Rituals and Renewal: Politics as Our Civic Religion

Most of us watched yesterday’s inaugural ceremonies on TV if we weren’t lucky enough to attend in person. That is, if we’ve not become so cynical that we don’t care anymore. There are people like that, and I know they have good reason to feel that way. But I’m not one of them. I view these occasions as public expressions of our faith and hope, our belief in things bigger than our capacity to understand. We’re all a part of it, this majestic ritual of democracy’s unfolding journey, not strangers. Whether or not it’s the candidate I want (and Obama is), I love our civic rituals, with all the pageantry and symbolism.

So does my old friend and mentor Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a pioneering advocate for women in theology (the first female president of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada [ATS] and so much more), who knows well the importance of ritual in public life. Zikmund, who has served as both a United Church of Christ seminary dean and chief (Pacific School of Religion, Hartford Seminary) as well as church historian, has an illustrious career spanning many decades – her papers are archived at the Union Theological Seminary library, now a part of Columbia University, her fans and accomplishments are legion – and continues to remain active, in spite of retirement.  I’ve known Barb – or “BBZ”, as most of her friends call her – and her husband Joe for 44 years, ever since I was an undergrad at Albion College in Michigan. They currently live in Washington, D.C. but will be moving back to Michigan sometime soon.

Anyway, Barb and I exchanged emails yesterday, working out plans for we three to get together here in the Boston area next month. I wrote in one that I figured they’d be watching the inaugural festivities from the comfort of their couch, rather than stand out in the bitter cold.

I should have known better. Here’s what Barb wrote about her “Wonderful Day”. Just an email between friends, but I thought it worth sharing with you because she touches on the simple, plain beauty of this momentous occasion.

It has been a wonderful day.

I am the eternal optimist.  I love civic rituals. I can get teary when I hear the Star Spangled Banner.  I get angry and discouraged, but I still think the diversity and unity of the USA make us resilient. As I watched the ceremonies this morning and heard Obama give his address, I was proud and happy.  We are not perfect, but we do amazing things in the midst of incredible diversity.  We fight hard. But in the end the winner is honored and the rule of law prevails.  When I look at the rest of the world, that is awesome.

So, this afternoon I went by myself to see the parade.  The Metro was not too crowded by 1 pm. I had to wait an hour to get through the security checkpoint, but everyone was happy.  Boy Scout volunteers were everywhere to help.  There were enough portapotties. The sun was shining.  I took my cane that has a built in seat and set it up on Pennsylvania Avenue between 6th and 7th.

I figured that I would watch the early part of the parade.  I could not go into the ticketed area, so it did not matter. Besides, once things passed I could head home. From 2 to 3:45 the crowd grew and waited. We did the wave, we looked at security people on the roof tops, and helicopters overhead.

We talked with strangers—many of whom had never been to DC, let alone to an inauguration. I struck up a conversation with a family from upstate New York (near Chautauqua).  I talked with a young African American couple who were from LA.  The guy was about 30 and teaches chemistry in a high school. He loves teaching. He works hard, he knows he can make a difference in some lives. He is proud that he can do what he is doing.

Finally the big black limousines showed up we decided that the ones with Secret Service agents walking alongside were important.  We caught a glimpse of the President and a waving hand from Joe Biden.

Everyone cheered as their cars crept by. I stayed for a while longer.  I watched the bands and the fife and drum corp. I looked at faces. I thought about the poem that Richard Blanco read this morningI came home on the Metro and Googled it so I could read it.  I love it.

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day: . . .

Looking forward to seeing you at the end of February.





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