If you stand midway between Olin and Barnum on the Tufts academic quad, you can catch a glimpse of four different American flags waving in the wind, from the tennis courts to the quad to the gym. When I was in Girl Scout camp, we ceremoniously saluted the flag on its morning rise and folded it respectfully in the evenings. In elementary school, we looked to the flag while reciting the pledge of allegiance before each day of class began. Today, a small contingent of Tufts students, in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, are mandated to salute the flag while in uniform; most of my classmates and I, however, walk past the flags without a second thought.
We fill our lives with symbols of our systems of affiliation, the beliefs and social definitions that drive us to associate with certain groups. Religious symbols run from the chapel (once strictly Unitarian, now all-purpose) in the center of our campus to the Jewish star necklace I was given for my Bat Mitzvah. However, we seem conscious of our religious presentation, constantly redefining where we stand in relation to God, while national affiliations on campus fade into the scenery. Similarly, the values that define these symbols or national affiliation seem to lay quietly in the background of self-identifications.
In place of religious belief, leading religious sociologist at UC Berkeley, Robert Bellah, coined the term “civic religion” to define the American value system which we represent and redefine every day, from the overlooked flags on campus to the ironically patriotic-themed parties around election season. In Bellah’s Civic Religion in America, he describes American civic religion’s creation and recreation in the War of Independence, in which this ideology began to define its own governance, and the Civil War, in which Americanism pursued equality. In Bellah’s view, self-governance and equal franchise, as the foundations of democracy, have become the values that we favor above our individual theologies. George Washington replaces Jesus, and the emancipation and participation of the masses becomes an American, rather than Christian, principle. This theory appeals to the narrative of the American melting pot, constructing a new culture out of the diversity and integrity of our political system. Growing up in a Jewish household and monitoring my assimilation into my majority-Christian neighborhood and school, I became enchanted by the appeal of “American” ideals. This civic religion gave me guiding principles, and allowed me to shape my image of American society into a utopia which I was charged with building.
As American civic religion took hold, Americans just like me became evangelical, using “democratization” theories of international politics to justify spreading righteous Americanism to the uneducated masses. After the failure of American intervention and “democratization” in Iraq, however, both parties appear to be in rhetorical backlash over our civic missionary system. President Trump’s recently proposed State Department budget eliminates support for democratization and civil society initiatives abroad. At home, as well, respect for American civic religion has declined in line with realizations of our recent failures. Our guiding documents laud such concepts as liberty and justice, but citizens from the left and right were found agreeing with our president’s defense of Vladimir Putin’s recent human rights violations, claiming that we’re “not that innocent” either.
While a healthy criticism of our recent past is necessary, I was disturbed by our willingness to disown our own values and assume that our actions are, and will continue to be, morally vacant. Even if we’re ashamed of where we are, can we forget the ideals our system stands for? In recent social values research conducted by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, two political theorists who focus on modern democracy, the percentage of people in the West who believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy has declined severely. This “deconsolidation,” or the willingness of citizens in a democracy to live in an autocracy or sacrifice their democratic rights, has sparked anxiety among political scientists and across the world.
While this civic atheism, or the disenchantment with founding ideals, can be surveyed on a larger scale, it can also be seen on a micro level, especially in internationalized and liberal institutions like Tufts. Since its departure from the Tufts campus in 1969, during the Vietnam War, the Tufts ROTC delegation at MIT’s ROTC program has remained small, and few non-military students on campus are aware of its presence. When I participated in the program, I drew stares and questioning remarks that my former buddies still face to this day: “What if you served under a Republican president?” “What if you don’t believe in the war we’re fighting?” “How can you be so sure you’re backing the right side?” Moreover, I felt a deep pride in wearing my flag publicly on my sleeve, and yet understood its role as a marker for an uncertain, faith. To this day, when responding to questions about my career path and my desire to serve my country, I recognize that my worldview comes from a place more spiritual than logical. I fundamentally believe in the liberty and justice that frame the American system, though I understand that they have failed and will continue to fail many whose futures they determine.
In Bellah’s work on civic religion, he celebrates the moments of disagreement in which a better American ideal has been formed. The Civil War and Civil Rights Movement may prove our best historical examples for universalizing new “civic religious” values; today, as Americans turn away from civic engagement and national service, it seems we may need to re-evaluate the realization of these virtues yet again. Is it upon us to reawaken “civic engagement” in a state that feels as if it is failing to serve us all—and if so, would it be possible? Our passive daily walk past campus flags, our desire to avoid affiliating ourselves with “Trump states” or other groups with whom we disagree – each of these allows us to accept without question the larger political structure in which our lives are situated. If we were to “recreate” a new American religion, one with which citizens can engage and from which they can benefit, does the system need a complete overhaul, or simply more recognition?
Over my college career, I dove into questions of national service, and came out only more eager to participate and contribute what I can to the success of the American system. Across campus, I’m inspired by fellow civic leaders, from political party members to educators and leaders in community service. At the same time, I wonder what anchors Americans together. Can we operate on different guiding principles, and still use the framework of each of our systems to unite and cooperate? Is it necessary to reify a belief in the American flag flown as a symbol of the nearly religious values which some espouse as “American”—and, if American society fails in doing so, should we continue to symbolically fly it?