Hamilton and Civil Religion

“Civil Religion and the Phenomena of Hamilton” by Emily Jenkins (Samford University, class of 2018) was published in the spring 2019 issue of the Journal of Theta Alpha Kappa. Jenkins argues that the popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is due in part to the way the musical frames Alexander Hamilton’s life through the ideology of American civil religion. She writes,

Contemporary American civil religion scholar Philip S. Gorski understands civil religion as “a framework for connecting past and future, and for conjoining sacred and secular.” Connecting the next generation to the stories of the origins of this nation, the musical familiarizes audiences of the present with secular events of the past by infusing religious references throughout. Gorski also describes civil religion as “a narrative that tells us where we came from and where we are headed,” complete with “our values and commitments within particular stories of civic greatness–and collective failure.”[Hamilton serves as a reflection on the successes and failures of the founding fathers and American values, motivating Americans toward a better future.

Emily Jenkins, “Civil Religion and the Phenomena of Hamilton,” Journal of Theta Alpha Kappa 43, no. 1 (spring 2019): 30-48.

Jenkins examines the civil religious dimensions of the musical through its plot and audiences’ reception of its performance utilizing Gorski’s framework of “canon, archives, pantheon, and narrative.” She concludes,

The impact of Hamilton on civil religion is not limited to the present; this musical will inspire the next generation by allowing more people to view themselves in light of the American story. Immigrants who watch, or hear, Alexander Hamilton rise through the ranks to establish the governmental and financial foundation of America may be encouraged to consider themselves vital characters in the future of the American narrative. Additionally, Hamilton will also affect the dreams of performing arts students: Future licensing for high school and college productions of Hamilton will empower students of any race and of both genders to envision themselves as powerful leaders, capable of creating the future of American national identity.. Moreover, the social justice themes of Hamilton call for “a second coming of a Hamilton figure or a ‘messiah of sorts’” to fight injustice. This musical leads viewers and listeners to question the current national identity’s reaction to injustice. It also prompts questions of personal identity, which David Brooks expressed in the audience’s thoughts leaving the theater: “[Hamilton’s ambition] is sort of deeply American. And that’s why the show is universal. Because everyone wonders, Are my dreams big enough? Am I really making the most out of my life?Hamilton equips its fans to seek purpose in their lives by employing civil religious themes throughout the musical.

You can read the full essay in the Journal of Theta Alpha Kappa found in many university. Full text is also available through the ATLA Religion Database, though at last check they did not yet have this issue in the database. It should be there soon.

The essay had its origins in my seminar at Samford University on Religion and American National Identity in fall 2017. I was delighted when Emily suggested this topic for her paper and thrilled when the editors of the journal for the national honor society for religious studies and theology decided to publish it. I hope others are able to build on Jenkins’s fine work.

She is now enrolled in the Clinical/Medical Social Work program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.