This post was originally written in 2017 . . .
President Reagan garnered political popularity and power in part by his skillful use of political theater and imagery.
But in 1985 even this great master of ritual and belief stumbled a bit with the infamous “Bitburg” affair. A New York Times article read,
It was a day Ronald Reagan had dreaded, even though it was a rite he felt bound to endure. Walking beside Chancellor Kohl amidst the German military graves of the Bitburg cemetery, he looked stiff and uncomfortable, in awkward contrast to his usual ease. While Kohl brushed aside tears, Reagan looked straight ahead, careful not to glance down at the graves less he spy the SS symbols sprinkled across the cemetery lawn. In spite of the West German’s desire to clasp hands over the graves of the war dead, the President’s arms remained resolutely at his side. Earlier in the day, at a hastily arranged ceremony at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Reagan laid a wreath inscribed, “From the People of the United States.” At the cemetery, in a ceremony that he was able to limit to just eight minutes, the wreath bore a somewhat different message: “From the President of the United States.”
Reagan got himself into this mess through a series of awkward political circumstances. First, West Germany had emerged as a crucial ally in the Cold War and Reagan wanted to put a new kind of missile on West German soil. Second, Chancellor Kohl had engaged in a long campaign of rehabilitation for Germany, and argued that the German people were also the victims of the Nazi regime–a statement most found (and I find) partially true but mostly false. Still, things in West Germany had obviously changed since the 1940’s. Still, rehabilitating the Nazi regime . . . ?
Most world leaders balked at any ceremonial recognition. Reagan felt that he needed to acknowledge West Germany’s emerging role and commitment to freedom. Plus, the missiles . . . he needed enough political capital with the West Germans to install them on their soil.
So, he decided to go. He asked that the ceremony be limited in time, pomp, and circumstance. He asked his aides to pick a spot that would incur the least amount of political damage. Somehow, in a gaffe of gaffes, his aides picked a spot that included graves of SS officers! One might understand mourning the ordinary German soldier, but not even Reagan could pull this off. Still, Reagan had pledged–but he then insisted on another visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in last-ditch attempt to balance things out. Hence, his stiff posture at the Bitburg cemetery, and the different messages on the wreaths.
The amount of controversy these simple and subtle gestures caused shows us that such gestures are not that simple. Rituals reflect deeply held beliefs. More than that, rituals create beliefs that stick in the minds of men.
David Kertzer’s Ritual, Politics, and Power discusses this topic brilliantly. He writes about weighty topics like ritual, psychology, and sociology with a spring in his step, and shares numerous revealing examples across time and space. By far, his is the best book I have seen on the subject.
Some of us of a more rationalistic bent might say that rituals have no meaning in themselves. Perhaps they give outward expression to inward meaning, but certainly cannot create meaning. Meaning and ritual can easily part ways.
But how far could one take the separation of meaning and ritual? Imagine we felt respect for someone but failed to shake their hand. Would we really have this respect? Some might say, “We love each other and we don’t need the state or the church to tell us that we’re married.” But I doubt that such people would refuse the “act of marriage” that creates intimacy in the first place. “That’s ok, it’s the thought that counts” would not work as a defense. Without a physical embodiment of the thought, no evidence of the thought exists. More than that, our thoughts cannot be said to conform to reality without a physical manifestation of them. We know a tree by its fruits.
In the Socratic dialogue Phaedo, Socrates argues about the nature of reality. He comments,
Is their true nature contemplated by means of the body? Is it not rather the case that he who prepares himself most carefully to understand the true essence of each thing that he examines would come nearest to the knowledge of it?” “Would not that man do this most perfectly who approaches each thing, so far as possible, with the reason alone, not introducing sight into his reasoning nor dragging in any of the other senses along with his thinking, but who employs pure, absolute reason in his attempt to search out the pure, absolute essence of things, and who removes himself, so far as possible, from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from his whole body, because he feels that its companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom? Is not this the man, Simmias, if anyone, to attain to the knowledge of reality?”
In On the Celestial Hierarchy, St. Dionysius the Areopagite acknowledges that human beings cannot immediately or directly attain to spiritual contemplation. Being flesh and blood, we require visible symbols and embodiments to know truth. Kertzer in turn acknowledges that the president mainly functions as, “the chief symbol maker of the land,” so the minute analysis of Reagan’s gestures should not surprise us.* Kertzer quotes another scholar who similarly wrote, “Most political controversy centers around which myth to apply to a particular problem.”
Kertzer generally ignores religion in his book, but the thin line between religion and politics makes itself perfectly obvious throughout his work–a huge strength in my view. It illumines the fact that our political commitments come very near, or equivalent to, our religious beliefs, consciously or otherwise. One immediately thinks of the vesting of clergy to perform religious rites. We should not be gnostics. You cannot just “think” yourself into being married. Even today we still understand that you need a rite, you need “the act of marriage” to create marriage. We know of the crown, robes, and mitres of kings. But even in our much more casual modern American democracy, we have fixed expectations of how to look presidential. To take one example, presidents give the pens they use to sign laws and treaties to favored confidantes or privileged citizens as “sacred” tokens of leadership.
Some may recall how Jimmy Carter’s popularity fell at least in part due to his failure to manage the symbolic nature of his leadership, either in his dress, relationship with Congress, or his tone of voice when speaking. To take an opposite case, Kertzer shows how Rajiv Ghandi skillfully managed the symbolism of his mother Indira’s funeral to make a political career from nothing to India’s youngest Prime Minister in a matter of months.
We will know that our country’s religion is changing when we see its basic rituals come under fire. Personally I find the singing of our national anthem at sporting events laborious and excessive. But once the toothpaste gets out of the tube . . . things get complicated. Though I find the ritual onerous and misplaced, I acknowledge the power of the rite. Objectors to singing the anthem wisely engage in a symbolic action of their own. The fact that they kneel has much more power than holding a press conference to voice their objections.
The more our country moves away from religion and its overt religious rite and symbolism, the more we will seek it elsewhere, the more important our political symbols will likely become, and the more power their proper execution will confer. Ritual, Politics, and Power makes it clear that we need symbols to make sense of reality, and will have them one way or another.
*What do our modern presidential elections decide? Given entitlement and defense spending, our federal budget has very little room to maneuver. Our system of government and regular elections keep the president more or less in check. Many believed the world would soon end after Trump’s election, but little of real substance has changed. I think Kertzer would argue that what is most often really at stake is who gets to craft our symbols. Neither candidate proposed any radical policy measure, and when Trump talked about a wall few thought it would actually happen. But . . . it symbolically meant something to talk about it. The election was bitter and contentious because of the symbolic nature of the candidates. They may not have actually done radically different things in office but they represent very different symbols of what America is or should be.