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Super Bowl ads and American civil religion

By Peter Gardella


The two most controversial, apparently contradictory Super Bowl ads—Bob Dylan’s protectionist, “American Import” Chrysler ad and Coca-Cola’s multilingual rendition of  “America the Beautiful”—show the breadth of American civil religion. As religion scholars have long observed, it belongs to the nature of religious language to self-destruct. An infinite God who chooses one people or takes flesh in one man; an eternal moment that includes all time; a Way that is the source of all action but does nothing itself: all these paradoxes and more exemplify how religious language evokes a reality that cannot be named, beyond all language.

Around major sporting events, which stand apart from government and so are not directly tied to civil religion, the language and rituals of American civil religion appear with more and more fervency. Religion, as the derivation of the word from the Latin ligare (to bind) implies, attempts to strengthen the bonds that hold things together, and events like the Super Bowl, the World Series, and any Nascar race seem to call for rituals that affirm that we Americans are in fact one country. More than most nations, we are many. We have no clergy of any traditional religions whose blessing would be acceptable to most of us, no food or language or ethnic heritage that is native to all of us. So, more than most nations, we need the huge flags, the singing of the national anthem. In the United States, churches and synagogues commonly have a national flag in the sanctuary, next to the altar or the pulpit. All nations have a civil religion, but the United States needs the most elaborate and powerful civil religion in the world.

American flag in a church
Flag, religious icons, and holy water container. Photo by Mike Fisher, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

And American civil religion is nothing if not broad. Next to the Lincoln Memorial, which calls itself a “temple” and invokes God in the two speeches carved onto its walls, stands the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, which invokes no God and yet is regarded as sacred ground. Within a few miles of Mount Rushmore, where the heads of white men have been carved into a holy mountain of the Lakota, there is a National Park Service memorial where the Lakota who killed General Custer are honored alongside him and his troops. Arlington Cemetery holds Confederate as well as Union dead, and uses more than thirty symbols to designate religious affiliations of those who are buried there.

Arlington Cemetery
Arlington Cemetery. Photo by chrisjtse, CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr

The indignation of some that Dylan has “sold out” by endorsing Chrysler, or that Chrysler is hypocritical in using American patriotism to sell cars when it has lately sold itself to Fiat, is understandable but misplaced. Money spent on Chryslers will still employ more Americans and enrich more American bank accounts than money spent on Volkswagens or Hondas. In using “American Import” as a slogan, continuing the “Imported from Detroit” phrase that Chrysler began to use a few years ago, Chrysler is simply claiming that it has learned from the Germans and the Japanese how to build more efficient cars with higher standards of fit and finish.

As for the singing of “America the Beautiful” in many languages, while showing people of visibly different cultures in American settings, that Coca-Cola commercial expresses one of the most basic values or commitments of American civil religion, cultural tolerance. People have noticed this value since colonial days. Jamestown would not have survived without Pocahontas, and she became a Christian and gave birth to a child who became the ancestor of President John Tyler and Edith Bolling, the wife of Woodrow Wilson. A Jesuit priest visiting the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, decades before it became New York, counted eighteen languages spoken on the few streets that crowded the southern tip of Manhattan. Multiculturalism was invented in the United States, arguably by a World War Two veteran and Disney songwriter, Robert B. Sherman, who wrote “It’s a Small World” for the Pepsi Pavilion at the 1963 New York World’s Fair. The Cola-Cola commercial was a moving, worthy continuation of this tradition. Those who are offended by its use of many languages misread the history of the nation whose heritage they seek to defend.

American civil religion offers contradictions more profound than those of these two Super Bowl commercials. Although world peace is another one of its basic values, and Americans invented both the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations to secure world peace, the United States spends more on weapons than the next ten nations combined, and we have military bases or delegations in more than half of the nations of the world. But all this military spending and all of our wars are to secure world peace. As Walt Whitman, a great prophet of American civil religion, wrote in A Song of Myself, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Peter Gardella is Professor of World Religions at Manhattanville College and author of American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred (Oxford, 2014). His previous books are Innocent Ecstasy (Oxford, 1985), on sex and religion in America; Domestic Religion, on American attitudes toward everyday life; and American Angels: Useful Spirits in the Material World. He is now working on TheWorld’s Religions in New York City: A History and Guide and on Birds in the World’s Religions (with Laurence Krute).

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