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Monticello Credit: Davin McHenry

At Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, an American story is reappearing. The bedroom of Sally Hemings, the slave who bore seven children to Jefferson, is being restored in its original location, next to Jefferson’s own bedroom.

For decades, Hemings’ room was a lavatory for visitors. Now the tiles have been stripped away, the floor brought down to dirt level, and the original brick chimney and fireplace exposed. The room will be recreated to reveal the relationship of Jefferson and Hemings.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings shared the same world, despite the gulf between them, and the United States has a common narrative, despite the inequities of power and the divisiveness of our political discourse.

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During my scholarly career, beginning with a college honors essay on preachers and theologians who celebrated English monarchy in the American colonies, I have highlighted the consensus that runs through our history. Usually, that consensus goes unnoticed, or is told in negative terms, as a story of oppressors. But the consensus has also promoted individual freedom, political democracy, world peace and cultural tolerance, now growing into acceptance.

Even Martin Luther King, Jr., whose statue confronts the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin, praised the “wells of liberty dug deep by the Founding Fathers.” However hypocritically, Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” into our national creed.

To speak of a “creed” evokes religion. Behind our common narrative lies a set of commitments —commitments to values like freedom, but also to symbols, monuments, images, places, holidays, songs and documents—that amount to a religion.

American civil religion has united rich and poor, native and invader, ruler and rebel. Now we must extend that consensus to Muslims and to refugees.  

Fifty years ago, Robert Bellah pointed this out in an article, “Civil Religion in America.” Bellah noted the use of “God” in presidential addresses. But since then, American civil religion has developed expressions that have nothing to do with God. In 1982, the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial (ordinarily called the Wall) was dedicated next to the Lincoln Memorial. Emotions released by the Wall led to an explosion of new, broadly inclusive sites in American civil religion.

In New York, the Statue of Liberty was renovated in 1986, and the Ellis Island Museum opened in 1990. On the Mall, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993, the Korean Veterans’ Memorial in 1995, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in 1997, the World War II Memorial and the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004.

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Meanwhile in Philadelphia, work to create a new setting for the Liberty Bell revealed the former home of presidents George Washington and John Adams, including quarters for slaves, and in 2010 a memorial for those slaves opened.

At sites in the West and the Pacific, more radical broadenings took place. At the Alamo, where the garrison died fighting Mexico, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas began to celebrate both sides of the battle in 1994.

In Montana, the Custer Battlefield National Monument became the Little Bighorn National Monument in 1991, and a memorial for the Indians who fought Custer opened in 2003.

In December of 2008, the monument for American dead at Pearl Harbor was integrated into a larger entity, the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. That monument also integrated nine sites, from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to the Tule Lake Segregation Center in California, where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during the war.

National Park Service interpreters at Pearl Harbor began to present Admiral Yamamoto’s opposition to the attack, and the website of the Pacific Monument includes the American occupation of Japan.

In 2007, to mark the 400th anniversary of the first English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, the Park Service opened a Visitor Center presenting Jamestown as a place of meeting between Native American, English and African cultures. Back in the District of Columbia, African-American history gained two sites. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial opened in 2011, and 2016 saw the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in a dark building across the street from the shining white obelisk of the Washington Monument.

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In 2017, American civil religion stands at a crossroads. We have not absorbed September 11, 2001, nor the elections of 2008 or 2016. The memorial at Ground Zero succeeds in recalling the Twin Towers and the dead, but the museum does not address the causes or consequences of the attack.

At Plymouth Rock, where the Pilgrims landed in 1620, no adequate symbol or visitor center yet represents that event and its results, as we approach its 400th anniversary. But ever since 1970, when descendants of the Wampanoag who greeted the Pilgrims began their protests at a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving, the groundwork has been built for a new consensus.

From the beginnings, when John Smith declared at Jamestown that those who would not work would not eat, and John Winthrop preached in Massachusetts that god made some to be poor and some rich, but all to work together, American civil religion has united rich and poor, native and invader, ruler and rebel. Now we must extend that consensus to Muslims and to refugees.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Peter Gardella is Professor of World Religions at Manhattanville College. His most recent books are Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure (Oxford University Press, 2016) and American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred (Oxford University Press, 2014).

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