by Laurie L. Patton
The January 6th insurrection by white supremacists and other Trump loyalists at the Capitol building has provoked a crisis of meaning. What is the Capitol building for? The words “sacred” and “holy” come up a lot. “There was something holy about this place,” said one rabbi recently, as Americans try to process the horror of the violence the world witnessed that day. In his inauguration speech, Joe Biden, too, described it as a sacred space. Most dramatically, one Capitol officer, trying to talk members of the mob into leaving the chamber, said that the room is “the sacredest place.”
What ideas and emotions are behind these words? And how might we negotiate this particular mixture of religion and politics—the use of religious language in the public sphere, applied to our governmental buildings?
One of the most important issues in the public understanding of religion is how we might re-shape our “civil religion”—those secular symbols that are part of the American experience. After January 6th, an urgent question emerges in our common life: how might we imbue those symbols with deeper, more dynamic, and inclusive meanings?The Capitol is the closest thing to a temple to democracy. According to the literature at the Capitol itself, it is “a symbol of the American people and their government, the meeting place of the nation’s legislature.” The Capitol is an icon to the idea that democracy works not through the machinations of a king, a dictator, or a tyrant, but through the peaceful consent of the governed, through free and fair elections. The Capitol is the people’s place, the place where democracy proceeds, and where democratic laws are enacted. To see it ransacked is an attack on democracy itself, and the capacity of democracy to endure.
Symbols and monuments
The Capitol participates in what theorists of the public square call a kind of monumentality. As George Washington wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1792, the Capitol “ought to be upon a scale far superior to anything in this Country.” Indeed, in terms of theories of monumentality, the intent of the conceivers, designers, and builders of the Capitol was to achieve what Louis Kahn called “a feeling of eternity.”
Other theorists of monuments argue that a monument is anything but a permanent transcendent structure erected almost magically in a short period of time. Rather, in its early life a monument is ever changing, argued over, re-interpreted. The Capitol is no exception. It took more than a quarter century to complete, with a succession of architects, and in large part through the labor of enslaved people. Much of the building burned in the war of 1812, only to be saved from complete destruction by a rainstorm. Originally, it housed both the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress in addition to the legislature.
The Capitol had to be expanded by the mid-19th century, as more states entered the union. Northern and Southern wings were built; the dome was rebuilt with cast-iron materials, the grounds were enlarged. Almost forty years later, the Library of Congress moved out, and thirty years after that the Supreme Court did the same, each into their own buildings. As recently as 2008, the Capitol had a new visitor center added to accommodate the nearly five million people who travel each year to the people’s building.
As such, the Capitol holds a central place in what Robert Bellah, in his now classic 1967 essay, called “civil religion in America.” He built on Rousseau’s, and later Durkheim’s ideas that there is an ethical and moral code, as well as a belief in the transcendent, that unites people in a given society—and can define that society and its understanding of itself as a nation. Bellah argued that such beliefs are enacted through national myths, sacred texts, regular rituals, and monuments. Civil religion, Bellah wrote, is “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation.”
In the United States, these would involve the story of the American Revolution, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. Its monuments are buildings such as the White House, the Capitol Building, and Bunker Hill monument. These celebratory and memorializing elements are what Bellah calls “priestly elements”—those parts of our cultural and physical landscapes that are at the center of the ceremonial life of the nation.
The origins of many of these ceremonial symbols of American civil religion have been challenged recently. To whom are they sacred? Can these symbols transcend their white European male heritage, and become meaningful to all Americans? In addition to the challenge to these symbols, the idea of civil religion itself has had its critics over the years—particularly around the question of how, in America, it is difficult to draw a line between what is “civil” and “what is Christian.” Moreover, many have argued that the role of civil religion is not always productive and unifying. Many who carried out the violent insurrection at the Capitol espoused a violent, white supremacist Christian ideology that many find repugnant, and yet which arguably fits Bellah’s definition of civil religion.
Civil religion’s prophetic role
What is to be done in this fragile time, when so many symbols themselves are in question, and after the violent destruction of a national monument, described by so many as sacred? We might turn to the other side of Bellah’s theory. For him, civil religion also has a prophetic role, challenging “national self-worship” and the “the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged.” While a nation often may embody the highest good for many, the two are not one and the same. Rather, for Bellah, a nation can and should be guided by the principles that shape it, and stand separately from them.
Because of this prophetic element of civil religion, there are changes in the way in which the nation conceives of its highest moral principles. For Bellah, several different moments in American history forced these changes. The American Revolution forced a change in conceptions of nation and liberty; the Civil War forced a change in American conceptions of citizenship and unity. While civil religion was originally Christian, Jews and Catholics were brought in in the aftermath of World War II. The Civil Rights Movement forced a change in democratic processes as a basic right for all Americans that deserved to be protected, not manipulated and locally legislated. In the 1960’s, civil religion’s capacity to be visible through many different religious lenses allowed it to be effective in forwarding the civil rights agenda. In other words, civil religion responds to social and religious developments around it, and exists in a dynamic relationship with them.
The 2021 insurrection at the Capitol building might be another one of those pivotal moments in the development of civil religion. It is important to note first that the destruction was not just about destroying the building, but the people who were empowered to be there. Many understood themselves as saving democracy, and hence the Capitol itself, by attacking those lawmakers who were currently residing in the building.
The prophetic moment of our civil religion asks the question: how inclusive can the Capitol be? As Eboo Patel, Shalom Goldman, and others have written, the term Judeo-Christian was, and is, often used as a way of being maximally inclusive. However, that term is woefully inadequate now to describe Black and Brown people, Muslims, Hindus, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and many others who now serve in the symbolic building where Americans honor the consent of the governed. For a white supremacist, it was anathema to think that the people had elected leaders that white supremacy conceives of as threatening “others.” The fact that through those elections, people thereby consented to be governed by them, was even more so. For those who elected them, on the other hand, it meant that those leaders were not “other” in any way, but a resource and an inspiration.
Toward a pragmatic pluralism
In terms of “the sacred” in civil religion, the Capitol building needs to be expanded once again, but not just physically. It needs to be expanded conceptually. We need to think differently about who lives there, who governs there. There are currently models for this—where interfaith relationships are built on interdependence. Elsewhere I have written about this practice as “pragmatic pluralism”—where religions come together in common cause, and need each other’s resources. I define pragmatic pluralism as a relationship between two or more religions where one religion needs another to be itself, and both religions thrive as a result.
My research has shown that one of the most common human situations where pragmatic pluralism occurs is, in fact, in the guardianship of buildings and monuments. In Calcutta, the guardianship of the empty synagogues, now part of India’s historical trust, are Muslims. The buildings have been out of use long enough that the position is now hereditary, passed from father to son. A similar example comes from Jerusalem, Israel: two Muslim families are caretakers of the central Christian pilgrimage site of the Holy Sepulcher. For centuries, the Joudeh family holds the keys to the building, and the Nousseibeh family ceremoniously opens the doors. Christian groups know that if any single Christian group held the keys to that most holy of sites, tensions between Christians would mount and violence might even occur. Christians need an outsider to protect their building.
But we need not look so far afield. There are American examples all over the country. In many cities, where religious diversity is growing, churches and synagogues rent their spaces to other groups who are not part of their tradition. Fledgling Jewish groups meet when churches are not meeting. One church in Atlanta guarded the ner tamid, or eternal flame, of a neighboring synagogue in its basement where a Jewish group met for several years. When the Jewish group finally found a place to move to, the Christians so loved the symbol they asked if it could remain. Jewish Community Centers rent space to Buddhist meditation groups. Buddhist meditation centers share space with Christian prayer groups. When one student, visiting from Indonesia, did not have time to return to her mosque for daily prayers after attending a dance class uptown in New York City, a rabbi from a synagogue gave her the space in his synagogue to pray. In Victoria,Texas, a synagogue offered its building to Muslims after their mosque was destroyed in a fire.
In all of these pragmatic relationships, mutuality and difference are both essential to survival. Muslims need Jews to be Jewish, and vice versa. Christians need Buddhists to be Buddhists, and vice versa. And so on.
These models of pragmatic interdependence answer the question: who belongs in these buildings? And the answer is, everyone, because we need each other’s difference to survive. We don’t just “tolerate” or “celebrate” each other’s difference—we literally need it. Without that difference, democracy will not thrive. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ wrote in his now classic Dignity of Difference, in this way these relationship mirror those of barter between traders, or even biological diversity between species, where difference is essential for the survival of interdependent relations.
The desecration of the Capitol building by white supremacists has shown that, for them, it is impossible to imagine and accept that the work of American governance now includes those whom most history books have until now ignored. Yet those whose stories and concerns have been suppressed have indeed begun to enter history and become part of the democratic process.
To make the Capitol sacred again, we need to perform that prophetic part of civil religion, the subordination of a nation to the ethical principles that transcend it. In this case, that ethical principle is one of inclusivity and mutuality in democratic processes. Democratic governance is not only the execution of power relations; it is also an exercise of consent, mutuality and interdependence. We need to reimagine the Capitol as a house of interdependence. There is hope in the fact that we have already been doing so all across America, one building at a time.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Laurie L. Patton is Professor of Religion and President of Middlebury College. She is the author or editor of eleven books in the study of religion, most recently: Who Owns Religion? Scholars and their Publics in the Late Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, 2019).