Charles Lindbergh and “Religion”

I just finished reading Chris Gehrz’s Charles Lindbergh: A Religious Biography of America’s Most Infamous Pilot, which releases 8/17. All I really knew about Lindbergh was that he flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, their son was kidnapped/murdered a few years later, and that he was the antagonist in Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America that HBO ran last year

Chris’ book is part of Eerdman’s Library of Religious Biography. According to the website, the series “brings to life important figures in United States history .. [linking] .. the lives of their subjects to the broader cultural contexts and religious issues that surrounded them.” What makes the Lindbergh book somewhat unique is that the pilot had little use of religion as we normally think of it. That makes this “religious” biography appear to be a negation of the significance of religion in modern life, at least on the surface.

And yet, the book requires us to think more carefully about what constitutes religion. That thinking, in turn, opens up a number of contemporary issues. Examining Lindbergh’s thought offers glimpses of the religious mindset present in Christian Nationalism, White Supremacy, Critical Race Theory, and Economic Inequality.

As Chris describes in the opening pages, Lindbergh is a forerunner of the “spiritual but not religious.” He had little interest in organized religion, rarely went to church, and was devoted to science. There were religious friends, some quite zealous, but he had little room for their strand of religion. Yes Lindbergh had religious influences, but at the heart of his thought was the belief that he could make sense of things on his own. Many times, especially in the second half of the book, I found myself remembering Robert Bellah and friends describing “Sheilaism” in Habits of the Heart. Sheila had said:

I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice (2008: 221).

When Lindbergh reflects upon the “mysterious beings” that he said were with him in the middle of the flight across the Atlantic or when he describes his environmental concerns later in life (which Chris identifies as close to panentheism), it seemed he was putting things together in his own religious concoction. It is also present when he desires to quote Jesus’ “wisdom” without a broader theology. This is far from what we normally think of as religion.

Yet I found myself rethinking this critique at many spots along the Lindbergh journey. Perhaps I was relying too much upon substantive definitions of religion instead of more functional understandings. About a third of the way through the book, as “the miracle of flight” was becoming a reality, I found myself reflecting on Emile Durkheim’s view of religion.

Religion, to Durkheim, was “a unified system of beliefs and practices around sacred things…”. And what was the sacred? Those things that are over and above individual daily life (the profane). What does this mean for the first man to take a solo flight across the ocean? I found myself taking this very literally. There was something about being in the air that was sacred for Lindbergh. He contrasts this with the people on the ground when he’s flying in the South Pacific during the War.

In another case, Lindbergh’s belief in the superiority of White Western Civilization in contrast with more primitive groups appears as a near religious devotion to the special case (he writes of quality not equality). His support for Eugenics is part of the same ideology. It is not too much to argue that for Lindbergh, Western Civilization was sacred and other parts of the world (including Asiatic Russians) were lesser.

These are the same sentiments that have a Tucker Carlson fawning over Hungary’s “freedoms” and have politicians decrying the teaching of America’s racial history (under the guise of concern over “Critical Race Theory”). American civilization (epitomized by America First) is sacred. Dealing with inequality, racism, or ethnic diversity means celebrating the profane rather than recognizing the sacred character of “our” civilization. The storming of the US Capital on January 6 was, to the supporters, needed to protect the sacred character of America.

Chris addresses these concerns in a wonderful afterward, reflecting on the deaths of Philando Castile and George Floyd in light of the centrality of White Supremacy to Lindbergh and his ilk. Understanding how someone like Charles Lindbergh constructed his “religious worldview” gives us a lens into how our fellow citizens are constructing their own views around their personal commitments to what they claim as sacred.

It’s disappointing that none of Lindbergh’s more religious friends were able to have an impact on him. And it’s even more disappointing that we seem incapable of reaching our own contemporaries with the broader claims of the Kingdom of God.

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