Washington, D(eist) C(ity)

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I grew up in the shadow of Washington, D.C. As long as I can remember, I have loved our nation’s capitol. They tell me that when I was a baby I would point to the U. S. Capitol and say, “Total.” My high-school graduation was in Constitution Hall. My wife Rosa and I went to a concert on the Capitol steps and walked up the Washington Monument on our first date. I love the city’s open green space, its classic buildings, its skyline free of skyscrapers, its dignified memorials, and its excellent museums. So, it was only natural that I took my grandson Patrick to Washington, D.C. for the spring break of his senior year. Before we went, I got several books on the history of D.C. so we would be prepared.

Gradually, as we read those books and as I once again saw the sights, a new perspective began to grow in my mind. The very structure and design of D.C. represented the Deistic beliefs of many of our forefathers. First of all, unlike Western European capitals, there was no national church in the heart of the city. The National Cathedral sits on a hill over five and a half miles northwest of the national Mall, like the Deist God who doesn’t interfere with the world. Pierre L’Enfant, the city’s original designer, certainly would be proud today of the way the Mall at the heart of the city has fulfilled his intention of becoming a center of science and the arts. With the Capitol at one end, the Washington Monument at the other, and the grand Smithsonian in-between, it is an impressive sight. I intentionally took the metro to the Smithsonian exit so that this would be my grandson’s first view of the city.

Thus, God benignly overlooks this secular heart of the city from a hill far away. But then events began to show that his place had been taken by several human “gods.” As we were standing in the crypt of the Capitol, the guide told us that George Washington was to have been buried there, but the Capitol was not ready in time. She told us, however, to look up into the Capitol’s dome, where we would see a painting of the “apotheosis” of George Washington. “Apotheosis” is the process of becoming a god! Look across the mall at the huge obelisk that dominates D.C., the Washington Monument. Eventually we went to the Lincoln Memorial. I don’t know how many times I had been there before, but this time the words across the top struck me—they began with “In this Temple” (italics added, of course!). And indeed, the Memorial looks like an ancient Temple with a huge statue of its god. God is banished to a hill far from the secular heart of this Deist City, but we have three human god’s who are at home here—first and foremost, George Washington, then Abraham Lincoln, and, finally, Thomas Jefferson. I have no intention of demeaning these men or diminishing their accomplishments, but of describing at least one aspect of the ethos of our capitol city.

Then I began to think, perhaps, just perhaps, America became much more of a Christian nation than our Deist forefathers intended. Perhaps it was the First and Second Great Awakenings that made the difference. Perhaps it was the Methodist circuit riders, Baptist preachers, and other evangelists who reached the masses for Christ. Several years ago, the Old Capitol Museum here in Jackson, Mississippi, featured a display entitled “Mississippi in 1811.” You could read a diary from that time. The diary’s author said that he had come to Mississippi from South Carolina. In South Carolina the circuit riders had gotten his wife and daughters interested in religion. When he got to Mississippi, the first person on his doorstep was a circuit rider! On the intellectual front one wouldn’t want to overlook the influence of the Presbyterians at Princeton or, a bit later, that of the Dutch Reformed at Calvin College. Perhaps God worked in ways that our Deist forefathers never anticipated to spread the God’s truth throughout America and to make U.S. a center for the spread of the Gospel in the world.

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