Every year as winter sets in, people go through a yearly ritual called the Holidays. For some, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, a religious event. For others, it’s a secular season of gift giving and receiving. For most, it’s a consumer regimented event. Weeks prior December 25th, the mainstream media revives images of a mythical Santa Claus to set in motion a festive mood that will entice consumer spending. In most minds Santa Claus is an American icon, the result of newspapers’ fictional alteration of Saint Nicholas and the contribution of advertising that framed the image of the Santa as we know it today. Yet only since 1773 has he been known as Santa Claus and perceived as a secular icon rather than a Saint. This beckons the question: How did this transformation occur? Is it truly a secular transition or a market driven substitution of a sacred figure?
Saint Nicholas was a bishop of Myra, a city now part of Turkey, during the 4th century AD. He was known for kindness and generosity to children. One account of his life reveals that he gave gold coins as a marriage dowry to three girls in order to save them from prostitution. Legend also has it that he threw money from windows to poor children while remaining hidden. Regardless of his kindness, he was imprisoned during the most ruthless persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian. He was released from prison during the rule of Emperor Constantine. He is officially celebrated on December 6th, the day of his death. The Church documented several miracles that occurred during his life. He was canonized and became a patron Saint of children.
Soon after Saint Nicholas’ death his reputation grew in his country and abroad. He was buried in Myra and by the 6th century, the burial grounds became the site of a popular shrine. In 1087, a band of Italian sailors who heard stories about Saint Nicholas took it upon themselves to steal the Saint’s remains and bring them back to their home town of Bari. Once his remains were in Italy, the Saint’s popularity spread all over the country. A basilica was built to shelter Saint Nicholas’ relics and in time the shrine became one of most popular pilgrimage centers in the country.
A few years later, a French knight named Charles Aubert traveling through Bari took a piece of the relic and brought it back home. The relic became a sanctuary and the site of the basilica of Saint-Nicholas Le Port, near Nancy France. From Bari, the celebrated protector of children made its way to the east and north of France. Over the next 700 years his cult would spread to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and beyond – so much so that a great part of Europe celebrated a holiday of Saint Nicholas, patron of children.
The Reformation put a hold on the saint’s devotion in Germany and throughout the Protestant world. Martin Luther did not look kindly on the domineering power of Rome and its veneration of saints. Nonetheless, the devotion to the saint persisted in the Netherlands and in order to circumvent Luther’s admonition, the saint became known as Sinterklaas, a man dressed in a long red robe with a white beard who brings gifts and candy to children on December 6th.
Centuries later, a number of Dutch immigrants who sailed to the New World brought the devotion of their Saint with them.They landed on a shore that they named New Amsterdam. It did not take long before the prized piece of real estate was coveted by English-speaking settlers. In the aftermath of the Anglo-Dutch war, the city became known as New York. The varied nationalities established themselves in different neighborhoods and coexisted somewhat peacefully. The Dutch kept their cultural traditions, including the celebration of Sinterklaas on December 6th. The English-speaking population took a liking to the patriarchal figure and adopted him. Unable to pronounce Sinterklaas, they instead named him Santa Claus. According to journalistic annals, the official Americanized name made its first appearance in a New York City newspaper in 1773.
Christian faithful of the New World ended with two holidays dedicated to children in the same month; the first on December 6th dedicated to Saint Nicholas, and the second on December 25th celebrating the birth of Christ. Americans, known for their propensity to simplify things, combined the two holidays into one. What was once the celebration of a Saint and of the birth of Christ became a festivity dedicated to children and gift-giving.
In A History of New York, a book written by Washington Irving in 1809, Saint Nicholas was no longer depicted as “lanky bishop,” but portrayed as a portly bearded man who smokes a pipe with a peculiar habit of coming down chimneys. The book was meant to be a parody about the overindulgence of New York City inhabitants living in exuberant wealth. Nonetheless, the account of a chubby character who was able descend a chimney ironically became part of “Santa’s” accepted behavior.
On December 23, 1823, the Sentinel, a newspaper based in Troy, New York, printed a Christmas poem by Clement Clark Moore entitled, A Visit From St. Nicholas. The story depicted Saint Nick as a broad faced character, “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” dressed in white fur spotted with ash and soot. The poem introduced the idea of Santa traveling through the cold night skies in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer. The American poem seemingly captured the imagination of readers and its popularity spread all over the country. Santa Claus was slowly overshadowing the story of an old Bishop riding on a cart pulled by an equally aging donkey.
What Moore conjured up with words, Thomas Nast framed Santa’s image with sketches. Nast’s portraits of Father Christmas were seemingly inspired by New York writers and journalists rather than a by a concern of reproducing a historic Saint. Over the years he added varied details of his own about St. Nick’s personal life, including that the he lived in the North Pole. From 1863 to the turn of the century, Nast’s depictions eventually established a framework of what Santa Claus would look like. One memorable print shows Santa depicted with children sitting on his knees enumerating their Christmas presents wish list.
During the course of the nineteenth century, Santa was depicted wearing costumes of varied colors. Prior to red, he was pictured in white, green and purple dress. In Nast’s first sketch, Santa was dressed in a patriotic star and stripes costume. In his later renditions the red suit was the preferred color, perhaps to keep with the tradition of Sinterklaas’ long red robe. However, Santa could hardly take care of business wearing a long robe, so the Americanized Father Christmas was dressed in a more sporty attire consisting of a short coat, bonnet, sizable belt and boots to face winter and sneak down chimneys.
Further contribution to imprint Santa’s image was introduced by Louis Prang with his Christmas postcards. Prang is known as the “father of the Christmas card” for starting this commercial tradition of buying and sending Christmas cards. This custom originated in England in 1874 and it spread to the United States a few years later. His first Christmas card was created in 1885 depicting Santa in a red costume.
A side note: The bodily contrast between the meager Saint and the modern portly Santa reflects the perception that corpulence has been regarded throughout the ages as a sign of wealth and material abundance. In this regard, Santa reflected the US’ growing economic wealth, generosity and power.
Then came the tradition of a live Santa in department stores. The custom was introduced in 1980 by James Edgar, a Massachusetts businessman who is credited with coming up with the idea of having a Santa impersonator attract customers to his store. This marketing tool was so successful that children from all over the state dragged their parents to see Santa in Edgar’s dry goods store.
The most memorable contribution to Santa’s image was made during the roaring 1920s. In order to promote drinking cold drinks in winter, the management of a famous cola drink hired an established advertising agency to begin a nationwide campaign by placing ads in popular magazines. The image of Santa that is most recognizable today is attributed to illustrations created by Haddon Sundblom, who relied on Moore’s poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, as an inspiration to draw his portraits. As it happens, red and white were the official colors of the famous soft drink company and, thereafter Santa has been portrayed as a jovial and plump father figure in red and white attire.
World War II
In 1939, the United States was still struggling to revive a stagnant economy that began with great depression. The following years, young men of legal age were sent abroad to fight the dual evils of dictatorship and fascism while older men and women stayed at home to engineer and single-handedly build the greatest industrial powerhouse in the world. The US and its allies’ victory created an economic prosperity that would last several decades and a recovery that also lifted the Old World out of its economic doldrums.
The American troops that landed on the shores of Italy and France pushed back the occupying forces into a final retreat. The victory gave way to a welcome reception to soldiers who freely shared their name brand supplies with the people: chewing gum, cigarettes, soft drinks, music, movies and Santa Claus. The war liberated a great part of Europe and it just happens that the military also opened a new market for corporate America’s goods. For most Europeans, US soldiers were generous liberators carrying with them precious gifts; a relief from years of rations and starvation. However, not everybody felt the same way about their generosity.
On December 23, 1951, a priest set an effigy of Santa Claus on fire in front of the Cathedral of Dijon. The priest was venting his indignation toward a growing popularity of Santa Claus who he considered to be a poor travesty of an honorable Saint.
Secularization and the Sacred
The priest from Dijon might have been overly touchy about his religious devotion. He might also have been alerted by the invasion of a foreign symbol representing globalization. He nonetheless embodied a concern about an irrevocable shift in the representation of the sacred in popular culture. This process is referred to as secularization, which is commonly understood as a decrease in church attendance. A more apt description is when various elements of human life cease to be administered by religious institutions. Whereas, the historical definition of secularization is the confiscation of Church property by the State or a sovereign for worldly ends. In other words, the priest was objecting to the transfer – or symbolic confiscation – of a religious figure being converted it into an idol for commercial purposes.
The transformation of Saint Nicholas was made possible with the help of various media: newspaper articles, poems, books, postcards, sketches and advertising. Santa became a mythical icon conjured from a patchwork of different sources. As a result, he is no longer Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas. He is an entirely different character transformed into a media deity, a supernatural being whose mission is no longer helping children in distress but an agent of marketable goods.
For the sake of clarity, the term “media” is simply the plural of “medium.” And, in respect to secularization, the media has become the new intermediary between the providers of goods and services and the consumer. In a postmodern era, corporate media has imposed itself as the provider of the good news. It displaced the priesthood as the mediator between the sacred and the believers and imposed itself as a technological medium to the people. It provides televised models of conduct setting new grounds for acceptable behavior, a prerogative previously held by the priesthood concerned with moral principles. In time, the media became the gateway to an unlimited source of worldly gratification, a technological medium between an invisible power source that sets apart new standard for the sacred and the ordinary viewer: The purveyor of amoral forms of behavior.
Believers used to congregate in churches to celebrate their venerable Saint; now they assemble in malls to meet Santa and shop. What is at stake is more than a transfer of the sacred for a commercial use, but a challenge to the traditional role played by the priesthood. Priests, ministers and reverends are intermediaries between God and the faithful. They are agents that interpret the Word of God and administer rites to facilitate access to the divine. In essence, they are a living medium that connects the holy and the common believer; a medium that bridges the supernatural and the ordinary believer.
Secularization has not eliminated the sacred. It merely shifted its quality elsewhere. As a result of the vast economic development and the control of mainstream media by the market forces, Santa was elevated as a name-brand idol. It has shifted peoples’ alliance to a different form of devotion. Although the sacred today does not have the same religious meaning as it did in the past, it is regenerated with the same dynamic principle namely that in order to be sacred a being has to be set apart from the ordinary and common sphere; as supernatural and otherworldly. In our day and age, the media at the beset of the corporate market forces is the new power source that establishes sacred representations permeating popular culture.
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Christmas and December 25th
In 274 AD Emperor Aurelius decreed the celebration of Sol Invictus – the “Unconquered Sun,” god patron of soldiers of the later Roman Empire, to be celebrated on December 25th. Less than a century later the Christian hierarchy had settled in Rome. In 354 AD, in order to settle a growing dispute regarding Jesus’ birth date and to foster peace among the increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds of Christian converts, Pope Liberius dedicated December 25th as the commemoration of the birth of Jesus. The Church had no factual evidence on the historical date of Jesus’ birth; nonetheless, the magisterium decided that a reasonable way to displace the pagan celebration of Sol Invictus would be to replace it with the commemoration of the birth of the Son of God.
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He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past.
Regardless of the covert encroachment of the Internet by the varied security States, cyberspace is nonetheless altering the jurico-political landscape of the world. Fugitive Edward Snowden’s legal status personifies what Giorgio Agamben describes as a homo sacer – a sacred man. In his book sharing the same title, Agamben explores the significance of this archaic Roman legal figure in conjunction with the concept of sovereignty elaborated by Carl Schmitt in his book, Political Theology. In light of the state of exception relating to Edward Snowden’s legal status, one is left to conclude that he does not only fit the portrait of a homo sacer but that he is also a paradigm of sovereignty in respect to the uncharted domain of the Internet.
Although the idea of sacred has retained some its original Roman meaning, today it is mostly associated with a religious attribute relating to specific people, objects and places rather than establishing a ritual process of setting apart. In Roman religio, sacer meant “all that is the property of the gods,” and “that which has been dedicated and consecrated to the gods;” hence, what is separated from the profane – the common, the unclean or the impure, etc. In essence, this setting apart is a dynamic that establishes a buffer zone, if you will, between the sacred and the profane, conferring a special status to one as opposed to the other, legitimizing hierarchy and instituting order; the mortals being the disposable players of a power play justified by the gods.
The Latin expression of homo sacer has been translated into “sacred man” and is defined as an individual who either broke an oath made to the gods, committed perjury or for moving markers that determine property limits and rights. Offenses that were considered to jeopardize the good relationship between citizens and the gods, compromising the peace and prosperity of Rome. As a result, the offender is set apart for his breach of trust and could only be punished by the gods. And, according to prescribed rules, it is not permitted to sacrifice him. Yet he could be killed without the killer being regarded a murderer. Hence, homo sacer stands in a fuzzy no-man’s land by being a previous member of a privileged circle – sharing the same status as his patrons – yet accursed for his breach of trust and banned from society.
While in Hong Kong in May 2013, Snowden released numerous secret documents to the press. Much of the secret activities were already suspected by a great number of people; however, the documents consisted of more than a description of secretive conduct, but proof that these government agencies were conducting mass surveillance on its citizens – surveillance that Snowden considered to be illegal and in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Edward Snowden is a former government system administrator who later worked as a private security consultant contracted by the State. With his revelations, he exposed some of the inner working of the government’s secret agencies, showing that public and private sectors are closely aligned and form a coherent body, referred to in some circles as the fourth branch of government, whose budget is kept secret as a matter of national security. During the media blitz against the renegade, it was revealed that his job was highly remunerative. And although he worked in the private sector, his firm was contracted by the government and his salary was subsidized by tax payers’ money.
Snowden worked in the public and private sectors, connected to both worlds. From the perspective of his former employers, his revelations were considered a tacit breach of trust. As a result, on June 14th the Department of Justice charged Snowden with violating the antiquated Espionage Act and for theft of government property. On June 22nd, the State Department revoked his passport and as a result he remained stranded in Moscow’s airport. On August 1st, he was granted one year of temporary asylum in Russia. At the end of the one year term he was granted an additional three years of asylum.
As a US citizen and former government employee, Snowden made an oath of allegiance to the United States of America to support and defend the Constitution and its laws against foreign and domestic enemies. Based on his confessions, Edward Snowden made classified documents public in order to “cure the abuse of government” and fight against the “banality of evil” – an expression attributed to Hannah Arendt – and because the secret agency was violating the Fourth Amendment. In his defense, he stated that he did not benefit personally from the disclosures and that he made the documents available to journalists so that the public could decide what type of country they wanted to live in.
Snowden betrayed the trust of both his public and private employers, compromising a covert and unrestricted surveillance of the Web. His revelations have been perceived not only as a threat to national security, but also a jeopardy to the growth of the security and surveillance industrial complex. As a result, several death threats were made against his life. Some of them were anonymous; others made by public figures. And it is possible to assume that if an individual who felt betrayed by Snowden’s disclosures would take it upon himself to take him down, that the killer’s identity would never be revealed to the public or that he would be prosecuted for murder.
What is more, his entire existence is reduced to a bare life stripped of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him without committing a homicide; he can save himself only in perpetual flight or a foreign land. And yet he is in a continuous relationship with the power that banished him precisely insofar as he is at every instant exposed to an unconditioned threat of death. He is pure zoē (life common to all living beings), but his zoē is as such caught in the sovereign ban and must reckon with it at every moment finding the best way to elude or deceive it. In this sense, no life, as exiles and bandits know well, is more “political” as this. (Agamben)
In Judeo-Christian religious tradition, God is the ultimate sovereign. According to Schmitt, political power is modeled on God’s creation; the world is literally created out of nothingness for the purpose of instituting a semantic order, providing instructions and the law. Prior to the Renaissance, the world was perceived solely in theological terms, based on the certainties revealed in the scriptures with the king and the pontiff being the legitimate representatives of God on earth. As such, God is the only power able to sanction an earthly sovereign of his choice. Schmitt explains:
All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology. Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries.
Hence, the central concepts of the theory modern of state are all secularized theological concepts. Schmitt quotes Hobbes to show that the exception in jurisprudence is analogous to a miracle in theology. Thus, believing in a miracle is an act for faith: Faith in God’s revelation of his chosen messiah or king – Lord/sovereign. As such, a miracle is more about a sign of election of a person involved in a miracle rather than the work of wonder itself. Very few people witness an actual miracle. As it happens, miracles related in the scriptures are mediated events; in the sense that they are described in narrative form.
Whether God alone is sovereign, that is, the one who acts as his acknowledged representative on earth, or the emperor, or prince, or the people, meaning those who identify directly with the people, the question is always aimed at the subject of sovereignty, at the application of the concept to a concrete situation (Schmitt).
A sovereign is a person with supreme powers within a defined jurisdiction. The definition also implies that he is free from external controls. A sovereign has the power to establish a state of exception. Whereby in a “state of emergency” a head of state – acting as a sovereign – can suspend the constitution in the event that the public good or security of the people are threatened. As a result, a sovereign stands inside and outside the law.
Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.
Only this definition can do justice to a borderline concept. Contrary to the imprecise terminology that is found in popular literature, a borderline concept is not a vague concept, but one pertaining to the outermost sphere. (Schmitt)
Carl Schmitt makes a distinction between the State and politics. The first is comprised of the agencies and departments that form a government – it does not change from election to election. Whereas, politics consists of the election of representatives to govern the State for the benefit of the people. In a democracy, the two interact and the peoples’ representatives rule. In a dictatorship, the two conflate and the State rules. In respect to the historical background in which Schmitt lived, he was understandably concerned about the dangers of the State becoming “a huge industrial plant” that runs by itself where “the paternalistic element in the concept of sovereignty is lost.”
The modern idea of the state replaces the personal force of the king, with the spiritual forces of the law. And only if these forces are perceived to be spiritual they will be obeyed voluntarily (Schmitt).
War on Terror & the State of Exception
In a war, laws with the enemy are suspended. Economic exchange is banned. And in a declaration of war, all lines of communication between the warring parties are broken. The term “War on Terror” was first used by President Bush in response to the attack on 9/11. This beckons the question: How is an enemy identified as “terror”? It is noted that President Obama no longer uses the term, he uses the expression “Overseas Contingency Operations,” instead. The expression “War on Terror” is no longer part of an official government policy. However, the slogan is still being used by the media and its pundits as a well-publicized agenda implying that a state of exception is ongoing.
By virtue of its monopoly on politics, the state is the only entity able to establish friends from enemies and thereby demand its citizens subservience. (Agamben)
In light of Edward Snowden’s revelations, it seems that in our media-centered cultures an open debate about the Internet and its sphere of influence has been overshadowed in favor of a state of exception. Agamben explains in his book, State of Exception, that in times of crisis a government, a branch of government, or any of its agencies can use a perceived threat to its security in order to implement a state of exception whereby parts of the Constitution, free speech or individual rights can be diminished or even suspended.
Snowden, in a similar manner to homo sacer, could not be sacrificed. As a result of the nature of his conviction he could not be judged in a regular trial. Under the Espionage Act, Snowden could not defend himself before a jury in an open court and unable to explain the reason for his actions to the public. In a regular trial he would be asked to expose additional information deemed to be a threat to national security.
What he doesn’t say are that the crimes that he’s charged me with are crimes that don’t allow me to make my case. They don’t allow me to defend myself in an open court to the public and convince a jury that what I did was to my benefit. … So it’s, I would say, illustrative that the President would choose to say someone should face the music when he knows the music is a show trial. (Snowden)
Snowden’s work as security consultant for both the public and private sectors led him to realize that he was caught in a legal dilemma; faced with a choice to either betray the trust of his employers or renege on an oath allegiance, he chose to side with the Constitution. A decision that resulted in being banned by the State. However, in an unexpected twist – thanks to the Internet – it is the state of exception that has been put on trial. Whereas Snowden became the focus of attention and the instigator of a relevant political debate on mass surveillance.
Herein lies the paradox: the Internet stands in a jurico-political outermost domain. Right or wrong, Snowden made a genuine decision and used the Internet to reveal his concerns about a perceived violation of the Constitution. However, his decision resulted in an indictment and the revocation of his passport. As a result, Snowden is unable to leave Russia but able to express his views to the world using the Internet. The government can control his travel, but not his freedom of speech. He is banned by the State, but a sovereign being mediated by the Internet.
According to Snowden, the Internet is a “technological equalizer” – it allows an individual like him to stand up to overreaching and overpowering systems. Keeping in mind that the Internet consists of hardware located in different countries. It is a medium that stands in a juridico-political outermost domain yet undefined by international law.
Even Hollywood could not have come up with a better plot or more intriguing character than our stranded ex-security consultant, whose disclosures propelled him from secure anonymity to controversial notoriety. The irony is that Russia, not known for being a champion of human rights, has granted political asylum to a US ex-secret consultant. And that Edward Snowden, an American former consultant working for the surveillance state, will end up being a paradigm of sovereignty of the Internet.
In an earlier study on the dedication of Quebec’s monuments, I realized that these civil events revealed interesting details about the mythical edification of society as a whole.1 Consequently, I chose to expand my field of research to include at least one of the major U.S. monuments. My goal in doing this is to reveal how the process of dedication of the Washington National Monument, in Washington D.C. is kindred to American civil religion and how it is a mythological showcase of the U.S.’ ideological foundation. As we shall see, the dedication of monuments is a privileged ritual that discloses the consecration of American civil religion in society.2 By the same token, these ceremonials reveal how America’s most celebrated political hero yields a mythological significance of primal importance.3
I will take a close look at two aspects of the inauguration: the ritual and the mythical. The first deals with the festivities of the ceremony that act as an introduction to the orators and their speeches. The second relates to the content of the speeches themselves which eulogize, better yet, mythologize the hero to whom the monument is dedicated.
At the inauguration, the hero whose identity is immortalized in the stone is literally consecrated by the monument. The people who congregate for the ceremony recreate a time of vital significance in history. By the same token, the audience -the elected representatives of society as a whole- endorses the hero as a national figure who is chosen as a prototype of American political foundation. By their presence they acknowledge the hero’s meaningful legacy to history.
As I have described elsewhere, the discovery and foundation of a new territory has a mythological significance. The first to discover a new land, or the first president of a new political reality is a primal event of historical and mythological significance. His name and his role in American history has a unique place above all other historical figures and events.
Thus, the Washington National Monument was erected to celebrate the primordial in the United States’ history, similar in fashion to the erection of temples and sacred buildings dedicated for the most sacred purposes. In that respect, the Monument becomes central in American history. To use Mircea Eliade’s words, the Monument becomes an axis mundi.4 The axis from which everything began and from where everything flows. As such, the Washington National Monument symbolizes the beginning of the nation’s political history built at the center of the political power of the United States of America.
The type of monument chosen is fitting. Nothing could have better represented the hero’s grandeur. No monument could have been more adequate to express how central the hero is to American history and politics. Moreover, the shaft could not have been more appropriate to symbolize the idea of the center, order and hierarchy.
The type of structure and the site were specifically chosen to reflect a symbolic and mythical expression. The people responsible for this task were concerned about finding the most appropriate place.
It may be here remarked, with reference to the site selected for the Monument, that the foundations were laid but a short distance to the east of the meridian line run, at the instance of the President Jefferson, by Nicholas King, surveyor, October 15, 1804…This line, by the president’s instructions, passed through the center of the White House, and where it intersected a line due east and west through the center of the Capitol a small monument or pyramid of stones was placed…5
The center yields an important symbolic significance in most mythologies. As a sacred space it stands apart from the ordinariness of its surrounding. In the world of mythology, the axis mundi is represented in different forms: a tree, a mountain, a ladder, or a pillar. Yet they all symbolize the communication between the two cosmic arenas: heaven and earth, and the center and its periphery.
Similarly, the Holy of Holies was at the center of the temple of Jerusalem, also considered to be at the center of the world. In Greek mythology, the shrine of Apollo at Delphi was also declared the earth’s center. For Islam, the Muslim Dome of the Rock is the sacred place from where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.6
In its proportions the ratios of the dimensions of the several parts of the ancient Egyptian obelisk have been carefully followed.7
These remarks by Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey, chief engineer in charge of the Monument, were made to reveal that it was to be a larger replica of an Egyptian obelisk -an erected stone carved into a four sided pillar crowned with a small pyramid called the pyramidion. The Washington Monument is a much larger replica than the original obelisks found in Egypt. These were made out of a single block of rock, whereas the capital’s structure is made of 36,000 blocks of stone.
The Egyptians usually erected the obelisks in pairs in front of Egyptian temples. They were believed to be sacred. Scholars are still uncertain about their specific use or function. Obelisks are nevertheless a unique symbol of Egyptian culture. Romans were so fascinated by the pillars that they moved several of them to Rome.
In ancient Egypt, the pyramidion that crowned the monolith was probably covered with gold to reflect the sun’s rays.8 The pyramidion, in all likelihood, also crowned the great pyramids of Egypt. Technically, the obelisk symbolizes a ray of light emanating from the sun. The pointed pillars were perhaps relevant symbols of light and life, and the daily course of the sun as opposed to the pyramids that were symbols of darkness and death, and the setting sun. The earliest obelisks are believed to have been erected in the 4th dynasty (circa 2613-2494 BC). No examples from that era remain today.
In the late 19th century, the government of Egypt gave one of the two Ramses’ obelisks ornating the Luxor temple to France where it stands in Paris’ Place de la Concorde. Two other obelisks were shipped to England and to the United States. Both were taken from Heliopolis. They were dedicated to Thutmose III and bear the inscriptions and legends of two pharaohs: Thutmose III, and Ramses II (1304-1237 BC). One stands on the Thames’ embankment, in London, the other is in Central Park, in New York City.
The connection between the Washington National Monument and the gift from Egypt is, to say the least, a suitable symbol of the continuity between an ancient civilization and an emerging one.
History of the Monument
The Washington National Monument Society was founded in 1833 because Congress did not keep its promise to erect a monument deserving of the national hero. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to collect the necessary funds before the Society took over. And it was not until 1884 that the Monument was finally completed.
In 1853, Congress appropriated $50,000 for the erection of an equestrian statue of George Washington. It was unveiled on February 22nd 1860 in the east park of the Capitol. The Society viewed the statue as unworthy of the national hero and persevered to build a monument equal in stature to George Washington.
In 1835, two years after the foundation of the Society, its first president, John Marshall, died and was replaced by the ex-president of the United States, James Madison. Upon the death of James Madison, the Society amended its constitution so that the president in office became ex-officio president of the Society. Andrew Jackson was the first to honor this function under the newly amended constitution.
On the 4th of July 1848, the first cornerstone was laid. To celebrate the occasion a ceremony was organized.
By January 1853, the Monument had risen 126 feet above ground.
On March 8th, 1854, a block of marble sent by Pope Pius IX as a tribute to George Washington and America that was to be part of the giant structure, was stolen.9 The suspicion quickly pointed toward a group known as the Know-Nothings. A secretive anti-Catholic political movement.10 The group had frequently expressed in the daily press the view that the stone sent by the Roman Catholic Church should not be part of the Monument. The theft enraged the Catholics in the U.S. and abroad. It also alienated part of the population from the funding of the Monument.
The Society subsequently fell at the hands of a narrow political faction influenced by the Know-Nothings. It practically froze the progress of the Society toward the funding and construction of the Monument. Finally, in February of 1859 the Society decided to end its internal stalemate and adopted a new charter to eliminate any opposition to the completion of their project.
One year later, the Civil War further delayed progress in the construction. And the poor state of the economy slowed the collection of funds.
Not until 1879 did the construction of the obelisk finally resumed. It was largely due to the interest of the Masonic Order and other organizations like the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Independent Order of Red Men, the Temperance, and other fraternal bodies. But the success of the enterprise was mostly owed to the special interest of the Masonic Order who supervised the completion of the Monument.
The interruption left a visible scar at the level of the work stoppage due to the use of a slightly lighter marble supplied by different quarries.
On December 6th, 1884, the giant structure was finally completed. The last piece of stone was put atop the marble shaft measuring ~ 555 feet and 5 inches.
On February 21st, 1885, the Capitol proceeded to the dedication of the Washington National Monument. All of the capital’s dignitaries were present as Rev. Henderson Suter said a prayer at the beginning of the ceremonies. Shortly after, a Masonic function took place at the base of the Monument, followed by the address of the Grand Master Mason, Myron M. Parker. The dedication was completed by the oration of Hon. Robert C. Winthrop.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Grand Master Mason at the laying of the cornerstone and later at the inauguration of the Monument. The organization played a sizable part in the collection of the funds to build the structure. But there is another reason for the brotherhood’s interest in the building and their overwhelming presence at the ceremonies. George Washington was himself a Freemason.
The great show that is the dedication enables us to unveil how the mythical and the ritual work hand in hand in the building of the national identity. The greater the hero, the larger the ceremony, and the bigger the monument. The rank and stature of dignitaries is also akin to the grandeur of the hero. Everything is planned carefully. The order of the march, the sequence of the orators, the speeches, the music, and the dramatic display of the festivities. But the most important feature of the dedication are the speeches themselves. The orators have put forth their best rhetoric abilities to eulogize the hero in all his glory.
Appropriately enough, the first president of the United States of America and the origins of rhetoric have something in common: democracy.
The first rules of rhetoric appear to have begun in Syracuse, circa 500 BC. When exiles returned to their homeland after being dispossessed of their property by a despotic ruler, they had no written records to prove the ownership of their property to the new government. In order to solve the disputes, a newly democratic system of debate was devised where verbal claims of ownership could be settled. To help the litigants improve their persuasiveness, teachers, some of them Sophists, developed rules of elocution and persuasiveness. As a result, a new discipline was born: rhetoric. The term comes from the Greek word rhema which was later translated into Latin as verbum, meaning word.11
The discipline eventually evolved into the science of speaking effectively so to persuade an audience. At about the same time that the Monument was being built, rhetoric was being dropped from the cursus studiorum in the colleges of Europe. In the second half of the XIXth century, classical rhetoric lost its appeal in the schools as a general discipline. Lately, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in the subject.12
Although the Monument is a visible structure that everyone can see, the dramatic effect of the ceremony cannot be reproduced. The only thing that remains for us is an account of the festivities and the record of the speeches. Frederich Harvey’s account in History of the Washington National Monument and Washington Monument Society, published in 1903, holds tremendous value for our study. And although the speeches are devoid of the rhetorical effect of the delivery, their content is a valuable data for analysis. The book reveals the important aspects of the ritualization and mythologizing process of the image of the First President and the Founding Father of the United States of America.
The primal function of rhetoric is to make a speech as convincing as possible, making the content plausible and believable. Yet the ultimate purpose is to convince the audience to believe in the sacred validity of the Founding Father. To achieve these goals the Romans had three principles of elocution: docere, delectare, and movere: namely, to teach, to captivate, and to move the audience.
These functions are also applied to the sermon, from the Latin sermo meaning to talk. Similarly, Rabbis use their rhetorical abilities to instruct the law. The Koran is most efficient and most beautiful when it is read aloud. In Zen Buddhism, the verbal use of paradox, or koans, is most enchanting when spoken. And the elocution of the Tao te Ching of Taoism is considered to be the most beautiful form of expression of the Chinese language. Furthermore, Jesus Christ did not write his message, he proclaimed it. The kerygma of the Word is most effective when it is preached. It is quintessential in the propagation of faith. Similarly, political speeches are essential in the promulgation of ideology.
Hence, the word is used to promote and edify a reality in the mind of the people who listen.
Today, the mass-media applies similar techniques in advertising to influence their audience.
Harvey’s document accounts for two ceremonies. The first, at the beginning, at the laying of the first cornerstone, and the second, at the completion of the superstructure. Both are equal in importance, yet are 37 years apart.
The first ceremony was celebrated on the 4th of July 1848. For the occasion, the president of the United States, James K. Polk, and dignitaries of the capital were present, as well as Senators, Representatives of Congress, the Military, delegations from the States, and several Indian tribes. In addition, 15,000 to 20,000 spectators were all gathered for the festivities. On that day, the initial stone, a block of marble weighing twenty-four thousand five hundred pounds, was laid.
The following is a newspaper excerpt that describes the mood of the festivities:
The day was fine. The rain had laid the dust and infused a delicious freshness in the air. The procession was extensive and beautiful…When the lengthened procession had reached the site of the Monument they were joined by a whole cortege of ladies and gentlemen; and we are free to say we never beheld so magnificent a spectacle.13
The whole setting has a central goal: to focus the attention on the speeches that recreate the life and image of the hero who is the object of the celebration. These eulogies, also called panegyric, have for their sole purpose to glorify and consecrate the Founding Father. The rhetorical function is to influence the audience to collectively hail the national hero.
The whole gathering is besieged by the sacredness of the event. As the speeches affect the crowd, the crowd in return collectively sanctions the message. In the process, the image of George Washington is mythically anointed as a primordial hero, vital to the nation’s identity. As the Monument that stands erected toward the heavens in the background, the orators proclaim the hero a primordial symbol, visible to all.
The man is the monument; the monument is America.14
The ceremony began with a prayer delivered by Rev. Mr. McJilton. In it he outlined the purpose of the dedication: “We plant in earth the shaft that points to heaven”. A tribute to the man who was the instrument of God in the fight for freedom. The Reverend also disclosed his concern for peace. He expressed his apprehension about the union. And he condemned the “savages of the wilderness” as an obstacle to the free exploitation of the “unknown treasures” and “limitless territory to the industry and enterprise of man”.
The Reverend also mentioned “Thy church” without reference to any specific creed, except that it is “of a certain faith”. He concluded by asking the blessings and mediation of Jesus Christ, “our most blessed Lord and Saviour. Amen.”
The prayer was followed by an oration from Honorable Robert C. Winthrop, Speaker of the House of Representatives. It is the main speech of the ceremonial. Winthrop was presumably a man of renowned oratorical skills since he was to be invited to the dedication 37 years later.
the hero……..Washington, Father of his Country
the quest…….Liberty and Independence
the obstacle…treacherous enemies
the mentor…..Divine Providence
the outcome…the Republic and its Constitution
His speech is similar in content and in tone to the Reverend’s eulogy. He repeated and expanded on the same themes, most of which are summarized in the thematic outline above.
The first category relates to the origin of the American nation and its politics, of which George Washington is the chief protagonist. The New World is the stage for the hero’s actions which were guided by Divine Providence: they led to the Revolution and the Constitution of the United States of America. In his quality of first president, he is hailed as the original founder, the Father of his Country.
The elocution refers to the General by different designations, several of which have already been mentioned. Other titles point to the more ethereal quality of the man: The idol, the favorite of heaven who yielded a magic power and majestic authority.
His star has been seen in every sky, and wise men everywhere have done it homage.15
The hero’s quest outlines a desire for Liberty and Independence. Washington is the embodiment of these goals in the midst of the colonial struggle.
The obstacles to his pursuit are referred to as the foreign powers, the wilderness, the heathen Indians, and the treacherous enemies that he victoriously overcomes by his personal prowess.
The mentor is depicted as the Providence, the Great Spirit, and the Divine Hand that guides the illustrious hero at all times.
The outcome is stated as:
He has built his own monument. We, and those who come after us in successive generations, are its appointed, its privileged guardians. This widespread Republic is the true monument to Washington. Maintain its Independence. Uphold its Constitution. Preserve its Union. Defend its liberty.16
As soon as the Honorable Robert C. Winthrop finished his eulogy, he was followed on the podium by Mr. Benjamin B. French Esq., Grand Master of the Masonic fraternity of the District of Columbia, who began by saying:
Why have we assembled here to-day (sic)? What means this immense crowd around us? For what, beneath a July sun, on this anniversary of the birthday of a nation, has this vast multitude come up, as came Israel of old to the dedication of the Temple of the Lord?16
The rest of the speech reiterates the same themes that we have outlined above, with the exception of stressing the fact that the first president was a Freemason.
After his speech, he descended to the cornerstone and performed a Masonic ceremony at the laying of it.
The dedication, unlike the festivities at the laying of the first cornerstone, were performed at two locations. It all began at the foot of the Monument and continued in a long procession toward the Capitol into the Hall of the House of Representatives.
The first part of the festivities began at 11 o’clock on February the 21st, 1885. The celebrations took place in the presence of a great number of visitors from all parts of the country. The chairman of the Commission, Hon. John Sherman, presided over the order of the proceedings while the band played on. The first to step on the podium was Rev. Henderson Suter who said a prayer. He was followed by Dr. James who read a speech written by W.W. Corcoran.18 Then, Myron Parker, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia, performed his Masonic ceremonies and delivered his address. He was followed by the engineer of the joint commission, Col. Thomas L. Casey, who made some remarks about the construction of the giant structure before he delivered the Monument to the president of the United States. Finally, President Chester A. Arthur gave a very brief speech dedicating the Monument to the “immortal name and memory of George Washington”.19
Surprisingly, the dedication was not as elaborate as the laying of the cornerstone. The most interesting part is the peculiar Masonic ceremony performed by Myron M. Parker: the Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia. The brief example below illustrates the dialogue used by the members of the order for their ritual:
GRAND MASTER. Right Worshipful Deputy Grand Master,
what is the proper implement of your office?
DEPUTY GRAND MASTER. The square, Most Worshipful.
GRAND MASTER. What are its moral and Masonic uses?
DEPUTY GRAND MASTER. To square our actions by square
virtue, and prove our work when finished.
GRAND MASTER. Have you applied the square to the
obelisk, and is the work square?
DEPUTY GRAND MASTER. I have, and I find the corners to
be square; the workmen have done their duty…20
After the ritual, the Grand Master gave his address. In it, he described how George Washington was a most distinguished brethren who had openly expressed his love and devotion for the Order throughout his life.
As the first part of the festivities ended, the crowd followed the dignitaries in a procession to the Capitol, clearly visible at a distance. They were escorted by the Army and the Navy. The parade is described as being imposing.
At the Capitol, all the dignitaries were gathered in the Hall of the House of Representatives for the official dedication. The president of the Senate, Hon. George F. Edmunds, presided. He called the assembly to order. He introduced the Rev. S. A. Wallis who offered a prayer.
Then, Hon. John D. Long, a representative from Massachusetts, was introduced. He read an oration written by the same Hon. Robert C. Winthrop who had delivered a speech at the opening ceremonies, thirty seven years earlier. He was unable to attend due to illness.
In between the orations, lively music was performed by the United States Marine Band.
The content of Winthrop’s address is basically the same as the earlier one. The veneration given to the immortal name of Washington can be singly noted:
The glory of Columbus can never be eclipsed, never approached, till our New World shall require a fresh discovery; and the glory of Washington will remain unique and peerless until American Independence shall require to be again achieved, or the foundations of Constitutional Liberty to be laid anew.21
It was followed by a speech from Hon. John W. Daniel, of Virginia, who rendered an “eloquent” oration. He described with verve the great qualities of the national hero:
…the genius of Washington was as full-orbed and luminous as the god of day in his zenith.22
He explained to the assembly that the glorious hero was full of his ancestors’ qualities of a “higher and manlier trait of the Anglo-Saxon”.
The proceedings came to a close. At the end of which a short benediction was pronounced by Rev. John A. Lindsay D.D., chaplain of the House of Representatives.
The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.23
The image of George Washington
The mere mention of the name George Washington can easily stir lively feelings of pride and patriotism in the hearts of Americans. These emotions are hard to explain and describe. Yet the devotion is tangible. Men have died and killed for these feelings. They are at the core of what it means to be American.
The hero’s image unleashes patriotic sentiments that are a powerful source of pride and national identity. With George Washington, the image is immortalized in the monumental stone. The mortal man has been set apart to be consecrated. The ordinary being is transcended into an immortal hero erected at the political center of the U.S. He is literally consecrated as the symbol of America’s political identity. His symbolic image has eclipsed the mundane reality of his being. The mortal has been separated from the immortal which is embodied in the Monument.
The symbolic reality of the Founding Father has overlapped the historical into the mythical. With the dedication he has been consecrated as more than man. The heroic and mythical aspects of the figure have transcended and supplanted the historical. As a consequence, Washington’s name suggests not only images of the hero but a reality bigger than life, an unfathomable entity: the center of political power of the United States of America and the content of an entire cosmology. And the Monument is its metaphor.
Soon after Washington’s death, in 1799, at about the same time that the Monument was being commissioned, a great deal of attention by the country’s elite was focused on the image of the first president. His death swiftly buried criticism concerning any misgivings about his life as a general, and as a president. He soon became the subject of a nationwide movement of eulogies meant to aggrandize his personal standing. As the nation made its first steps toward finding its national identity, George Washington became more and more the focus of a country-wide image making campaign.
Numerous books were written about his exemplary life: The Life of Washington, written by Mason Locke Weems of Dumfries, Virginia, is a typical example of the myth-maker of that era.24 The movement lasted throughout the century and Weems’ book became the prototype for many other biographies that deified the Father hero. Soon, George Washington was not only described as a father figure, but as “more than man”, and as an “immortal Olympian”. His image transcended that of national hero to become in many ways that of a mythical “Father”. Authors and orators were not content to merely extol his image above all other heroes, some even compared Washington to Christ and his mother to the Virgin Mary.25
Among the vast number of biographies of the era, especially those written before 1855, one could easily be led to believe that Washington was a demigod who descended on earth with the sole purpose of creating a new country and freeing its people, and then returned to heaven as soon as his mission was accomplished.26
The Apotheosis of Washington, a fresco painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865 on the ceiling of the dome in the rotunda of the Capitol Building is another good example of the deification of the national hero.
The views outlined above show how the mythical and historical processes work hand in hand in the edification of a national identity, and how the boundaries between the two are blurred. These processes were further endorsed by a collective appropriation and recognition of the American hero. The cultural identification set the standards for a social consensus that became central to the development of the country’s identity. As such, the mythologizing of George Washington played a central role in the integration of the American political reality.
Washington the Freemason
The ceremonies we have described are revealing in many ways. At both festivities a representative of the Freemasonry was present to honor their illustrious brethren. Not unusual, since the brotherhood played a substantial part in the funding of the structure. But the Monument is also a great architectural salute to the Masons themselves. It is a worthy tribute to the first president of the United States who was also a brethren.
George Washington was the first, but not the last, president to be a Freemason. Several past presidents of the United States have been Freemasons, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan, as well as 9 signers of the Declaration of Independence and 13 signers of the Constitution.27
In addition, many other heroes of the American Revolution were also Masons; Paul Revere and John Hancock are only two examples. Benjamin Franklin was also a leader of the Freemasonry in Pennsylvania, and published the first Masonic book in America in 1734.
To fully understand the foundations of America’s mythical process, a few words about the origin of the elusive brotherhood are in order.
It evolved from the stonemason guilds of England and Scotland. When the major building projects -mostly churches and cathedrals of Europe- came to an end, several stonemasons who did not practice their skills any longer stayed on in the fraternal association and formed lodges, the name given to their basic unit. The first lodges were founded in London, England, in the late XVIIIth century. It is at that epoch that architecture acquired a more metaphorical sense. The grandiose stone buildings began to symbolize human structures, reflecting an ideal humanity built to the glory of the Great Architect of the Universe.
More legendary stories attribute the origin of Masonry to the Garden of Eden. While other versions link its beginning to the building of the pyramids of Egypt, and to Hiram Abif, King Salomon’s Master Architect, the legendary builder of the first temple of Jerusalem.
Currently, there are more than ~6 million Freemasons in the world.28 Most of them live in the U.S. and Canada. As a nonsectarian and nonpolitical association, the fraternity appeals to a wide cross section of the male population. They believe in a Supreme Being and emphasize the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Freemasons are said to admit in their rank men of every nationality, religion, and political persuasion. In order to join, a new member must be introduced by an existing brethren.
Most of the operations and activities of the Society are shrouded by an aura of mystery. Most of it results from the oath of secrecy they must make in regards to the identity of its members.
The early American brotherhood was able to survive an anti-Masonic wave following the abduction and possible murder of Captain William Morgan in 1826. Morgan had planned to publish an article about Masonic secret dealings. Evidence of his murder was linked to the Masons. The public outcry against the organization lasted 10 years and slowly boiled down afterward.
During World War II, the Masons were outlawed and dispersed by Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco. After the war, they soon regained their popularity in non-communist countries, particularly, the United States.
Among its most popular members: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Henry Ford, Charles A. Lindbergh, Irving Berling, Gen. Douglas McArthur, John Wayne, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.
Because of its Anglo-Saxon origins, nineteenth century Masonry in the U.S. might convey the idea that the order was predominantly male, white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. But a closer look at a cross-section of its members reveals that a more accurate description would be: a white, generally non-Catholic, male organization. In San Francisco of last century, for instance, most of the Jewish adult male population belonged to the brotherhood. Which prompted an anonymous Jewish brethren to write, in 1865, in the San Francisco’s Hebrew:
If there be any religious system more closely connected with the institution [of Masonry] than others, it is Judaism.29
Although the order claims to be open to all races and all religions, the American lodges refused to initiate any Americans of African descent as a brethren and rejected the legitimacy of any of their Masonic lodges. In 1775, the Grand Lodge of England instigated the first lodge of Americans of African descent in Boston, which eventually assumed the status of grand lodge.
During the time the Monument was built, the organization was mostly a middle class order that mirrored the mores and mentality of the epoch: piety, sobriety, moral responsibility, thrift, and industry. In many respects, it exemplified the Protestant ethic at its best.
The raison d’être of the brotherhood was to promote charity, equality, fraternity, morality, and faith in the Supreme Being. It supplied its members with a sense of fraternity, prestige, and occasionally financial aid. It also provided business connections and networking. On a national level, Masons claimed among its members presidents, senators, and other dignitaries who established the rules for accessibility in the political arena.
The fraternity’s activities however were not entirely reclusive and esoteric. The order also participated in social events. A typical example here is the role they played in the ceremonies at the inauguration of the Washington Monument. Another example of their social acceptance and popularity is further evidenced by their participation at the laying of the cornerstone of the Statue of Liberty, in 1885.
Sociologically, the Masonry reflected the craze for associations, brotherhoods, fraternities, and women’s clubs that became prominent throughout the country during the second part of the nineteenth century.30 Between July and September of 1874, over two hundred pledges were received by societies and organizations from every part of the country to help fund the construction of the Monument. The trend underlined an important facet of the American social fabric of that era.
The social disruption brought about by industrialization and massive immigration had a major impact on the political institutions of Washington D.C. During these social changes, a great number of Protestant churches were affected by the transition. The development of the scientific vision of the world, brought forth by the Darwinian evolutionary theories, challenged some fundamental beliefs and tenets of the Christian faith. Fraternities like the Masonry provided its members with a network of sanctuaries for Old Testament precepts.
The great influx of immigrants disrupted the basis of a stable social order inaugurated by the Anglo-Saxon elite, of which George Washington was promoted as a symbol. Hence, the brotherhood was a male political haven against the foreign invasion that threatened the nation at its foundation. It gave its members a sense of cohesion against the constant changes and chaos of the outside world. But mostly, the organization was a stronghold to promote true Americanism.31
The order relied on a national network of loyal members, some of whom were among the most powerful men in the country. These ramifications made it an effective hierarchy. To protect their efficiency as a group, and to keep the higher hierarchy from public scrutiny, the new members were sworn to secrecy of its rituals. Yet the fraternity was not so much preoccupied with any esoteric purpose inasmuch as to keep from public view a number of secret procedures, signs, and passwords used in the rituals which brought the brethren step by step one echelon closer to the “light”.
The oath of secrecy also enforced among the members a sense of cohesion and fraternity which inspired unity and the idea of belonging. It also delineated and separated their sacred internal male world from the profane and chaotic world outside. The brethren, in other words, set themselves apart from the uninitiated masses.
The ritual of initiation gave the brethren a sense of election, while the boundaries of the Masonic temple reinforced the separation between the inside and the outside world. The temple morally and physically edified a sacred asylum against the non-initiated profane world.
At the outset the brotherhood view the Roman Catholic Church with suspicion. The distrust was equally shared by the Holy See in Rome. The mutual distrust is but a distant echo of the split brought about by the Reformation and counter Reformation. The ensuing religious antagonism in Europe explains the scope of the animosity between Catholics and Protestants that continued to thrive in North America.
On April 20th, 1884, less than a year before the inauguration of the Monument, Pope Leo XIII issued the Encyclical Humanum Genus, condemning Freemasonry.32 The Papal letter criticized the brotherhood for “rising up against God Himself” and “despoiling the nations of Christendom”. The Pope further argued that the reason for the brotherhood’s obsession with the secrecy of its members was devised to hide the insidious designs of its leaders so to escape any retribution. Not surprisingly, Freemasonry was increasingly seen as a danger and a challenge to the Church’s authority in a politically troubled Italy. They were suspected of secretly fomenting to infiltrate all political ranks in order to promote secular ideas and finally to unseat the Church of its political powers.33
It is during the XIXth century that a schism between the regular and the irregular Masonry lodges appeared. The first, which were not condemned by the Church, upheld the reference of “the Great Architect of the Universe” -God. They did not get involved in politics, respected all faiths and churches, and were not secretive.34 The second group, however, deleted the reference to “the Great Architect of the Universe”, it called for the ruin of the papacy and the Church in Italy. In France, it was responsible for the anti-clerical laws of the Third Republic. It even proclaimed its Masonry as “the Counter Church”. It is this secretive type of Masonry that was condemned by the Church.
The Masons’ ample involvement in the funding as well as at the inauguration of the Monument provides proof of their extensive influence on American politics as a whole. The project embodied a conviction in the American way of life of which George Washington is the prototype. They made sure that the erected structure laid the foundation for a healthy Americanism so to endure the onslaught of any moral degeneracy from the chaotic world outside. The man, the Monument, the brethren, stand visibly erect at the center of the capital and point at all these ideals.
As we have seen, the distinction between the purely secular, the mythical, and the religious is blurred in the process of the edification of the Monument of George Washington. The mythical preempted and transcended any divisions between any strict religious denominations and political factions in society to become a supra-religious reality. A religion above all other religions, an American civil religion.
C. Moody Plummer of the Trestleboard was only more extreme than most when he declared Protestantism itself to be a religion of warring sects “as intolerant often of each other as human action can be,” while Masonry was “the only religion which can become universal and is [therefore] true religion.”35
American civil religion
The term civil religion comes from the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the social contract.36 Robert N. Bellah applied the title to the American political arena to outline the religious content of the inaugural speeches delivered by American presidents.37
The idea of an American civil religion first came to his attention with John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961. He noticed that his address was full of religious references to God and the nation, described in very idyllic form. He also noticed that most of the past presidents’ inaugural speeches had the same type of references: a call for devotion to the nation described in its ideal form, where the divine Providence plays a guiding role in shaping the destiny of the United States of America.
Four statutes of the J.F.K. inaugural speech:
a) The right to independence: “Laws of Nature and
b) All “are endowed by their Creator with certain
c) God is witness to America’s good will: “The Supreme
Judge of the world for the rectitude of our
d) The U.S. reliance on God’s Providence: “a firm
reliance on the protection of divine Providence”.
Except for the references that allude directly to a biblical God, Bellah observes that the content of most speeches do not advocate any particular religious creed. There is no specific mention of Jesus Christ or Yahweh, for instance, since the purpose of the discourses is to form a consensus and represent the multicultural aspect of the society to which they are addressed.38
Yet Bellah notes that among the first presidents many also use references to the Bible. Especially to suggest a connection between the New World and Israel, the Exodus, the Chosen People, the promised land and the New Jerusalem. These analogies, in the context of a predominantly Protestant background of the first presidents, were inevitable.
Although Bellah acknowledges the connections with Judeo-Christian tenets, he carefully dispels any suggestions that American civil religion has any doctrinal Christian content, or is a substitute for Christianity. He contends that civil religion has a different role than religion, since it is specifically political. As such, it appeals to all the people of all backgrounds. To Bellah, American civil religion is an understanding of the American experience in terms of a “transcendent ethical vision”.39 This interpretation of the universal and transcendental is only meaningful if made in relation to the origin and destiny of the U.S. political model of freedom and democracy. Bellah further points out that the God of civil religion is a God of order and freedom rather than of love and forgiveness. It is a God mostly concerned with the history and destiny of the United States.
The American civil religion attracted a great deal of attention among the intellectuals of the nineteen seventies. Despite Bellah’s success there was plenty of criticism, most of which was directed at the author’s definition of religion. Especially questionable was the universal validity of its meaning. In this respect, a more appropriate term to describe it is Paul Tillich’s definition of quasi-religion.40
Most of the Founding Fathers had a Christian background, more specifically, Protestant, since most of them emigrated from Europe. With this in mind, the American civil definition of religion is limited by these cultural and geographical parameters. This view of religion, for instance, ignores the aboriginal cultures that were present at the time of the foundation of this nation. It makes the natives conspicuously invisible.41 Furthermore, there is no mention of the cultures brought by the Americans of African descent.42
American civil religion, as outlined by Bellah, is a supra-political institution predominantly concerned with Judeo-Christian precepts. The historical foundations and later developments edified and maintained the image of George Washington as the prototype of the American civil religion. This ethical model and the hierarchy of political power was set at the beginning. The American New Order originated by the Founding Fathers was appropriately sustained to preserve their sacred power, as illustrated by the number of presidents since Washington who have been Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and white. That premise was consecrated at the outset by the inauguration of the George Washington National Monument, the primal model of the presidency. The only exception is John Kennedy, a Catholic.
To that effect, the Latin saying captures the essence of rule of politics, cujus regio, ejus religio: the religion of the rulers becomes the creed of the land.
As we have seen, myth plays a considerable part in the evolution and integration of ideology. The power behind the language of myth is to define, confine, and control the scope of the national identity. By the same token, it shapes a meaningful consensus in culture and society.
American civil religion, as it relies on its governmental institutions and on the presidency, in terms of the charisma of the office, embodies and fulfills in many respects the same function as religion. As Bellah observed: “The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm of a religious dimension.”43 This remark introduces yet another very complex point of contention: the separation of church and state. Bellah brings up the question briefly but does not clarify the issue. No doubt there is a danger, more so today because of the effective use of mass-media in the creation of a national consensus. But also because the religious and the political may be identified or confused as a single and legitimate reality by a greater number of people living in a secularized world. As a consequence, the State becomes the only unquestionable source of economical power and political truth. This theological truth is amply suggested by the symbol that epitomizes the relation between Freemasonry, politics, the economy, and civil religion in America.
1$ IN GOD WE TRUST 1$
On one side of the dollar bill we have the portrait of our celebrated hero. On the other side, a symbol of Freemasonry: the pyramid crowned by the all-seeing-eye inside the pyramidion. The latter also represents the zenith of political power overseeing the pyramidal order of hierarchy. And at the center of the bill is the caption that embraces the ultimate icon of American civil religion.
1 I turned my attention to this subject in my Masters’ thesis entitled: Interpretation Religieuse de l’Origine Mythique de la Nationalite: L’Inauguration de Monuments Nationaux (1840-1900), Montreal, UQAM, 1978.
2 Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial, New York, Seabury Press, 1975; and Beyond Belief; Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, New York, Harper & Row, 1970.
3 The whole ceremony is related in Frederick Harvey’s, ed., History of the Washington National Monument & Washington National Monument Society, Washington D.C., Government Printing Office, 1903.
4 Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, New York, Harper & Row, 1959, 12.
5 Idid. F. Harvey, 43. Taken from the National Geographic Magazine, vol. 6, 149.
6 In myths, the hill and the mountain are important places where the earth and the heavens meet. It is where the divine greet the human, where the above touch the below, and the sacred and the profane converge.
7 Ibid. F. Harvey, 224.
8 For more about the obelisks of Egypt see Labib Habachi’s, The Obelisks of Egypt, Cairo, American University in Cairo Press, 1984.
9 The same year the Immaculate Conception became an article of faith.
10 The movement also fought unsuccessfully to minimize the anti-slavery sentiments of that time.
11 Rhetoric was later developed by Aristotle in works like Rhetoric and Topics. It eventually became the means of putting into practice, especially with the help of argumentation, the wisdom one acquires in philosophy. Later, the art was most skillfully applied by the Roman master orator and statesman Cicero, as described in his De Oratore (55 BC). In the first century ad, rhetoric became the subject of an important educational treatise entitled Instituto oratoria by the Roman Quintinllian. It evolved until the middle of the XIXth century into a major educational discipline and one of the seven liberal arts. But, as the last century faded, rhetoric as a “general” science was slowly being supplanted by the increasingly popular natural sciences. See Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, New York, Methuen, 1982, and, Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1971.
12 See Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1977.
13 Ibid. F. Harvey, 46.
14 Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington, Man and Monument, Boston, Little, Brown Co., 1958, 213.
15 Ibid. F. Harvey, 126.
16 Ibid. F. Harvey, 130.
17 Ibid. F. Harvey, 136.
18 The speech is not included in Harvey’s book.
19 Ibid. F. Harvey, 104-105. For some unknown reason the president’s dedication was overshadowed by the other addresses.
20 Ibid. F. Harvey, 214.
21 Ibid. F. Harvey, 252.
22 Ibid. F. Harvey, 278.
23 Ibid. F. Harvey, 285.
24 Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington, ed. Marcus Cunliffe, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1962.
25 Bernard Mayo, Myths and Men, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1959, 33, and the whole chapter on Washington, 25-49.
26 William A. Bryan, George Washington in American Literature, 1775-1865, New York, Columbia University Press, 1952, 118. Also, Richard V. Pierard & Robert D. Linder, Civil Religion & the Presidency, Grand Rapids, Academie Books, 1988.
27 They are: George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Jonhson, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, both Roosevelts, William H. Taft, Warren G. Harding, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Jonhson, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
28 In 1964 the Masonic Order enrolled about 1 out of every 12 men in the U.S.
29 “Perhaps the most surprising representatives in the Masonic non-evangelical alliance were the large number of Jews. In Gilded-Age San Francisco, Jews comprised 12% of the brotherhood’s membership, about the same proportion which they formed in the city’s adult, white, male, non-catholic population as a whole. Considering the strictly Protestant origins of Freemasonry, this high proportion of Jewish members is extraordinary.” Carl Guarneri, and David Alvarez, ed., Religion and Society in the American West, New York, University Press, 1987. p.240.
30 Between 1880 and 1900, more than 460 associations were formed in the U.S.
31 See the book by Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880-1930, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1984, 70.
32 Leo XIII, Humanum Genus, April 20th 1884, in, The Papal Encyclicals, 1878-1903, Raleigh, McGrath Publishing C., 1981, 91-101. He was not the only Pope to condemn the brotherhood. Others were: Benedict XIV, Pius VII, Pius VIII, Gregory XVI, Pius IX. The Catholic Church was not the only denomination in the U.S. to warn against lodge affiliation. Among them: the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Christian Reformed Church, Church of the Brethren, Assemblies of God, Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonites, Church of the Nazarene, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), United Brethren, Wesleyan, the Free Methodist churches, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. General Booth of the Salvation Army also condemned the organization. Finally, in 1874, the National Christian Association coordinated a Protestant opposition to secret societies. However, the ban was not strictly enforced.
33 These hostilities go back even farther in time; as early as 1738, Pope Clement XII had already threatened to excommunicate anyone belonging to the order.
34 In Great Britain, the “regular” Masonry scrupulously obeys a law requiring it to provide its membership list to Justice.
35 Ibid. Carl Guarneri, 236.
36 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, in, The Essential Rousseau, New York, New American Library, 1974.
37 Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief, New York, Harper & Row, 1970, 168-189.
38 George Washington’s first inaugural address of April 30, 1789 alludes to God as the “Almighty Being”. It is a good example of his deist Masonic interpretation of the divinity.
39 Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant, New York, A Crossroad Book, 1975, 142.
40 Paul Tillich distinguishes pseudo from quasi-religion. The first is an intended and deceptive similarity with religion, whereas the second indicates a genuine similarity which is not necessarily intended. See, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, New York, Columbia University Press, 1963, 5f.
41 Charles H. Long, Civil Rights, Civil Religion: Visible People and Invisible People, in, American Civil Religion, ed. by Russel E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, New York, Harper Forum Books, 1974.
42 Appropriately labeled by Ralph Ellison as the “Invisible Man”. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, New York, Vintage Books, 1972.
43 Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief, New York, Haper & Row, 1970, 171.
Michael A. Rizzotti
Spirituality precedes religion. All great religious leaders were foremost spiritual beings. The overwhelming power of their spiritual experience eventually gave birth to world religions. True spirituality is essentially about communication, between self and the wholly other. As such, Spirit is openness to a fullness of being. This openness is realized by self-communication, making the spiritual experience known. Spirit is therefore the presence of being to itself. It IS a presence that unleashes a potentiality for self realization in the world. In other words, spirituality is a wholesome openness to the unfathomable sacredness of life. It is the unraveling of a unique and personal experience of the divine, the holy or the sacred.
In the first paragraph of Genesis, Spirit is described as a sweeping wind over the waters. In Genesis II, the words wind and breath are linked together as God breathes his Spirit into man and animates him with life.
In the Bible, Spirit relates to a close and personal relationship with the divine, described in Genesis as the creation of man in the image of God. This image is not to be understood in terms of a visual portrait, but rather as a reflection of the presence of God. This presence IS eminently personal and spiritual. It is outlined in Yahweh’s historical presence compelling Moses with His word unraveling God’s alliance with His chosen people.
Moreover, the biblical Hebrew alphabet is made up primarily of consonants. In the un-vocalized Hebrew alphabet, speech is necessary to give meaning to the un-vocalized words, otherwise the letters are a meaningless and chaotic code. Only with the spoken word are the vowels uttered. By exhaling one’s breath into the letters, the alphabet miraculously takes on a life and Spirit of its own, and words finally become meaningful.
In Latin the word spiritus means breath and air: The vital principle that gives life to the physical organisms in contrast to its purely material elements. Similarly, the Greek pneuma means breath and has a similar etymological connotation. For the Greeks, Spirit animates all beings in nature, particularly human beings, in stark opposition to the physical and the material things.
In the Gospels, the angel ─or messenger─ reveals to Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her. And that she will give birth to a child who will be called the Son of God. Later, Jesus is filled by the Holy Spirit and led to the desert to fast for 40 days prior to his mission. Soon after his return from the desert during is baptism, the Spirit Came down from heaven: And then there was a voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests with him”.
The Acts describe how the apostles, who were gathered together during the Pentecost, were startled by the sound of a violent wind, soon to be filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. They were henceforth empowered to express themselves in a convincing manner and preach to the outside world. All these examples point to the Spirit as the presence of God as a means of communication.
The Spirit effectively gave the apostles the inspiration to communicate to others the Good News about the impending return of the Messiah. The rhetorical gift of preaching and baptizing allowed them to convert a greater number of followers and communities. The early churches ─meaning; assembly or a gathering convoked for religious purposes─ were mostly comprised of Jewish members with a small number of non-Jews. These early members voluntarily shared their possessions and communal duties. The “communion of the breaking of the bread” was the central rite of these assemblies.
The conversion of Paul, a former persecutor of Christians, resulted in the conversion of an increasing number of non-Jewish members. The inclusion of non-Jews and a growing number of churches also increased the tensions between Jews and the Gentiles. These tensions were eventually resolved by compromises made in Jewish dietary laws, circumcision and in cultic pagan rituals.
Paul’s theological definition of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ* is considered to be one of his most invaluable contributions to Christian thought. Body is defined as a unifying force of assembly of believers as one people, created by baptism and maintained by partaking of the bread. From its genesis, the early churches were held together in mystical unity by the spiritual gift of communication, communion and community.
The growing number of Christians throughout the Roman Empire was seen as a menace to the genius ─the spirit─ of Rome. The faithful Christians who believed in an impending return of the Messiah were considered a threat to the stability of Rome and its religion. Religio, an original Roman word, meant; all the rituals to honor the gods, while it’s opposite, superstitio, meant what dishonors them. Generally speaking religio refers to the pious cults of the gods, performed by magistrates, statesmen and the citizens of Rome. Superstitio, on the other hand, was an excessive devotion to other gods considered a potential threat to the stability of the city-state. As such, Christians were among the religions that were considered superstitious.
Despite the persecution of Christians that went on from time to time, long periods of relative calm allowed them to practice their religion freely as long as they did not participate in public disturbance. Christian martyrdom came to an end the day Constantine saw the light in the sky in the form of a cross. In 312 CE, he converted to Christianity and by the same token transformed the hierarchy of the empire into a hierarchy of the Church. The Church who represented the spiritual and mystical body of Christian believers slowly morphed into the physical and visible structure of the Holy See. The geographical reach of the Roman Empire became the theocratic reach of the Roman Church.
For the early Church the issue of God the Father, the Son of God and the Holy Spirit and the belief in One God, became a central point of debate and division. Only with the adoption of the doctrine of the Trinity was the Roman Church finally unified theologically. With the Trinity, the three persons ─or modes of being─ are defined as co-substantial in One God. The Holy Spirit retained a profane identity devoid of any gender filiation in respect to the Father and the Son, defined, nonetheless, as the Giver of Life.
As the Church grew consistently monolithic, the universal ─or catholic─ principles of the Spirit of Jesus Christ gave way to a prescribed salvation through the sacraments. Martin Luther, whose faith in God surpassed his devotion to the Church in Rome, fought for his spiritual ideals to the end. Luther’s faith was based on the principle that one is saved by faith alone, rather than by actions prescribed by the Holy See. Luther’s uncompromising faith in God’s word resulted in the most important schism in Church’s history. The consequence of which resulted in the Reformation as well as the Church’s own Counter-Reformation.
The advent of the printing press put copies of the Bible in the hands of a growing number of Protestants. People were finally free to read the Old and New Testaments without the strict monitoring of the Church. Old Testament principles of personal ─individual─ responsibility for salvation through faith spread throughout Europe. These principles and the absolute sovereignty of God were later to influence the Spirit of capitalism and the industrial revolution.
After several centuries of cultural stagnation, the Enlightenment finally brought some light on the Dark Ages and the discourse on the Spirit became the subject matter of philosophy rather than theology. It led to a profusion of debate that have enriched the course of history and given rise to a variety of notions about Spirit ─from Descartes to Leibniz and Kant. One of its most prominent proponents is the German philosopher Hegel in his Phenomenology of the Spirit.
With the expansion of the Industrial Revolution and the dehumanization of labor, the dialectics of Hegel gave way to dialectical materialism. The Spirit’s creative principle in history is henceforth replaced by “material class struggle”. The Lord-owner became alienated from his property, and labor alienated from the fruits of his manufactured work.
In the twentieth century the philosophical discourse on being eclipsed discussions on Spirit. The reason for the exclusion is that philosophers like Heidegger favored Greek metaphysics over Biblical and Christian thought. In addition, the devastation of the 1st and 2nd World Wars inspired a reactionary development of existentialism and atheism.
World War II ushered a dichotomy between genuine spirituality and cultic religion. Germany, the birthplace of Protestantism, saw the rise of Nazism and became the grounds for a national moral collapse. Theologian and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer could not reconcile the behavior of his countrymen with the message of the Gospels. He could not understand how a Christian country like Germany could illegally invade other countries and be responsible for the persecution of Jews. Bonhoeffer was among a number of Germans who stood up to Hitler and his minions. He participated in several missions to help Jewish people escape Germany and took part in failed plots to assassinate the Fuhrer. He was arrested for his unpatriotic stand and put in jail. He was hanged only a few weeks before the liberation of Germany by the Allies.
Bonhoeffer to this day stands as a true embodiment of the Spirit of Jesus-Christ. He knew firsthand The Cost of Discipleship, and what sacrifice it takes to be a Christian. He recognized the dire consequences of a country that faithfully follows a war leader. He came to the regretful conclusion that he was living in a time of Religiousless Christianity: A religious cult only by name, devoid of any spiritual content.
While in prison, Bonhoeffer recognized the signs of an impending divorce between spirituality and religion. He saw first hand how patriotism and state religion supplanted the true essence of Christianity. How religion was used by political leaders to confuse the body politic with the mystical body of Christ. As a consequence, the rest of the 20th century saw the unraveling of corporatism and communism battling for ideological attention and political supremacy.
On April 6th 1968 the cover of Time’s magazine displayed the title “Is God Dead?”. Echoes of Nietzsche’s words put in the mouth of a madman, who nobody would believe, came back to haunt post-modernity. The words of Zarathustra, and the proponents of the Death of God philosophy, were mostly misinterpreted and misunderstood. Nevertheless, the caption on the cover was taken as an affront by Christians. For Nietzsche the demise of the divine meant that the idea of God is no longer capable of acting or controlling a moral code for human conduct. The devastation of wars in the 20th and 21st centuries somehow attests to that view.
The advent of post-modernism, particularly the incursion of mass media, led to a displacement of some of the leading protagonists in the realm of the sacred. The cinematic news reel became the preferred propaganda tool that led to the rise of Nazi dictatorship. The media became the ideal tool for the subversion of spirituality, resulting in the dissolution of human communication, communion and community.
With the implantation of TV in people’s living room, the medium diverted the power of the word away from the priestly order. It displaced the temple as the center of propagation of creed and solace, juxtaposing the mall as the choice location for the congregation of fragmented solitudes. The preacher was no longer the only medium between the sacred and the believer, a gateway to the good news.
With Tele-evangelism, the medium replaced the presence of the preacher and disposed of the temple as the gathering place for the community of believers. The media became a top-down source of propagation that generates seclusion, isolation and fragmentation of being.
Based on the definitions of Spirit outlined above, the media does not encourage communication. The media is a content provider not open to dialogue. It does not generate communion or community. It is a remote form of control of marketable identity. It feeds itself on the consumer and brands the viewers’ with logos. Through the media the corporations created a distinct body of its own.
The corporation in the US is defined, in legal and accounting terms, as a person. And in respect to the US constitution it shares the same rights as a human person. Over time this legal person has become bundled into one political body, surpassing in power many political states in the world. One must keep in mind that although the incorporated body is comprised of human persons it nonetheless lacks the spiritual essence that inspires communication, communion and community, promoting instead corporate doctrine and trust in a moneyed and legal body.
As the Incorporated body plays an ever greater role in politics, the advent of Internet made subliminal inroads into human forms of communication. With the Internet, spirituality morphed into devoted interactivism and virtual commitments. The fragmented self leaped onto the awesome omnipresence, omniscience and all-seeing infinity of cyberspace.
The speed in which the Internet spread onto the world is unprecedented in history. It ushered a non-linear dynamic challenging the top-down hierarchies. The synergy resulted in open source operating systems and organizations of all kinds that thrive on a gravitational force to develop and organize. The Net pulled the Self into the vast otherness of cyberspace. The immediacy of the medium fostered new friendship and re-linked old ones. It expanded the nature of dating and relationships. And changed the way human beings communicate, deliberate and congregate. The new medium somewhat restored the interactive nature of communication.
To conclude, we are well aware that the childlike innocence of the early days of the Internet is long gone. The Spirit of the Net is slowly becoming asphyxiated by a hybrid media ─a merger between corporate world, advertising and the Net. Fortunately there is still plenty of room for open source interactivism to flourish and expand. And since the Net is by nature subliminal, novel tools always emerge to bypass any intrusion to the immediacy of the Net.
* The Church as the “Mystical Body of Christ” by Pope Pius XII in his Encyclical Letter, Mystici Corporis