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The National Mall Presidential Memorials: temples of a civil religion called America

Written by: Thomas Bouzereau

One of the most well-preserved remains of the Roman forum in the antique city of Nîmes in Southern France is the Maison Carrée. A temple erected in 4-7AD, it stands today pretty much as it used to be then, almost untouched by two millennia of history. The frontispiece used to read ‘To Gaius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul’. Like the Maison Carrée, although erected with much less taste, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. is a temple dedicated to a deified human being. Both were meant to be places of civil worship of a polity, of a people, of a civilisational endeavour. Their transcendental nature lies in the political mythology they contributed to build. In this sense, both temples are churches of a civil religion, called the Imperial Cult, and America.

The pompous grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial is however slightly embarrassing. One can only wonder how the ancient Romans would have reacted to a neoclassical mastodon copying their finest architecture. The truth is, the Republicans who built the temple had other matters at heart: they needed to create a stark symbol of a triumphant union in the aftermath of a Civil War which had shattered the United States to pieces. The National Mall was the ideal location for such a symbol as the Elysian Fields of the American nation. Meant to reflect the political ideals of a newly-formed country, the National Mall was from the beginning a wider celebration of a national enterprise called America. In the land of the free, one needed to inscribe a national mythology into a sacred space.

In the heart of American nationalism lies the trauma of a nation having been constituted from scratch, in the image of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Unlike many others, American nationalism does not have a long history upon which to rest claims of eternity, or greatness. The legitimacy of the American nation is rather found in a national mythology delineated in places of civil worship like the National Mall Memorials. In this way, glorifying, nay deifying, past presidents enshrines the idea of the collective memory of a great past. In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln referred to ‘the mystic chords of memory’ as a unifying factor all over the broad land of America. In the Lincoln Memorial itself, the phrase behind the gigantic statue likewise refers to an eternal memory. One finds indeed at the core of American nationalism a mystic element, portrayed in most cases through the concepts of Manifest Destiny, or unique civilisational mission. Amongst the most widespread metaphors referring to America is the well-known ‘beacon of freedom, hope, and democracy’ meant to enlighten the world. Aside from the blatant self-righteousness of the claim, one discovers what sociology professor Philip Gorski calls ‘prophetic republicanism.’ America may well be for some a land of covenant in which freedom, hope, and democracy find a new meaning. The Presidential Memorials of National Mall here find a new meaning: they sanctify the prophets of the American civil religion in an attempt to conflate divine and political authority.

The words of John Winthrop comparing America to the ‘city upon a hill’ channel the same idea that America has a mystical meaning. They have been used consistently in American presidential discourse to re-assert the self-proclaimed prophetic vocation of the United States. This prophetic raison d’être moulds all Americans into one, mystical America. In this context, the American civil religion is the crucible of what it means to be American: a freedom-loving, God-fearing citizen of an eternal America.

However, underneath the prophetic discourse of the American civil religion, one finds that this nationalistic understanding of America is based on a narrow set of ideas. Rhys Williams makes the argument that this prophetic vision of the United States is driven by a tribal identity asserting a particular vision of America and the American people based on race, religion, and a heightened sense of national identity: white, Christian, and American. This has been largely evidenced by the sociology of nationalist circles during the last presidential tenure. Apart from the National Mall temples, a whole array of national symbols support this vision of the United States, to which virtually any American is confronted: the Gettysburg Address (incidentally found in the Lincoln Memorial), the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag recited in schools every morning, or the preambles of the Constitution and the Declaration.

Drawing upon Rousseau’s chapter 4 of his Social Contract, civil religion always rewards virtue and punishes vice. Praising discursive American virtues is the main motive behind deifying presidents. It puts the American nation in the realm of mythological peoples by appropriating symbols of venerable civilisations. In this fashion, the resemblance between Lincoln’s colossal statue in his Memorial and the statue of Zeus at Olympia is striking. They are symbols of a deity representing the glory of a civilisation. A slight, albeit crucial, difference is that Zeus was the product of mythology, whereas Abraham Lincoln was a living man. In America, mythology is therefore continuously written through selecting, shaping, and finally deifying living men regardless of the reality of their actions, in order to serve a nationalist ideology. The National Mall is a new Olympia based on an ideological discourse which mythologises the American nation through its presidents.

Featured image by David Baron Palo Alto (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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