There is not, however, a contradiction between the principle of the separation of church and state asserted by the Constitution, and the profession of religious faith expressed by the mottos, symbols, and political rituals of the United States. The reason is that faith in God or the Almighty as expressed in symbols and political rituals of the American nation is the manifestation of a particular form of religion, one that does not correspond to any particular religion professed by the citizens of the United States. It is a civil religion, by which we mean a system of beliefs, values, myths, rituals, and symbols that confer an aura of sanctity on the United States as a political entity, and on the country’s institutions, history, and destiny in the world.
The American civil religion has its own “holy scriptures,” the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which are treasured and venerated like the Tables of the Law. It has its own prophets, such as the Pilgrim Fathers. It celebrates its own sacred Heroes such as George Washington, the “American Moses” who freed the “new people of Israel” from slavery under the English and led them to the Promised Land of freedom, independence, and democracy. It venerates its martyrs, such as Abraham Lincoln, the sacrificial victim assassinated on Good Friday of 1865, after the American nation had been subjected to the purifying fires of a cruel civil war to expiate its guilt and reestablish the hallowed nature of its unity and mission. John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. then became further examples of martyrdom for this civil religion, alongside the figure of Lincoln. Like all religions, this civil religion has its own temples for the veneration of its leading figures, such as the monument to Washington, the Lincoln Memorial, and Arlington Cemetery, where the tomb of the Unknown Soldier is revered as a symbol for the citizens who fell to save their nation. Finally, the civil religion has its sermons and liturgy: the presidential inaugural speeches, Independence Day on 4 July, Thanksgiving Day, Memorial Day when the war dead are commemorated, and other collective ceremonies that celebrate personalities and events in American history turned by myth into a “sacred history” of a nation elected by God to fulfill its particular mission in the world.
Politics as Religion by Emilio Gentile