The Fourth of July is America’s Independence Day. We celebrate it as a summer festival, eating traditional foods and watching fireworks shows after dark. It is a national holiday, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a document our forefathers sent to the King of England stating that we wanted to be our own sovereign country. On holidays like these, we practice what sociologists call “civil religion,” which means that certain rituals and customs and beliefs are shared by our citizens even if we do not collectively belong to a state religion.
Uncle Sam, the Trickster
In our civil religion, we have a pantheon of gods. Uncle Sam, who is the personification of our government, is generally mischievous or misguided, entrapped in red tape and bureaucracy, and often ineffective or even a charlatan. In some cultures calling someone “Uncle” implies a certain respect for an elder, but in American English, especially in this case, the appellation “Uncle” conveys a slight disrespect, a sense of familiarity with his weakness. A general belief about Uncle Sam is that he wants to steal your money or involve you in a manipulative scheme that will certainly leave you the worse off. We know he’s not malicious, and he does these things because he is a fool. So we love him as much as we are annoyed by him.
Uncle Sam is a tall, skinny, older man with a white beard and a long, stovepipe hat. He is dressed in a suit in the colors of the American flag. He always wears red and white striped pants and his coat is blue; his suit sometimes is adorned with white stars. Any American recognizes this figure. In the cartoon above, it is obvious that Uncle Sam is the one talking, even if the cartoon doesn’t say who he is. We laugh because once again our funny Uncle has mismanaged our money.
We also associate Uncle Sam with unpleasant obligations, like military service and taxes. When we say, “That’s for Uncle Sam,” we mean a fee or tax must be paid. The classic Army recruitment poster, depicting Uncle Sam pointing a finger at us, has been parodied hundreds of times. Uncle Sam’s attempt to be stern and authoritarian simply compels us want to make fun of him. We know we have obligations, we just don’t want him to be the one reminding us.
Uncle Sam also fumbles often on foreign policy. He just doesn’t have good social skills.
Lady Liberty, Mother Goddess and Suffering Madonna
Lady Liberty is an avatar of Columbia, a goddess used as the personification of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. She doesn’t represent the government, but rather the land itself, and the people who live on the land. She is the summation of our values and ideals about citizenship. She is a mother figure, a positive nurturer, but is most often portrayed as abused or mistreated, usually by politicians. Her most famous likeness is the Statue of Liberty; she can always be recognized in art by her resemblance to this monument. She wears a green robe, a crown of spiky rays, and carries a book in her left arm and a torch in her right hand.
Called the “Mother of Exiles” in Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, which is embedded at the base of the Statue of Liberty, she shares many of the qualities of the Virgin Mary, and could be said to have a marianismo complex. The most well-known lines of the poem say “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” She is a loving mother of all Americans, no matter where they emigrated from or how many generations they have lived here.
One of the most memorable uses of Lady Liberty as a symbol was in the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. The main protagonist, an astronaut named Taylor, crash lands on an alien planet ruled by apes. After many misadventures, Taylor rides off on a horse down an unknown ocean coastline to meet his destiny. He doesn’t travel far before the recognizable form of Lady Liberty, in ruins and half-buried in beach sand, appears ahead of him. Taylor suddenly realizes he has been on Earth the whole time, and not an alien planet at all. It was a future Earth, one in which we waged nuclear war and destroyed ourselves. As Taylor realizes this, he falls off his horse onto the sand, screaming and crying, “Oh my God… I’m back. I’m home. All the time it was… we finally really did it. YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP!” The scene became a cinema classic because so many Americans felt that nuclear war was a real possibility then, and the idea of our own behavior getting so out of hand was akin to murdering our Mother Goddess.
An Uneasy Marriage
Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty are usually considered to be a married pair, although Uncle Sam is not a father figure. (Our Father God is George Washington, and we respect old George). We think mutual love does exist between them, but the relationship does get thorny at times. Lady Liberty, in true long-suffering fashion, tries to make up for Uncle Sam’s shortcomings and keep him in line.
George Washington, Father God
George Washington was the first President of the United States. For that alone we would admire him, but he also had great leadership qualities. He was humble; he was honest. His peers wanted to make him king but he wouldn’t allow it. He set the standard for presidential behavior and the workings of government. Our favorite bit of folklore about Washington we all learned as small children. As a boy, he cut down his father’s cherry tree with an ax. His father asked him if he had cut down the tree and he replied, “Yes, father, I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry tree.”
As children, this story has a huge impact because we know how much trouble we would be in if we did something like that. But Washington told the truth, anyway, and didn’t worry about the consequences. What a great guy. What’s even better, he keeps to himself, and doesn’t meddle in our affairs, or any other country’s affairs. He’s quiet and dignified. We see him every day on our dollar bills and he always seems self-composed.
He always appears in his curly white-powdered wig and 18th century clothes. Somehow, we know if we were in trouble he’d show up and be kind and helpful. In gratitude for his fatherliness, we built a giant phallic monument to Washington, as the “Father of Our Country.”
Abraham Lincoln, God of War and Justice
A popular epithet for this god is “The Great Emancipator.” He is always seen in a black suit and black stovepipe hat. He’s very tall and has a dark beard. Abraham Lincoln was President during the devastating American Civil War of the 1860’s. We had massive casualties in this conflict and suffered a lot, but Lincoln got us through it in one piece. Literally. And after leading us through the war, he freed a whole lot of us from slavery, and made us all think pretty hard about what equality and social justice really mean. He also made Thanksgiving a national holiday and we all started to celebrate it nationwide for the first time. Giving thanks is important if you want to emerge from war and slavery into a healthy society.
To achieve his accomplishments, Lincoln had to send his people to war against themselves, suspend the constitution, and behave in a very dictator-like fashion. We know his aggressiveness had noble purpose, though, and besides, he made his own life a sacrifice to the cause when he was assassinated. We commemorate him on our penny and on our five dollar bill (five is the cabbalistic number of war). Our Temple to Lincoln shows him looking down on us in pensive judgment. We hope he likes what he sees.
Lincoln is invoked by us whenever we need help in battle. During the 1960’s civil rights movement, his Temple was many times visited by activists beseeching him for social justice. Recently this old warrior has risen again to fight in the zombie apocalypse ( a growing fear of ours – maybe we are more anxious about zombies now than we used to be about nuclear war!)
He Emancipated The Slaves
He Saved The Union
And Slaughtered The Undead!