Every nation holds some things sacred. America is often said to be a nation based on an idea. Indeed, it’s true that the United States was founded on principles of limited government and ordered liberty that remain with us today.
As important as those national ideas are, however, it is also true that America has become a distinct nation since the Revolutionary War. Just as the nations of the Old World did across the centuries, so to with time have we developed sacred things and places.
The process began with the people, as consensus developed on what would become America’s cherished objects. Artifacts of the early generations of colonists came first. In 1826, Alexis de Tocqueville commented on the reverence imbued to Plymouth Rock:
…[the rock had] become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns of the Union. … Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant, and this stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation, its very dust is shared as a relic: and what is become of the gateways of a thousand palaces?
The Pilgrims themselves became elevated in popular imagination. Speaking in 1920, Vice President-elect Calvin Coolidge proclaimed:
Measured by the standards of men of their time, they were the humble of the earth. Measured by later accomplishments, they were the mighty. In appearance weak and persecuted they came — rejected, despised — an insignificant band; in reality strong and independent, a mighty host of whom the world was not worthy, destined to free mankind. No captain ever led his forces to such a conquest. Oblivious to rank, yet men trace to them their lineage as to a royal house.
Coolidge understood that the way objects or people become sacred is beyond their control, but not unpredictable. Did the Pilgrims know that we would honor their memories centuries later? Likely not. But the virtues that led us to honor them — their bravery in venturing into the unknown, their righteousness in pursuing religious freedom, their reasoned choices in deciding to govern themselves as a free people — align with our best vision of ourselves and our nation.
There were earlier settlements in America. We honor Plymouth and the Pilgrims because of what they stood for, and what we wish to stand for. Their virtues, enhanced by the passage of time, make the memory of 1620 sacred to Americans.
‘The Sanctity Foundation’
People who love a thing want to venerate it, and when the thing is an idea, something else must serve as its avatar. Since the founding, other symbols of the nation became more sacred with age. Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia are humbler than the great palaces and cathedrals of Europe, but they represent the beginning of the United States. Loving that nation means holding its symbols dear, as well. A threat to them evokes more emotion than a similar attack on any other object.
In his 2012 book, “The Righteous Mind,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt described sanctity as one of six foundations of morality. Haidt traces the idea back to primitive people’s urge to avoid disease and contagion that in modern times is translated into a desire to avoid all things we consider disgusting and to cherish things we think of as pure.
“The Sanctity Foundation,” he writes, “makes it easy for us to regard some things as ‘untouchable,’ both in a bad way (because something is so dirty or polluted, we want to stay away) and in a good way (because something is so hallowed, so sacred, that we want to protect it from desecration.”
Haidt’s thesis is that some moral foundations are shared across the political spectrum while others are not. When only one side in a debate cares about the moral foundation at issue, people end up talking past each other, lacking a common frame of reference. Haidt’s research found that people on the right are far more likely to be invested in sanctity than those on the left.
The events of the past summer show this to be true. When Black Lives Matter protests turned to riots that injured people or burned homes and businesses, people on the right and center — and even some on the left — especially disapproved. There was a starker left-right divide on another part of the chaos: tearing down statues. It began with statues of Confederate generals but soon spread to those of anyone whose life story was incompatible with 21st-century woke dogma.
What followed was indiscriminate iconoclasm. Far-left rioters in Philadelphia defaced the statue of abolitionist Matthias Baldwin. In Madison, on the same night rioters attacked a state senator, they tore down the statue of Hans Christian Heg, an immigrant abolitionist who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Ulysses Grant’s statue in San Francisco was inexplicably singled out for abuse, as well.
The combination of ignorance and rage seemed, at the time, to be a mania of the radical left. Conservatism typically includes respect for tradition, but communists, anarchists, and other radicals have no such reverence for past generations. They are utopians, determined to obliterate the history of a nation they see as irredeemably flawed, rebuilding what remains in their own woke image. Compared to that goal, nothing was sacred. That aligns with Haidt’s theory of sanctity.
‘This is a Sacred Place’
The Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill shows that the desire to “burn it all down” isn’t limited to one corner of the political compass. A rampaging mob stormed a building deemed sacred by many Americans, destroying, looting, and even killing. The attempt to protest a peaceful transfer of power with mob action was dangerous enough, yet their attacks on the institution of Congress and the edifice of the Capitol magnified the horror of the day and placed the rampage far outside the American mainstream.
When Congress reconvened later that day, many of the legislators spoke to that point. Seb. Dick Durbin noted:
We know this building and the Rotunda as a place where some of the greatest American heroes of both political parties lie in state, and we go there to honor them. We know this building because we work here. We enact laws here that change America. We gather for State of the Union messages from Presidents and honor the people in the gallery. This is a special place. This is a sacred place. But this sacred place was desecrated by a mob today, on our watch. This temple to democracy was defiled by thugs who roamed the halls and sat in that chair.
The sanctity Durbin described came not just from the Capitol as the place where laws are made but from the longevity of the practice and respect for the government that resides there. The beauty of the setting adds to the feeling of veneration, but many buildings are beautiful. The Capitol is sacred because it represents a part of the American republic.
Here, too, what we hold sacred is more than just a matter of beauty and age: sanctity requires goodness. If you believed that every law passed in the Capitol was wicked, then you would you likely revile the building as well. But even disagreeing with some of what is done in its halls, most Americans find that most laws produced there over two centuries are good, and so we call the building itself good, and, thereby sacred.
Seeking Out The Good
In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden did not speak directly to sanctity, but stressed the unity that sanctity can bring:
Many centuries ago, St. Augustine, a saint in my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. Defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and, yes, the truth.
These are virtues, broadly stated, but cannot truly be called objects. As Ben Domenech explained in The Transom the next day, part of the confusion of the speech was that it misconstrues Augustine. The complete selection from “The City of God” shows a greater understanding of sanctity. As Augustine explains:
…[if we] say that a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love, then, in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love.
It isn’t enough to be united around a thing or an idea. No, for a people to be good, that which unites them, that which they hold sacred, must be good. For Augustine, that meant God.
America has no shared religion but owns a shared history that grows deeper every year. The things Biden mentioned are all fine virtues. Usefully for a politician, they are also vague enough to cover almost any situation. Can something so imprecise be called “sacred”? To truly inspire a people, we must seek out those people and things from our history that embody those specific virtues and actions that define the best version of ourselves.
John Adams said, “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” To that end, the things we hold sacred must signify morality. The Capitol is sacred not because laws were passed there, but because good laws were passed there. Perfect laws? Hardly. But good, overall, and in pursuit of governing a good nation.
Many popular movements include a desire for purification, and there is much in Washington that ought to be cleansed. This, too, is a manifestation of the desire for sanctity. But when the desire to purify kills the thing it was supposed to cleanse, the effect is desecration. Tearing down the past and profaning the sacred does not make for a fresh start; it makes a people disconnected, unmoored from the past, and uncertain of the future.
The rioters at the Capitol created nothing in their rage, but despoiled what better men had built. That is contrary to American tradition and to conservatism as a philosophy. Our minds are disturbed by the violation of democratic principles, but our hearts, too, should sink at the sight of hallowed places being defiled.
Because we lack the ancient foundations of the Old World, those things we do collectively hold sacred become even more important. The nation is vast and diverse, but these few relics of our Founding unite us. They do so because they represent a nation that we believe is fundamentally good. Those who desecrate them will not remake the nation, only destroy it.