Memorial Day and the Religious Syncretism of the State

Memorial Day and the Religious Syncretism of the State May 26, 2007

During my high school and college years and beyond, I thought about becoming a Catholic priest and made an effort to discern and pray about it over the course of those years. Eventually I discovered that part of my vocation was to marry — Emily and I will celebrate our two-year anniversary this July — and so the presbyteral ordination option was closed. As I have reflected on how my religio-political views have evolved over the last ten years or so, however, I sometimes wonder what sort of trouble I would get into if I had been led to the Catholic priesthood.

Let me explain more fully what I mean. One of my academic interests has been to explore American Christianity’s tendency to unite itself with American civil religion, to seamlessly ally itself, knowingly or unknowingly, with the interests of the nation-state. Even the Roman Catholic Church, a church that should (in theory) have a greater consciousness of its transnational (‘catholic’) character, perpetually succumbs to this sort of syncretism when we do things like place American flags in our sanctuaries, when we sing the national anthem at Mass, and when we refer to American soldiers in our prayers as “our” troops.[1]

Beyond these fairly obvious examples lies an even greater, though largely unrecognized, danger in our inability to distinguish between the state’s mythology and holidays and the mythology and holidays of Christianity. Many Catholics see no problem with celebrating any and all of the state’s holidays, and sometimes we even celebrate special Masses on these days, such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving, in effect “baptizing” them and making them an unofficial part of the liturgical calendar.

Memorial Day, which we celebrate this coming Monday, is a great example. Last year on Memorial Day, I was making the drive home from a family gathering. The occasion for the gathering was, in fact, not Memorial Day per se, but for the birthday of two relatives. On the drive home, Emily and I passed a small country Baptist church and on the marquee was the question: “What will you do for Christ this Memorial Day?” Aside from the fact that the question makes absolutely no sense, I was irritated and almost stopped the car to take a digital picture of the sign because it was such a clear example of the sort of religious syncretism that exists in the United States. American Christians will even combine the mythology and holidays of Christianity and American civil religion even if the result is completely unintelligible nonsense.

Two years ago, on the Sunday before Memorial Day, a visiting priest was celebrating Mass at my parish in West Virginia. Near the end of Mass, before he processed out of the church he wanted, in light of the upcoming holiday, to honor the soldiers who “made the ultimate sacrifice for us.” All of this he said in front of a giant crucifix which, last time I checked, represents the “ultimate sacrifice” in which Christians believe and which, indeed, we had just celebrated in the Eucharistic action. As a fitting conclusion to the patriotic Mass, the congregation sang, not to Jesus, but to the country itself in the words of “America the Beautiful.”

We get into a really dangerous place when we start confusing our myths and our holidays. Memorial Day honors the memory of those who gave their lives serving the United States in its military, many of them making the “ultimate sacrifice” (in the state’s view) in service to the nation. That’s fine. The state needs holidays like this to support its grand narrative and mythology, just like any community of persons.[2] The Church, however, has its own “sort” of “Memorial Day.” In fact, our celebration of the Christian “Memorial Day” spans two days: All Saints Day and All Souls Day, November 1 and 2, respectively. These are the days that Christians celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us giving their lives specifically as followers of Christ, many of them making the ultimate sacrifice as martyrs on the way of the cross.

Independence Day, of course, celebrates the foundational acts of violence that founded this community of persons. The rhetoric that honors those who made the “ultimate sacrifice” is the same. A recent essay for Independence Day on the website of the Catholic Peace Fellowship reminded us,

[W]e are mistaken if we believe we have been set free by a bloody battle, a revolution in which thousands of people were killed over the course of eight years of violence.

As Catholics, we remember and celebrate the One who sacrificed and died over 2000 years ago in order to give us our freedom. “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” Paul says in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 5:1). As followers of Christ, we know that we have already been set free, and therefore we have no need to construct a new freedom.


So why do Christians continue to wave the flag, proudly and boldly, every Fourth of July? Why are Christians often the ones cheering the loudest at each parade? Because we have bought into the myth upon which every nation rests: that a bloody sacrifice, performed in battle, is necessary for a nation’s founding.

For Christians, our foundation is built on Christ’s ultimate sacrifice of Death on the cross. His sacrifice, however, was a nonviolent one, as he accepted total suffering on Himself, and inflicted none on other human beings. In contrast, the sacrifice of a soldier, while still a sacrifice, is often done at the cost of others’ lives.

As the ultimate sacrifice has already been completed, we do not need to trump it. We do not need to come up with a better one. We need to participate in the sacrifice of Jesus in order to partake in His redemption. Participation in this sacrifice means carrying His cross with humility, without violence.

Christians have their own liturgical calendar that marks time and significant events differently than the state. Our “Independence Day” as Christians is the Triduum, where we celebrate the freedom that comes from sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection. Just as Americans celebrate their pride of citizenship on the fourth of July, Christians celebrate their citizenship in another Kingdom on the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church year.

The American narrative also features the holiday of Thanksgiving, a feast which seems to mirror the basic prayerful posture of Christian life, that of thankfulness. While giving thanks is certainly the heart of Christian life, it is important to reflect on the content of our thankfulness, and a closer look at the national holiday, with its connections to genocide and imperialism, should give Christian residents of the empire pause. Is the traditional celebration of Thanksgiving — with its focus on overeating, football, and pre-Christmas hype — really necessary for Catholics considering the Church’s ongoing focus of eucharist, the gathering of the Lord’s Supper, which some Christians celebrate weekly, or even daily?

Should not Christians at least consider resisting American holidays as a way of resisting the American mythology, the metanarrative that, as Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh says, serves as an “alternative soteriology” to the Church’s story of salvation history?[3] Should we not look for opportunites to subvert the holidays of the empire in which we find ourselves, reminding ourselves of and drawing attention to the ways in which these holidays, as part of American mythology, try to shape our loyalties and practices according to the ideals of the nation-state?

When I speak or write this way, I am often asked if I am advocating a Catholic type of separatism or sectarianism. The answer is no; I am not suggesting a withdrawal from the world. Such a suggestion would deny the mission of the Church for the world. On the other hand, I don’t think the careless syncretism of patriotic Christianity is the only alternative to sectarianism. I think we need a healthy, Catholic suspicion of alternative metanaratives to our own, an ability to clearly understand the differences between the two, and the courage to let that test our celebrations and our social ethics as Catholic Christians.

This affirmation of the distinctiveness of the Church and its practices is not lost on most Catholics when it comes to sexual and reproductive issues. With the exception of those Catholics who believe the Church must “get with the times” and update its sexual and reproductive ethics to match the dominant values of American society, most Catholics understand that our commitment to Christ entails the following of a different ethic when it comes to sexuality and the dignity of human life. Many Catholics do not even have a problem endorsing a “sectarian” view when it comes to holidays, at least when it is discussed from the opposite direction. Note the “battle for Christmas” debates that have occurred over the last couple of years, or the concern shown when non-Christians celebrate Easter. When it comes to these discussions, many Christians have no problem whatsover making the “sectarian” separation between holidays that are “ours” and holidays that are “theirs.”

I know that, had I become a priest, I would not have been able to celebrate Memorial Day or Independence Day Masses in good conscience. And I know that, as a result, I would run into congregational resistance and be reviled by my “good, patriotic” churchgoers. But, I would remind them, the days are not on the liturgical calendar for, as much as we tend to forget, they are not part of our Christian story of salvation. The ministry of the priesthood, like the ministry of ecclesially-committed theologians, is to proclaim the Gospel, the Church’s alternative story of salvation. It is a story that exposes the lie of imperial mythologies and narratives through the distinctive life of citizens of an empire not of this world, the history-spanning community of “resident aliens” within the belly of the world’s empires.[4]

[1] The point here, of course, is not that we should stop praying for soldiers. The point is that in the context of liturgy, words like “we” and “our” refer to our collective identify as the Body of Christ and not to our collective identity as U.S. Americans.
[2] Cf. Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). For a shorter article which nicely summarizes the book, see their “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion,” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64 (Winter 1996): 767-780.
[3] William T. Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (London: T & T Clark).
[4] The image above is from the website

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