Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Like Ike

One of the chestnuts of the study of American religion, which I'm claiming for New York City in my class this semester as the words were spoken in the Waldorf Astoria, is President Eisenhower's 1952 claim that everyone should have a religion "- and I don't care what it is." This has been celebrated as an articulation of the American civil religion - a faith in belief itself - and criticized as a voiding of all content from religion. But following up a reference in an article today, I find that Eisenhower never said that. What he seems to have said instead is interesting and quite different... but what made the article such fun is that it's written by the Biblical scholar Patrick Henry, who, with tongue in cheek, employs the strategies and terms of Biblical scholarship on an event so recent one might have thought recent enough not to require them.

According to the The New York Times, what Eisenhower said is:

our Government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.

although a press release suggests he said "our form of Government." He was in any case speaking extemporaneously. He's saying nothing about religion in general, and rather more about the religious roots of American democracy. The context makes it even clearer. It's the report of a talk he gave suggesting that his WW2 Soviet colleague Marshall Zhukov had been demoted because of their friendship, and is part of his explanation for why he didn't talk about the ideas of the American founders with Zhukov. Here's the text from the press release, amended in small ways by later publication:

I knew it would do no good to appeal to him with it, because it is founded on religion. And since at the age of 14 he had been taken over by the Bolshevik religion and had lived in it since that time, I was quite certain it was hopeless on my part to talk to him about the fact that our form of government is founded in religion.
Our ancestors who formed this government said in order to explain it, you remember, that a decent respect for the opinion of mankind impels them to declare . . . "we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator..." not by accident of birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but "all men are endowed by their Creator." In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is. With us of course it is the Judo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal. So what was the use of talking to Zuckov about that? Religion, he had been taught, was the opiate of the people.

What is Eisenhower's "concept of religion"? Big enough to include Bolshevism - but it's not what he was talking about in the oft-(mis)quoted line. That was the (nominally) Judeo-Christian faith of the Founding Fathers. What can we do with the line? Not use it as I've been accustomed to, as a report on a peculiarly American understanding of conscience. It's more and less than that.

But Henry isn't concerned with saving Eisenhower or his view. It's sufficient to him to suggest that recent religious commonplaces have origins in their way no less obscure or unambiguous than the world of late antiquity! Dropping words like Urtext, Sitz, argumentum e silentio and catena he traces how the words were misquoted and misconstrued and coopted by various authorities (which in turn remind him of how Athanasius put words in Antony's mouth, of a treatise of Cyprian, and much else besides), and works his way toward providing an annotated text of the sentence with 7 footnotes and 3 alternate wordings, and 2 additional philological notes. 

It begins to look as if the tradition of what Eisenhower said on December 22, 1952 (and even when he said it: Ahlstrom assigns it to 1954), is materially shaped by the polemical/rhetorical concerns of those who pass the tradition on. The statement can be treated as tragic, comic, ludicrous, fatuous, naive, sincere, traditional, innovative. It can be made to refer to government, society, church and state, the American Way of Life. (44)

Patrick Henry, "'And I Don't Care What It Is': The Tradition-History of a Civil Religion
Proof-Text," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49/1 (Mar 1981): 35-49

No comments: