to mind?

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  • Jessica Bennett

    We’ve never met (I met Christina when traveling with her and Kristin in Scotland), but I just wanted to comment. When I first visited Texas, one of the things I noticed was the frequency of seeing the state flag and Texas-shaped things. Some of them were subliminal, and then I started looking for them- they were EVERYWHERE. I can’t think of another state like this (I’ve been to all except Alaska). Many people are proud to be New Yorkers or Pennsylvanians, but the people/governments of these states don’t go to the same extreme as Texas. I don’t go to tourist shops often, but I did used to go to the ones in NYC when people visited me- I’d take them there so they could get things for their friends/family. Of course there were hundreds of things, from taxicab fridge magnets to Phantom of the Opera towels, but this is just stuff for tourists- locals don’t go here. I’ve seen plenty of Texans wear their own state shirts, whereas you don’t see too many New Yorkers wearing an I Love NYC shirt. And don’t forget, “Don’t Mess with Texas.”

    • Jerry Park

      Thanks for the observations Jessica, that’s exactly what I experienced too, especially growing up in Philly where locals give Liberty Bell miniatures to their friends but few have a copy themselves. You’re right, many Texans proudly display their state in some form or another in ways that I just don’t see anywhere else. Viva la Tejas!

  • Shelly Isaacs

    I recently moved to Texas, and the prevalence of these symbols of civil religion have certainly been surprising. Texas shaped mirrors in the bathroom at the first restaurant we stopped at, and Texas shaped cheese at the grocery store. The lone star is everywhere from shopping centers and overpasses to the carpets being displayed for sale on the side of the road. I met a teacher who told me about how students in schools here say a pledge to the state of Texas as well as the national pledge of allegiance. It’s certainly something that is uniquely Texan!

  • well, we were our own country that included oklahoma, new mexico, all the way to colorado…

    • Thos. Collins

      That is a plain falsehood. The Republic of Texas was about one-third the size of the State of Texas. Certainly the Texicans _claimed_ more land than ever owned.

      After statehood the US manufactured a border incident, stomped our weaker neighbor into the ground and proceeded to steal all the territory you mentioned plus California, Nevada and Arizona. Just War, anyone?

      Just imagine the US and Canada went to war over who owned Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and once the dust settled they took not only Michigan but all of the US west of the Mississippi.

  • Jared

    (Sorry this comment is sort of meandering) California have this use of popular civic symbols to some degree. I have seen bear flag tattoos, bear flag backpacks, and there’s, like in Texas, an impression that whether they be NorCal or SoCal, what unites them as Californians is often greater than what divides them. There is, however, no G-d Bless California mentality, and the intra-state differences can often overshadow a singular state identity.

    What helps these places, besides being huge, is that they have meaningful easily recognizable symbols, in terms of both state flags and state shapes. I would wager one of the important things that gives these symbols special power is that their histories are separate from the rest of the United States (the Texas Republic, the Alamo, etc., and to a lesser extent, the missions, the pre-transcontinental railroad isolation, the minor rebellions and Bear Flag Republic). You see this to some degree in the South, too, where the Stars and Bars to many represents a history and identity that overlaps but is not coterminous with “American”.

    In some other places, there is often identification is often at the municipal level, but these can lack clear, unifying symbols that represent only that identity, and for the most part, they have no totally separate history. Chicago and D.C. both have easily recognizable flags that people will rally around and identify with. I’ve seen people with those tattoos as well (and DC and Chicago punk bands often use them in their album art), and while people might not have the flags in their homes, I would say both those are examples of places where the governmental unit and the identity overlap so people are willing and eager to embrace the pre-existing civic symbols. In other cities I’ve lived in, New York and Boston, the sets of symbols are less clear. The I <3 New York campaign is 1) a tourist campaign originally aimed at outsiders, and 2) is relatively new and has clear manufactured commercial origins. There is no great New York flag or map to rally around, though New Yorkers have strong identities as New Yorkers. Instead people often go rally around more local symbols: they identify with their borough, or wear t-shirts for their subway line (or sports team). In Boston area, instead of municipal symbols (because the "Boston" identity covers a lot of suburban New England, municipal and state symbols won't work), we tend to go for the Boston Red Sox, which even non-sports fans will support. Their cheer of "Yankees Suck" is interesting both because it is an identity defined against something else, rather than for something (this is one of the problems with the Stars and Bars as well–it's not always clear what it stands for, only what it stands against, and it is often read as standing for slavery and segregation), and also because it is something I've heard outside of baseball contexts and outside of anti-New York contexts. Pittsburgh symbolically has "Black & Yellow" (Penguins, Steelers, Pirates) which Whiz Khalifa even wrote a song about. It's probably not coincidental that one of the first things that nationalist movements create is a flag to fully represent the nation (and is often easy for children to draw and non-professionals to sew). I'm not arguing that creating neutral symbols creates the identity (Maryland has a great flag that I don't see much anywhere) but it is, in many ways, the first step towards cementing a long lasting identity.

    The interesting thing is that none of the examples above, to my knowledge, have a religious context anymore. Boston, for example, used to be known for its Puritanism–the pre-Reagan City on a Hill. "Banned in Boston" was a watchword for most of the 19th Century. Today, in New England, we have left of that besides our last lingering blue laws. The massive immigration of mostly Catholic Irish and Italians and their subsequent gaining of local political power, rather than secularization, was probably the first thing that disconnected religion from identity (to say nothing of the Unitarian-Congregationalist theological split). I think you're right to point out in Texas what's interesting is that not merely do these symbols still have meanings important people, but this meaning is often tied, implicitly or explicitly, to (Protestant) Christianity. It will be interesting to see how Texas Civil Religion changes as Hispanic Catholics begin to gain political power; unlike in Boston, I would guess Texas can change without the identity breaking, as America's civil religion is slowly expanding (as in Obama's shout to "non-believers" in whatever major speech that was).

  • SJH

    Because we were once a country that had to fight for its freedom and have a rich history, it is easy to be proud of the state. This pride is practically a national pride like you would have with any other country. I would venture to say that Texas pride/patriotism is as strong, if not stronger than many other countries.

    In addition to the items you listed above:
    -Many parts of Texas have their own language (TexMex) which is distinct from Spanish in that it is a combination of english and spanish.
    -Our own music, Tejano, a variation of spanish and country music.
    -Our own cuisine, Tex-Mex, where fajitas originated.
    -The Texas flag is the only state flag that can be legally flown at the same height as the american flag.
    -We are the only state that has existed under six distinct nations (US, Mex, Spain, France, Confederate, Texas) which is where “six flags over Texas” comes from (also, I think where the theme parks got their name).
    -Quite honestly, the best state in the nation.

  • Charles Collins

    SJH, although Tejano is a very important part of Texas, don’t forget there are two distinct Texas English dialects (West Texas and East Texas, with lots of mixin’ between the two) as well as distinctive Texas BBQ, chile, and other cuisine (I would say we have a distinctive beef-based BBQ different from other states, as well as our own version of traditional “southern” cuisine.)

    One thing I have noticed in the different parts of Texas I have lived (North and Central) is the weather. You always see Texas. In Dallas, I would be told the temperature in El Paso and Brownsville before I was told the temperature in Oklahoma City.

    And Thos. Collins is just wrong. Yes, the border with Texas was disputed, but the fact is, the Mexican dictator recognized the Rio Grande as the border, and then renounced the treaty after his return to Mexico City. When Texas was admitted to the Union, it accepted this internationally recognized border (even if neither state fully controlled it). The fact we “stomped” the “much weaker” neighbor was not expected by anyone. All international observers, and many in the US, expected the ill-prepared and ill-supplied US army to be overwhelmed by the much larger and much more battle-hardened Mexican Army (Mexico having fought several wars in the previous decade, while the US had not). Did the US, in the end, take more territory than that which was disputed? Yes. But California had broken free of Mexican rule during the war, and the rest of the territory was only nominally controlled by the central Mexican state. The fact is, at the end of the war, we occupied the entire country. We took the territory which Mexico had never fully controlled, and which contained either little population, or a population which wanted to be part of the USA, and then paid the Mexicans for it, despite the fact we had conquered it according to the laws of war in place during the 19th century. European countries were aghast – they would have just taken what they wanted, which would have been all of it!