MYTHS IN STONE: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C.

MYTHS IN STONE: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C.


MYTHS IN STONE: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C. By Jeffrey F. Meyer. Univ. of California Press. 343 pp. $35

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MYTHS IN STONE: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C. By Jeffrey F. Meyer. Univ. of California Press. 343 pp. $35

If you follow the tourists around Washington, D.C., it’s hard to miss the element of pilgrimage. Visitors come to see vistas that reaffirm the meaning of American history. The stone temples of the city’s monumental core hold out visions of the nation’s purpose; the Republic’s founding documents rest under glass in the sacred space of the National Archives. The experience of viewing these sites, Meyer argues, is fundamentally religious. He quotes historian Daniel Boorstin: "Architecture can and does play the role of ritual."

Meyer, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, never quite explains what makes something a religious experience rather than a ritual or symbolic one, and the failure leaves conceptual gaps in this otherwise intriguing book. But his definition of religion is evidently capacious. He traces some of Washington’s "religious" aspects back to Babylon and other ancient capitals: radiating avenues, orientation of the city’s main axes to the four points of the compass, "central monumental architecture like temples, palaces, pyramids, ziggurats, and raised altars," and "processional boulevards connecting these places of power." Such architecture, Meyer says, symbolizes the larger cosmic order and proclaims a connection between the city and its heavenly sponsors.

That ancient religious impulse, in Meyer’s view, emanates from the wordless, enigmatic Washington Monument and echoes the early settlers’ belief that they were creating a new Jerusalem firmly under the protection of Providence. It resonates in the Framers’ "missionary" certainty that their great experiment would bring a new birth of freedom to mankind, a conviction expressed through what Meyer calls the "axis of Enlightenment" running from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial. Where the Jefferson edifice is light, open, and hopeful, the more somber Lincoln Memorial completes the task of "baptizing the Founders’ terms into the religious discourse of American Christians, with Lincoln assuming the aura of a Christlike figure who saved the Union by taking its sufferings on himself."

The argument breaks down somewhat when Meyer turns to the Smithsonian Institution and the tree-lined National Mall. A quick tour of recent controversies, such as the fiasco over an Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian, is meant to show how these venues have become a locus for communal reevaluation of the American experience. But such squabbles hardly seem to fall under the rubric of religion, even American civic religion. Nor does Meyer’s closing survey—fascinating though it is—of the allegorical artworks that decorate the Capitol itself, including now-objectionable depictions of the white man’s conquest of the Native Americans.

The tussle over changing cultural meanings, religious or otherwise, is an important pitched battles over the messages conveyed by part of the capital’s life. This book makes clear statues, museums, and memorials. that ours is not the first generation to fight.

—Amy Schwartz


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