Americans are a people of deeply held religious conviction. If any has doubts, let him look on the most serious of our sacred holidays and believe.
Naturally, it is a federal holiday, but that fact alone does not convey the magnitude of this special day. For, unlike other federal holidays, this one carries with it a gravitas—a holiness—that says it is special. You can tell, because we don’t mark the day with fireworks and pop music, or the pardoning of a turkey, but by a singular devotion to the very words of our national religion’s founder. There’s no public debate over it. No one says, “Hey, it isn’t fair to the x’s and the y’s and the z’s if we focus on one tradition and ignore the others.” This is our tradition, and we are not ashamed.
In the former days, when we were weak and ignorant, we had to be taught to be ashamed of our Old Religion. At first, when the bigoted (“one who is obstinately convinced of the superiority of one’s own opinions and prejudiced against those who hold different opinions”) nature of our Old Faith was exposed, we attempted to sand down all the rough edges, especially when it came to our Former Big Day. We hired some members of another religion to write us some new songs, and we transformed our Former Big Day into a celebration of shopping. This, of course, would not do, because, despite what Milton Friedman had taught us, shopping alone could not serve as the basis of a truly national holiday, let alone a national religion.
It was only then that the Third Great Awakening dawned and we realized that we already had a new religion. The transition has been so smooth that many of us probably still do not notice the difference. The parallels, indeed, are striking. The prophet of our new religion came as a preacher of the Old One—and, like our Old Prophet, he preached revolution. Just as the Old Rabbi’s qualifications were called into question (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”), so, too, have some criticized our doctor’s credentials. And what did the new prophet get for his selfless efforts? The same thing the Old One got!
One of our earliest hymnwriters, St. Bono, revealed the similarities between the two religions’ founders in a song—“Pride (In the Name of Love)”—that is now sung in a few of our old/new churches: “One Man come, He to justify; one man, to overthrow!” Yes, the Former was the “One Man, betrayed with a kiss.” But concerning the one who followed after—well, as St. Bono and every anchorperson, schoolteacher, president, and candidate of either party will confess to you boldly, not one of us is worthy to loosen his shoelaces.
Early morning, April 4,
a shot rings out in the Memphis sky—
“Free at last!” They took your life,
but they could not take your pride
In the name of love!
We knew that the Former Big Day had lost all of its meaning when most of us refused to call it by name, preferring to say “Holiday” instead. Our leaders still recognize Holiday, along with other minor festivals of different religions, but it is only when you look at the federal holiday of our new religion that you can see how a faith held in common by an entire nation is celebrated. Our President even set up a website devoted to it—mlkday.gov. (Imagine the reaction of the American people if they were to discover a dot-gov devoted to Holiday!)
Last December, the presidential candidates fiercely debated whether it was appropriate for one among their number to make use of a mysterious floating symbol of our Old Religion in connection with our Former Big Day. Then, in January, they lined up to proclaim, with one voice, their devotion to the new prophet. One called the prophet his “hero, . . . because [he] practiced the libertarian principles of civil disobedience and nonviolence.” Another, standing in the very pulpit where the fallen prophet once stood, showed he was the fulfillment of the Old Testament, the antitype of Moses instructing the people of God how to bring down the walls of Jericho. The prophet, said he, is an “icon.”
Such thoughts were echoed by the clergy of the Old Religion. One Catholic bishop proclaimed that the prophet “gave his life for the Gospel values of non-violence and peace for all.” A popular conservative Protestant pastor encouraged all of his followers, if they had the time, to rewrite their sermons in order to “make something” of the federal holiday, to celebrate the work of the prophet. If you need to “find a good word” to say about him, just “Google his name.” But please, “You need not belabor his sins.”
As all of this unitary devotion was occurring, we received confirmation that, thank godamighty, we are at last free of the Old Religion, when sports network ESPN announced its punishment for host Dana Jacobsen. While throwing a drunken fit on stage at a celebrity gala, she accidentally hollered “F–k Notre Dame” and “F–k Jesus,” too.
Now, ten days’ suspension with pay is more than sufficient a punishment for inveighing against our former Deity. I mean, it’s not like she stood up, in the bleak midwinter, and cried, “F–k Morehouse, and F–k Martin Luther King, Jr.!”
Aaron D. Wolf is the associate editor of Chronicles.
This article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.