I went to Antigua Guatemala in April. Their claim to fame is the world’s biggest Easter celebration. I wasn’t even there for Easter. I was three weeks early. But already the roads were choked with pre-parties, practice parades, and centurion cosplayers.
I couldn’t go out and grab dinner at 9 PM because all the streets looked like this
Day. Night. The hours of the morning when tourists are trying to sleep and don’t want loud Spanish singing outside their hotel windows. It didn’t stop. Some people bore the floats on their backs (they weren’t motorized, they had to be carried like a sedan chair). Other people crowded into empty lots and backyards, putting finishing touches on art or costumes or paraphernalia. Children and teenagers ran around in Easter purple, jockeying for the best spots on the parade routes. Civic dignitaries stood around, practicing looking important for their turn in the celebrations.
I missed the scene in the Bible where a winged mechanical lion drags the body of Christ in an intricate silver juggernaut, but the Guatemalans definitely didn’t.
This was around the time I was reading about cultural evolution, so I couldn’t help rehearsing some familiar conservative arguments. A shared religion binds people together. For a day, everyone is on the same side. That builds social trust and helps turn a city into a community. It was hard to argue with that. I’m no expert in Guatemala. I don’t even speak Spanish. But for a little while, everybody, old and young, rich or poor, whatever one Guatemalan political party is and whatever the other Guatemalan political party is, were caught up in the same great wave, swept together by the glory of the Easter narrative.
It was the sort of thing, I thought sadly to myself, that would never happen back in America, where we didn’t have the same kind of shared religious purpose, where the liberal traditions like the separation of church and state prevented the same kind of all-consuming state-sponsored dedication to a single narrative. Right?
After five minutes I realized of course this was false. I’ve been to Fourth of July parades. Not recently; I live in the Bay Area, where the Fourth of July parades are pretty disappointing. But I remember when I was very young, my parents took me to a town in the California mountains famous for its Independence Day celebrations, and there was a respectable level of parading. Maybe a little deficient in the winged mechanical lion department, but respectable. The Mayor and City Council came by in fancy old automobiles. Marching bands played patriotic music. All the cops drove by in their cop cars; all the firefighters drove by in their fire engines. The Boy Scouts marched by waving posters that said THE BOY SCOUTS. The local charitable organizations marched by waving posters that said LOCAL CHARITABLE ORGANIZATIONS. Adorable little children marched irregularly in a vaguely forward direction. Sometimes there were dogs wearing red-white-and-blue beads around their necks, and if you stood close enough to the fences blocking off the street, you could reach out and pet them.
It might not have been super-high-production-value. The point is, I got the same feeling I got in Guatemala. Every building, from government offices to stores to private houses, was decorated with red-white-and-blue flags and streamers. All the civic dignitaries stood around looking important. There was a sense that we’d captured the best of both worlds. We’d stuck to our liberal principles of not having a state religion. But we’d also come together as a community – not just some small group of people holding a parade for themselves, but the honest-to-goodness government declaring that we were all going to come together and do this. And we did, not because we were forced, but out of genuine affection for the cause being paraded for. It was the same sense of rich and poor and old and young joining together in a single narrative and ending up a stronger and tighter community.
Sociologists like to talk about the American civil religion, the sense in which patriotism serves the role in America that a state church used to hold in a lot of more traditional countries. Figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (and now also MLK) take on a quasi-prophetic significance. Independence Day becomes the sort of festival that ancient Greece or Rome would have held in honor of the gods. The troops become martyrs, the Constitution becomes Scripture (with the Bill of Rights’ Ten Amendments replacing the Ten Commandments) and the Pledge of Allegiance becomes the Lord’s Prayer. King George III replaces Pharaoh as a watchword for tyranny, Benedict Arnold replaces Judas as a watchword for betrayal. Liberty and justice for all stand in for faith, hope, and charity.
We’re not a religion, we just decorated the ceiling of our most important building with a giant mural showing our founder ascending to Heaven surrounded by angels and goddesses, drawn by an artist who used to work for the Pope drawing near-identical pictures of the Assumption Of The Virgin Mary.
I’m a pretty big believer in the theory of an American civil religion. For me, the important part of religion isn’t the part with gods, prophets, or an afterlife – Buddhism lacks gods, traditional Judaism doesn’t have much of an afterlife, and both get along just fine. It’s about a symbiosis between a society and an ideology. On the most basic level, it’s the answer to a series of questions. What is our group? Why are we better than the outgroup? Why is our social system legitimate?
For most of history, all religion was civil religion – if not of a state, then of a nation. Shinto for the Japanese, Judaism for the Israelites, Olympianism for the Greeks, Hinduism for the Indians. This was almost tautological; religion (along with language and government) was what defined group boundaries, divided the gradients of geography and genetics into separate peoples. A shared understanding of the world and shared rituals kept societies together. Later religions transcended ethnicity to create entirely new supernational communities of believers. Sometimes these were a threat to their host nation, creating a new locus of cultural power. Other times the host nation converted and lived in comfortable symbiosis with them, and the king would get called His Most Catholic Majesty or something.
We’re not a religion, we just put a 30-foot tall stone idol in the center of our capital. And we make our king leave a sacrificial offering before it on the same day every year. Then we spend the next few days arguing about whether he truly meant it in his heart or was just going through the motions.
But this argument still follows the conservative playbook. Say it with me: patriotism is a great force uniting our country. Now liberals aren’t patriotic enough, so the country is falling apart. The old answers ring hollow. What is our group? America? Really? Why are we better than the outgroup? Because we have God and freedom and they are dirty commies? Say this and people will just start talking about how our freedom is a sham and Sweden is so much better. Why is our social system legitimate? Because the Constitution is amazing and George Washington was a hero? Everyone already knows the stock rebuttals to this. The problem isn’t just that the rebuttals are convincing. It’s that these answers have been dragged out of the cathedral of sacredness into the marketplace of open debate; questioning them isn’t taboo – and “taboo” is just the Tongan word for “sacred”. The Bay Area’s lack of civic rituals (so goes the argument) is both a cause and a symptom of a larger problem: the American civil religion has lost its sacredness. That means it can’t answer the questions of group identity, and that communities aren’t as unified as they should be.
Last week I watched the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade.
Everyone should do this once, regardless of their politics. SF Pride should be counted among the great festivals of the world, up there with Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Easter in Guatemala.
It starts on the subway going from wherever you are to the parade route. All the subway stations are decorated with rainbow flags. Most of your subway-mates are obvious revelers. Most of them are teenagers. They’re dressed in rainbow facepaint, rainbow clothing, rainbow jewelery. Some of them have rainbow-dyed hair. Groups spontaneously break into song.
By the time you reach the parade, everything is in full carnival mode. The houses and stores on both sides of the road are hung with rainbow flags, rainbow streamers, and slogans about how LOVE WINS. The people are all either dressed in rainbow clothing, or dressed in weird punk or bondage-adjacent outfits related to the atmosphere in some way.
Thanks to these people for letting me take their picture
I even saw some naked people! I mean, there are parts of San Francisco where I often see naked people. But these were different parts of San Francisco, and there were naked people anyway!
The parade itself hit all the requisite notes. Marching bands. Celebrities. Floats. Adorable children. Charitable organizations. The Governor drove by in his shiny black car. The Mayor, surrounded by adoring supporters. Public streetcars and sightseeing buses, festooned for the occasion.
A typical float.
I think this was sponsored by a seafood restaurant, because it was surrounded by dancing women dressed as seafood dishes.
Somebody told me this was Ariana Huffington, but I have no idea if that’s true.
There were big black vans driving behind him that someone said were the California equivalent of the Secret Service
The banner says “it doesn’t get more SF” than this. I agree a streetcar festooned with gay pride decorations is pretty SF, but it got better. Some socialist activist group was marching ahead of it, and one of the marchers did some kind of dance routine, got distracted, and jumped right in front of the streetcar, which had to make a sudden screeching stop. It doesn’t get more SF than a streetcar festooned with gay pride decorations, with its progress halted by socialists.
Actually, I take it back, a sightseeing bus displaying people’s preferred pronouns might be the most SF thing.
Then came the march of the big corporations. Blue Shield, the health insurance company had a float; with impressive chutzpah, they had chosen the motto “Love Covers All”. Their employees rushed ahead, distributing Blue Shield paddle/fan/advertisements for everyone to wave. The crowd of teenage girls standing next to me accepted them with gusto, waving their Blue Shield fan-paddles and cheering as the Blue Shield delegation passed by.
Apple, Facebook, Google, and Uber were all there. But the show was stolen by Amazon (temporarily rebranded “Glamazon”), who were going for a Santa Claus type image as a source of limitless cornucopian gifts.
The Amazon float featured a rainbow of colorful packages
Get it? “Fulfillment?”
The Amazon Treasure Truck, ready to bring all your wildest dreams
I don’t know when I realized it was a sublimated Fourth of July Parade. But once I figured it out, it wasn’t subtle – and not just because it was being held the weekend before July 4th. The police cars with red-white-and-blue stripes had been replaced by police cars with rainbow stripes. The civic dignitaries waving American flags had been replaced by civic dignitaries waving gay flags. Even the Boy Scouts were still there, in the same place as always.
Police cars in full regalia
Apparently the sheriff’s department is different from the police department. You learn something new every day.
Some third group of basically cop-like people, not sure what’s going on here.
As a gaggle of teenage girls waved their Blue-Shield-advertisement-paddles to cheer on the police, I thought to myself “Yes, this exactly captures the spirit of the original Stonewall rioters”.
The Bud Light float should be your cue that this is less about gayness and more about generic summer holiday Americana
You can tell something’s still hip and countercultural and definitely hasn’t sold out when the Boy Scouts get involved
No, stop with the obvious symbolism! I’m trying to pretend that I’m very insightful for noticing this! Stop it right now!
Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?
Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.
There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:
What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.
Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.
What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.
Pictured: a religious festival successfully granting legitimacy to the secular power
More support for the secular power, in this case California senator Kamala Harris.
Still more support for the secular power.
The secular power is starting to get kind of creeped out, and wants to clarify that it only likes you as a friend.
“Civil religion” is a surprising place for social justice to end up. Gay pride started at Stonewall as a giant fuck-you to civil society. Homeless people, addicts, and sex workers told the police where they could shove their respectable values.
But there was another major world religion that started with beggars, lepers, and prostitutes, wasn’t there? One that told the Pharisees where to shove their respectable values. One whose founder got in trouble with the cops of his time. One that told its followers to leave their families, quit their jobs, give away all their possessions, and welcome execution at the hands of the secular authorities.
We’re not a religion, we just parade images of martyrs up and down the streets.
The new faith burst into a world dominated by the religio Romana, the civil religion par excellence. Emperor Augustus had just finished moral reforms promoting all the best values: chastity, family, tradition, patriotism, martial valor. Lavishly dressed procurators and proconsuls were building beautiful marble temples across the known world, spreading the rites with all the pomp and dignity befitting history’s greatest empire.
The problem was, nobody really believed religio Romana anymore. Everyone believed it was important to have all the best values, like chastity and military valor and so on. But nobody took Jupiter very seriously, or thought the Emperor was legitimate in some kind of sacred way.
When the new religion of beggars and lepers encountered the old religion of emperors and philosophers, the latter crumbled. But as Christianity expanded to the upper classes, it started looking, well, upper-class. It started promoting all the best values. Chastity, family, tradition, patriotism, martial valor. You knew the Pope was a good Christian because he lived in a giant palace and wore a golden tiara. Nobody ever came out and said Jesus was wrong to love prostitutes, but Pope Sixtus V did pass a law instituting the death penalty for prostitution, in Jesus’ name. Nobody ever came out and said Jesus was wrong to preach peace, but they did fight an awful lot of holy wars.
We’re not a religion, we just want to spread our truth to every corner of the world
At some point it got kind of ridiculous. I don’t know how much clearer Jesus could have been about “rich = bad”, but the prosperity gospel – the belief that material wealth is a sign of God’s favor – is definitely a thing. The moral of the story is: religion adapts to the demands placed on it. If it becomes a civil religion, it will contort itself until it looks like a civil religion. It will have all the best values.
Everything happens faster these days. It took Christianity three hundred years to go from Christ to Constantine. It only took fifty for gay pride to go from the Stonewall riots to rainbow-colored gay bracelets urging you to support your local sheriff deparment.
No, I’m not making that up
I can hear my conservative readers getting apoplectic: what about families? Family values are the most important legitimizing, community-building, wisdom-encoding part of Christianity! Homosexuality is anti-family and therefore can never be a true civil religion. Sure, you can twist social justice into support for sufficiently progressive government officials, but fifty years of cultural evolution isn’t going to make it into a pro-family movement, right?
Yeah, sure, all of this has context. “Proud Of Our Families” is supposed to be about people not being ashamed of their non-standard family structures (eg two fathers), although realistically I saw a lot of pretty hetero-looking families marching along. “We Celebrate All Families” is supposed to mean “including families with trans and gay people”. My point isn’t that everyone has suddenly forgotten about homosexuality, my point is that the celebration of gay pride is expressing itself in very predictable ways, after only fifty years. Christianity will mumble something about loving your parents as we love God our Heavenly Father, but that doesn’t mean that its family values are fake, or just a fig leaf for theology. It means cultural evolution works with what it’s got.
In a hundred years, will social justice look exactly like Christianity does now? No. The world’s changed too much. Even if every religion converges on the same set of socially useful values, the socially useful values change. We don’t need to push chastity if we have good STD treatment and contraception; we don’t need to push martial valor if all our wars are fought by drones. The old religions are failing partly because they can’t adapt quickly enough; social justice won’t need to imitate their failures. And Christianity is far from a homogenous mass; it has everything from golden-tiara-ed monarchs to barefoot street preachers to corporate megachurches to tonsured priests.
We’re not a religion…but we do have Levites!
But I expect it to recapitulate the history of other civil religions in fast-forward. Did you know “pagan” is just Latin for “rural”? The pagans, the people who kept resisting Christianity even after it had conquered the centers of power, were the Roman equivalent of flyover states. Once Pride assimilates its own pagans (and kicks out its own Julian the Apostate), maybe it mellows out. Maybe it becomes more tolerant, the same way Christians eventually started painting Greek gods on everything. Maybe it encounters the same problems other faiths encountered and adapts to them the same way.
Maybe a decade or a century from now, we have all the best values.
“Though the cause of evil prosper; yet ’tis Truth alone is strong
And albeit she wander outcast now, I see around her throng
Troops of beautiful tall angels, to enshield her from all wrong.”