Our national temples

My parents, my brother and sister with their families, and one of our daughters are here visiting, a good time being had by all. We went into D.C. yesterday for some sightseeing.

At the Jefferson memorial, a sense of recognition flashed upon my mind. The building, along with the Lincoln memorial, is a Greco-Roman temple. Where the ancients would put a graven image of their deity, we have a statue of a statesman.

These are, literally, shrines (the word is often used here for our monuments) to our civic religion. (In making this observation, I intend to take nothing away from the individuals being honored nor from the magnificence of these buildings.)

These shrines are also inscribed with religious sayings. I was struck by the quotes from Jefferson, whom I didn’t think of as a religious man. But he really was. Deists can also have great piety. I liked these:

“I have sworn upon the altar of God Eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind.”

“Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that this justice cannot sleep forever.”

He was referring here to slavery, with which this man, for all of his greatness and high ideals, was himself deeply complicit. But the quotation can refer to other things as well. Notice that Jefferson may have believed in a religion of reason and reason alone, but his version owes much to Christianity, including not only the righteousness of God but that He, unlike the deity of orthodox Deism, interferes in his creation.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Chris Hemmelman

    My mom and sisters were also in DC this weekend, visiting my wife and I, and we did A LOT of sightseeing. Going along with the Jefferson quotes, I’m always struck by the words of Lincoln in his second inaugural address engraved at his memorial. I think they are a powerful reflection on the sovereignty and justice of God and how that plays out in human history.

  • Chris Hemmelman

    My mom and sisters were also in DC this weekend, visiting my wife and I, and we did A LOT of sightseeing. Going along with the Jefferson quotes, I’m always struck by the words of Lincoln in his second inaugural address engraved at his memorial. I think they are a powerful reflection on the sovereignty and justice of God and how that plays out in human history.

  • Jeffrey G

    Lincoln’s is explicitly self-identified as a temple. It also uses the word “enshrine.”

    “IN THIS TEMPLE
    AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE
    FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION
    THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
    IS ENSHRINED FOREVER”

  • Jeffrey G

    Lincoln’s is explicitly self-identified as a temple. It also uses the word “enshrine.”

    “IN THIS TEMPLE
    AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE
    FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION
    THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
    IS ENSHRINED FOREVER”


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