Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Gods of Washington

I just returned from a five day visit to Washington, DC. It was my first time there, and I loved the city. My wife and I did the typical tours, and I was glad to do that, since my feet started hurting after the second day and the double-decker tour bus became a beloved oasis for us.

After wandering through the grounds of the Capitol building, the memorials, the museums, and other great sites, I wondered how a visitor from a distant planet might interpret the architecture, statues, and engraved quotes that can be found in DC. If our visitor had studied all the religions of planet earth prior to her visit, how would she describe the religious leanings of the US if the nation's capital was her first stop?

I think she would say that, indeed, this nation of America shows itself to be very religious. Many of the engraved quotations reference God. And the architecture and statuaries would suggest an honoring of God—or gods, to be precise. Our visitor might conclude, based on her observations, that America is grounded in the gods of the Greeks and Romans. Those are the most dominant religious symbols in our nation's capital.

The only suggestions of any Abrahamic religions that I saw were in the Holocaust museum.

Maybe if people want refer to the US as a "Christian nation," or at least one that was "Christian" at its inception, they should wander around the National Mall and process what they see. Maybe it would be more accurate to describe the founders of the nation as Enlightenment Progressives, informed and influenced by British Anglicanism. Or something like that.

Don't get me wrong: I don't mean to disparage the nation's beginnings. The people who got this whole enterprise going were amazing people (with regular human faults, to be sure), who shared a grand vision for a new kind of nation, and they risked everything they had to take the plunge into independence. But they were also people of their time, and the Enlightenment formed their thinking in a very significant way. The symbols that were, for the most part, constructed in the 19th century, offer testimony to that way of thinking.

We ought to be careful about tossing around the term "Christian" to characterize the nation (or anything else, for that matter). Christianity's influence and presence has certainly flourished here (not always in good ways), but "Christian" probably isn't a category to which the country might somehow return. A return to our beginnings would probably surprise most of us.

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