Religious identity in America may be more deeply partisan than political identity. But as Robert Bellah has convincingly argued, America sustains a "civil religion." The idea, articulated by Rousseau in The Social Contract, is that a few general religious ideas--the existence of God, belief in morality, and especially the rejection of religious intolerance--are held sacred by the people. There is a reverence for religious pluralism in the United States, a kind of civic pride that one's neighbor can be Jewish, Muslim, or whatever flavor of Christian, and good for us.
Katherine Gee's new play, God for President (which premiered at the Provo Theatre Company last night), is a celebration of civil religion.
Like Gee's shorter work that appeared recently in the New Play Project's Fire and Rain series, this was a fast-paced ensemble piece that can best be characterized as a dramatic essay. A piece of "devised theater" (meaning the cast helped develop the script in response to Gee's direction and moderation), it featured multiple brief monologues--personal views on religious and patriotic experience--interspersed with choral numbers (the national anthem, Amazing Grace, etc.) and multimedia (slides of religious and secular icons projected on one wall). While winkingly based on the premise that some opportunistic campaign managers have chosen to make God their candidate for president, this proved to be more comic relief than narrative anchor point (for example, God having a "Holy Ghost writer" or the shtick of God not showing up for a staged debate). The pious might have shrunk a bit at the glib comedy of God being labeled a "no show," but his absence was figured not as atheistic or Deistic--but as a kind of generosity allowing Americans to find and define God freely and individually.
Although a Mormon playwright (directing an all-LDS cast), Gee was generously representative of alternative faiths, almost to the point of an overly idealized ecumenical America--Buddhhists, Muslims, Catholics, Mormons--one happy family. A civil religion may bind us, may keep our public rituals meaningful, but what about the dark side of American religion? The "Christian" foundations of the Ku Klux Klan, the civil strife justified in religious terms, the bigotries and hypocrisies? To her credit, perhaps, she dodged the easy cynicisms available. This truly was a play about faith in the civil religion, and so the revelation of deep-seated anti-Mormon bigotry in the recent Mitt Romney campaign was completely passed over, nor were there any moments of Mormon martyrdom.
At one point the national anthem is analyzed--the fact that only the first verse is ever sung, and that this verse ends with a question--does that banner yet wave? And there it is, our national anthem, one of the most regular and palpable rites of American civil religion--being celebrated not as an affirmation but as a question. Gee's play celebrates America and its religious identity as an aptly open question. As long as we keep singing that question together, rethinking our polity even as we reaffirm it in common song, then God will be present, if not president, sustaining a nation that never requires him to fully arrive and that never wants to let him go.
God for President continues through October 27, 2008 at the Provo Theatre Company in Provo, Utah