If you want a concrete picture of some of the deepest elements in America culture, you ought to look at Washington. Most people wander around the Mall and gawk at the monuments, the White House, and the Capitol. But to get the full picture, I prefer the path along the other side of the Potomac River.
From there you see a modern American city with the economics left out – none of the tall office buildings that dominate other cities – a company town, where the only real business is government. And what’s more, if you look with fresh eyes, a government that has the overtones of a religion – of sorts.
Because the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials are clearly temples. Above the figure of Honest Abe it’s even written, “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” I like Lincoln a lot, and go to the Memorial from time to time when I’m feeling low to re-read the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. They express a classic American public theology.
By contrast, Jefferson, for all his brilliance, was flighty and religiously shallow, and his memorial shows a certain preciousness. But there’s something wrong in principle about temples dedicated to men, even to these two great men. Even if the inscriptions inside speak of God, the real God, they still remind you of a place like the Pantheon in Paris: nice building, but a bit of idolatry that comes to the fore when men and politics squeeze out faith and the Church from the public square.
George Washington was one of the steadiest and most openly religious among our Founders, but he’s honored with a Masonic obelisk signifying: what? It’s hard to say. (Some Washington lore: the stone color changes part way up because the anti-Catholic Know Nothings stole a piece of marble Pius IX contributed; the controversy halted construction for years.)
The temples, obelisk, and the Capitol basically look like ancient Rome, and sometimes when I’ve flown into Reagan-National from Rome the connection is palpable to that pagan past.
Where in all this is Christianity? From the West bank of the Potomac you can see the spires of Georgetown University and the Episcopalian National Cathedral (an impressive imitation of a medieval Catholic cathedral). So there is a visible Christian presence, though you might not want to look too closely at what goes on in either place. Otherwise, the capital of the United States of America gives the strong impression it’s about men, great men, but men with mostly eighteenth-century ideas, good enough so far as they go, and worth recovering. But they do not go nearly far enough.
The English Catholic historian Christopher Dawson wrote during his brief stay in the United States: “The average man’s objection to Christian civilization is not an objection to medieval culture, which incorporated every act of social life in a sacred order of sacramental symbols and liturgical observances – such a culture is too remote from our experience to stir our emotions one way or another: it is the dread of moral rigorism, of alcoholic prohibition or the censorship of books and films or of the fundamentalist banning of the teaching of biological evolution. But what the advocates of a Christian civilization wish is not the narrowing of the cultural horizons, but just the reverse: the recovery of that spiritual dimension of social life the lack of which has cramped and darkened the culture of the modern world.”
That was in 1960. As you may have noticed, despite all the gadgets and Internet, we talk much about openness and freedom, but except for gains in civil rights, the culture is probably more cramped and darkened – certainly spiritually – than it was fifty years ago.
That, of course, is why we founded The Catholic Thing and why you read it, to keep open some windows onto a different reality. I hear from a lot of you – sometimes when you think we are mishandling that mission. More usually, I get notes like this: “I wanted to take a moment to thank you for The Catholic Thing, and to encourage you to continue publishing it for as long as you possibly can. Reading TCT every morning provides me a sane and reassuring perspective that, for me, is a much-needed balance to the nonsense that comprises most of the media content currently available. TCT is the one place I can go to know that my own style of thinking is shared by at least some good people in this world, and that is a very important contribution to my daily routine.” (Syracuse)
I hear that quite often during my travels and it encourages us to even greater efforts. But it’s that time of the year again when I have to ask you to do YOUR part. First, please continue to spread the word about TCT. Our readership has grown rapidly. We have large numbers now in every state, but especially New York, Texas, California, Illinois, and Massachusetts – to say nothing of London, Paris, and Rome. Our writers are approached by total strangers with thanks for TCT. Our columns are discussed in the Vatican and other culture-forming places. But there’s nothing like the word of mouth of enthusiastic readers for creating other enthusiastic readers. So keep it up – and why not join our Facebook group, while you’re at it?
I also have to ask you again for financial support. You know I don’t do “it’s-the end-of-the world-if-you-don’t-send-money-immediately” appeals typical of many non-profits today. I have too much respect for TCT readers. But I have done the math for you before: to keep TCT alive means that everyone reading this column this morning would need to send us $25 ($26.20 if you use the PayPal service when you click on the Donate button). The Catholic Thing could then continue coming to you every day for the next year with your favorite writers and commentary. There are 260 weekdays in a year, which means if you flipped just a dime into a jar daily, you’d be doing your bit for TCT, for America, and for the Church.
We know not all of you can make even this modest commitment at the moment, but how about the rest of you who can help bear a brother’s or sister’s burden in this vital work by giving a larger amount?
If you understand the kind of struggle all of us are faced with in the Church and in America today, appreciate how few reliable outlets there are for solid Catholic thought, and value what you find here every morning, please. Do what’s only right. Make a contribution, right now, to The Catholic Thing. I promise you, as you open up this site each morning over the coming year, you will be happy you did.
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.
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