Hallowed Ground: Washington Monuments; To Faith, Family and Freedom
Judges and legislators who exhibit confusion about the constitutionality of acknowledgments of God in (and on) public buildings should get out of their stuffy chambers and go visit some of our national treasures. Just one day spent traversing the Mall in Washington, D.C., would expose them to an undeniable fact of American history: Biblical and religious quotations, including the Ten Commandments, adorn nearly every significant building and monument in our nation’s capital, inscribed and enshrined there as the natural public conversation of America’s leaders in every generation. Indeed, the role of faith, family and freedom in American history is inscribed on monuments across the length and breadth of Washington, D.C. For instance, the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, carved in granite, thunder from inside the Memorial that bears his name, praying that the “mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away” but recalling that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
From the Lincoln Memorial, a perfect line of sight connects you with the magnificent obelisk of the Washington Monument. The form of the Monument recalls ancient Rome and Greece, but at its topmost point, inscribed on the aluminum tip of the capstone, is the Latin phrase Laus Deo — “Praise be to God.” Along the stairway to that height are 190 carved tributes donated by states, cities, individuals, associations, and foreign governments. The blocks resound with quotations from Scripture — “Holiness to the Lord” (Exodus 28), “Search the Scriptures” (John 5:39), “The memory of the just is blessed” (Proverbs 10:7) — and such invocations as, “May Heaven to this Union continue its Benefice.”
Further east, along the Mall’s north side, stands the National Archives. No building in Washington, save perhaps the Library of Congress, is more emblematic of this nation’s desire to preserve its history as the key to a secure future. Carved in stone adjacent to the entrance of the Archives are the words “What is past is prologue,” appropriately introducing the original parchment of the United States Constitution inside. Inlaid at the Archives’ entrance is a bronze medallion of the Ten Commandments, surrounded by four winged figures representing Legislation, Justice, History, and War and Defense, a testament to the Archives’ architects’ bold witness to the centrality of biblical truth to the American experience.
Still further east, the level expanse of the Mall gives way to the gentle rise of Jenkins’ Hill, known by its more political name, Capitol Hill. Below the west front of the Capitol, where our presidents take their inaugural oaths, lay gardens planted with the offerings of people and organizations from around the world. One such planting is a group of five crabapple trees, donated by the people of Iowa in memory of the five Sullivan brothers, sons of the Hawkeye State, who served and died together aboard the U.S.S. Juneau in World War II. This living monument, eloquent beyond words, reminds Americans of the “costly sacrifice” so many families have laid, in Lincoln’s words, “on the altar of freedom.”The U.S. Capitol also bears public witness to the legacy of biblically inspired faith that Americans have passed on from generation to generation. New England statesman and orator Daniel Webster was voted by the United States Senate in the 1980s as one of the five greatest senators ever to serve in that chamber. In 1851, when the new House and Senate wings of the Capitol were begun, Webster gave a speech that was deposited in the cornerstone. Its final words are these:
If, therefore, it shall hereafter be the will of God that this structure should fall from the base, that its foundations be upturned, and this deposit brought to the eyes of men, be it then known, that on this day the Union of the United States of America stands firm, that their constitution still exists unimpaired, and with all of its original usefulness and glory, growing every day stronger and stronger in the affection of the great body of the American people, and attracting more and more the admiration of the world. And all here assembled, whether belonging to public life or to private life, with hearts devotedly thankful to Almighty God for the preservation of the liberty and happiness of the country, unite in sincere and fervent prayers that this deposit, and the walls and arches, the domes and towers, the columns and the entablatures, now to be erected over it, may endure forever.
From the plaza of the Capitol, look west across the Mall to the hillsides of Arlington Cemetery, where lay the remains of generations who kept the pledges of life, fortune, and sacred honor to keep our nation free. Each hour the guard is changed at the tomb where rests “in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
From cornerstones to capstones, from cornices to colonnades, from the halls of Congress to the hallowed hillsides of Arlington Cemetery, a mighty causeway of faith courses through the landscape of the nation’s capital. To eliminate that causeway would require more than the intellectual dishonesty of judges and legislators; it would require the wielding of chisels and jackhammers against marble and granite. The dramas playing themselves out in Alabama and other communities across the nation do not yet feature such tools of historical revisionism, but their implication is the same: To blot out the acknowledgment of God in our public life is to change the meaning of America.
Charles A. Donovan is Vice President for Program Planning at the Family Research Council. Christina Darnell was a Witherspoon Fellow at the Family Research Council during the summer of 1997. This article is adapted from “Washington’s Monuments to Family, Faith and Freedom,” by the same authors, which originally appeared in the October 3, 1997, Washington Times.