This Memorial Day we should reaffirm our national faith
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We set aside Memorial Day to remember those who were killed in the service of our nation’s freedom, collective vision and shared beliefs. As Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) recently remarked: “We must all strive to be worthy of the sacrifice of those who have died for our freedom.”

Memorial Day is a sacred date on our nation’s civil religious calendar. In the words of American sociologist Robert Bellah, who popularized the idea of an American civil religion, Memorial Day is “…a rededication to the martyred dead, to the spirit of sacrifice, and to the American vision.” For Bellah and those who built on his work, America’s “civil religion” operates alongside individual faiths and refers to a shared heritage of beliefs and stories and symbols.

Recently our faith in our collective enterprise has been sorely tested. Months after armed insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn a democratic election and a few weeks after Rep. Cheney was chased out of Republican leadership in the U.S. House for not showing appropriate fealty to an election fiction, it is worth asking in what do adherents of civil religion have faith, and can that faith be renewed or restored? Is it worth even trying?

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The history of Memorial Day offers clues to those questions.

There are many contenders for the first Memorial Day. At Arlington National Cemetery in May 1868, General John A. Logan declared “Decoration Day” a day to decorate the graves of those killed in the Civil War as a way of preserving the Union. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Memorial Day was first officially celebrated in Waterloo, N.Y., on May 5, 1866. Historian David Blight argues “the earliest and most remarkable” celebration was organized by recently freed slaves on May 5, 1865 in Charleston, S.C. According to Blight: “The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.”

Regardless its origins, Memorial Day was a day to renew our national faith in our shared democratic experiment after it had been brutally tested by the Civil War.

The faith is in a nation that, however flawed in its founding, contains the seeds of its growth and renewal. To borrow from the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, ours is both a dream country and one to which we wake up every morning; it is to the former to which we should be loyal, even as we live in the latter. It is a faith strong enough to face even the unpleasant truths about ourselves, and yet, in Rorty’s words, “we should not take those truths to be the last word about our chances for happiness, or about our national character. Our national character is still in the making.”

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman echoed that same sentiment in her inaugural poem, when she wrote “being American is more than a pride we inherit/it's the past we step into/and how we repair it.”

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The idea of the ideal of our civic faith is nebulous, as faiths tend to be. But politics lives in the here and now. Those of us who work in the here and now of politics should use this moment to speak to the deeper truths of our civil religion.

The mid-20th century conservative American public intellectual Richard Weaver argued that the most effective and most ethical rhetoric draws on transcendent values to speak to the issues of the moment. For Weaver, “rhetoric at its truest seeks to perfect men by showing them better versions of themselves, links in that chain extending up toward the ideal, which only the intellect can apprehend and only the soul have affection for.”

Following Weaver’s advice, those who make speeches on Memorial Day should use the occasion to draw on America’s founding ideals of equality and justice and remind us of our shared commitment to always work toward a “more perfect union.”  

In honoring the patriots of Waterloo, Gettysburg, Charleston, and those killed on battlefields around the world in the more than 150 years since, we recommit to the idea for which they died. We embody that memorial by living up to the ideals for which they gave their lives.

Peter Loge is an associate professor at the GW School of Media and Public Affairs and the director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication.