Sacred Flesh in a Soil Once Alien: Soldiering and the Sanctification of America

Friday, January 7, 2011: 10:10 AM
Room 208 (Hynes Convention Center)
Jonathan Ebel , University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
On Christmas Day 1919, Reverend Aaron Allen Heist of Rose City Park Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon preached a sermon titled "Present Day Incarnation." He wanted to encourage reflection on the words of the Gospel of John, "The Word became flesh." To help his congregation with this vexing text, Heist turned to analogy. Since the Great War was a fresh memory, he compared the incarnation to soldiering: “America spoke great words as she entered the war…. But that which has given power to the words is that they became flesh; sacred flesh that lies buried in a soil once alien; clean flesh that marched and fought and suffered for the honor of the country and the safety of humanity. ... It was when the word became flesh that the word became mighty." Soldiers were to the government as Christ was to God: the suffering, serving incarnation of the divine will. This formulation, however problematic, points us to fascinating and thorny questions about soldiering and civil religion in America. This paper will examine the ways that the United States has drawn and continues to draw power from its soldier-Christs of the two world wars—those who are now that "sacred flesh that lies buried in a soil once alien." Based on first-hand studies of the major American war cemeteries in France and on research in the records of the American Battlefield Monument Commission, this paper will examine the ways that these cemeteries sanctify death in war-time and direct memories of suffering and death toward a “divine” United States. I will argue that we can see in these highly intentional sacred spaces and in their barely concealed tension between remembering and forgetting the ambivalence of the place of soldiering and war in twentieth-century American civil religion.
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