American Saints and Relics

Posted: June 15, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Christ & Culture, History, Politics, The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism

No, I don’t just copy everything Peter Leithart writes and then post it on my blog.  But it wouldn’t be a terrible idea.  This post of his is short enough that I’m just going to copy and post it here.  Really interesting stuff.  I’m enjoying catching up on his blog after being away.

William Cavanugh notes (The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict): “although Jefferson was responsible for the complete separation of church and state in Virginia, Jefferson wrote in the language of medieval Christianity about the preservation of physical things associated with the creation of the declaration: ‘Small things may, perhaps, like the relics of saints, help to nourish our devotion to this holy bond of Union.’  Of the desk on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson expressed his hope that we might see it ‘carried in the procession of our nation’s birthday, as the relics of the saints are in those of the Church.’”  Cavanaugh cites a study that shows that “throughout the nineteenth century, virulently anti-Catholic leaders were inclined to borrow Catholic imagery to describe the nation’s founding.  The founders were ’saints,’ they raised ‘altars’ of freedom, their houses were ’shrines’ containing ‘relics,’ and so on.”

Practices, rituals, and language that no Protestant would tolerate at church found their home in American civil religion.


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