The Second Inaugural Address of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States (Author's photo, 2013).
The Second Inaugural Address of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States (Author’s photo, 2013).

President Obama’s last State of the Union is next week, and I’m a sucker for the pageantry. You can sense the expectation by lunch; everyone has rearranged their work schedules (and their lobbyist-paid dinner dates) to be back on the couch for kickoff. By sundown, the streets in downtown are virtually empty. I’ve never worked a day in the government in my life, but still, I get excited about that speech.

Maybe that explains why I’m drawn to study ritual, rhetoric, and politics in Rome — and, most recently, the longevity of Rome’s imperial cult in the later empire. In fact, that’s exactly what I wanted to write about here. First, a summary of some reading I’ve been doing. Then, a presidential example.

In order to get up to speed on current approaches to ritual (a broad theoretical orientation which is often woefully missing in discussions of Rome’s imperial cult), I’ve been reviewing David Kertzer’s Ritual, Politics, and Power.

Kertzer is good at drawing attention to the emotional role that rituals play in the political realm; and he’s very eager himself to analyze how symbols and the emotions associated with them can contribute to the power of political rituals over time. (Just this month, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, there was a recent panel on the need to explore more seriously, and from a cross disciplinary perspective, the role of emotions in history).

I’m keen on Kertzer’s approach because of how nuanced it is. Ritual, in his broader framework, is not just something that legitimates authority (p. 2). By its very conservatism, rituals can also be “a potent force in political change” (p. 12), as people use their own rituals — like mass protests in symbolic urban settings or congressional hearings wrapped in the formal symbols of state — to challenge the status quo. The study of rituals in history, then, demands a rigorous theoretical grounding. For, contrary to what some might imply, rituals do not “pull the wool over the eyes of the credulous” (p. 178); they play a vital role in building political consensus and solidarity (p. 67). In short, rituals also shape the political world that people live in.

Now, the example. It comes from the White House tenure of another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.

In an article in Presidential Studies Quarterly from the 1980s, scholar Dan Hahn noted the changes that Carter had made when he moved into the White House. Hahn describes, in his broader study of “The Rhetoric of Jimmy Carter, 1976-1980,” how Carter altered some of the “symbolic activities” associated with the Presidency: “walking ’home’ after the inauguration, refusing to set up an elaborate vacation retreat a la San Clemente [a la Richard Nixon], removing the gold braids of the ‘palace guards,’” even “enrolling [his daughter] Amy in a public school.” The effect, Hahn suggested, “stripped the presidency of some of its accumulated royalist trappings” (p. 275).

From this example, Kertzer himself draws the following lesson about the importance of political ritual: “[Carter] soon learned…that the power of these rites, of these symbols, was not to be trifled with. If by deritualizing the office he became ‘one of the people,’ he paid for it by being popularly perceived as lacking charisma, the sacred aura, that presidents should have” (p. 183). Ah yes, “the sacred aura.” That’s what I’m interested in. I think there’s lot of room left to explore it, too.

Some scholars of the late Roman empire have suggested that Christians eliminated Rome’s imperial cult, getting rid of it because they found it incompatible with their religious beliefs. Others have cautioned that, when talking about the interaction between Roman religion and Christianity in antiquity, we avoid concluding that Christians simply swapped one set of rituals and beliefs for the other (link: with bibliography). I think some more work still needs to be done in this area. Both these approaches imply that Christian rulers would have found the political rituals of their day necessarily and fundamentally incompatible with their own governing agendas.

As Kertzer’s work would caution us, however, sometimes the “standardization and the stability” of ritual helps new leaders borrow political legitimacy when they need it most (p. 42). That’s what I’m writing about now.

In short, some rituals may have been so important to the late Roman government they couldn’t be changed. That fact doesn’t deny that they may have become hotly contested and debated — particularly among and between Rome’s Christian community, a topic I’ve been focusing on with some intensity of late — but it also helps us see that the wholesale elimination of centuries of ritual was never going to be a political reality, even in Christian Rome.

The ideas expressed here form the background to a paper I’ll be delivering at Exeter, in the United Kingdom, in April on “Rhetoric and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity.” It is drawn from my larger study of imperial cult in Christian Rome (in progress).

Conferences, Method