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The Right

The Capitol and Democracy Both Qualify as “Sacred”

(Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

“The immediate danger of the Capitol attack has ended. However, the work of repairing the tear in the fabric of our nation has only just begun, a task we neglect at our peril.”

Is the Capitol sacred? David Graham argued that it was in an article earlier this month in The Atlantic, continuing a debate that began following the January 6th attack. On one side of this issue, some conservatives and religious commentators take offense at the use of this sacramental language—“desecration” of the “sacred space” in our “temple of democracy”—arguing that those terms should not be used outside the realm of religion. The far-right commentator Nick Fuentes tweeted that “The US Capitol is hardly a ‘sacred temple of democracy.’” Charles Camosy, a theologian and former Democrat who endorsed the American Solidarity Party in 2020, tweeted that the Capitol “is not sacred, is not a temple, and has not been desecrated,” arguing that Christians who see it as sacred are risking idolatry.

On the other side are those lamenting the attack on a “sacred” site. In President Joe Biden’s address on January 6th, he called the insurrection “an assault on the most sacred of American undertakings, the doing of the people’s business.” Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., referred to the Capitol as “sacred ground.” 

Abraham Lincoln, who would become the first Republican president, endorsed sacred political language when he called for a “political religion” in his famous 1838 Lyceum Address. If this seems surprising, consider that sacredness has meaning outside religious contexts: The Oxford English Dictionary defines one sense of sacredness as “secured by religious sentiment, reverence, sense of justice, or the like, against violation.” Shakespeare calls a vow sacred in his 1604 play Measure for Measure, and other writers over the centuries have evoked the sacred in secular—and yes, even political—contexts. 

Two key ideas from this broader understanding of the sacred explain the emotional resonance of January 6th. First, our democratic institutions are sacred because they are based on our idea of justice. Second, when those institutions are threatened, it is a violation (not just an abstract harm) because justice itself is undermined. 

It is this sense of the sacred that Lincoln applies to American democracy in his Lyceum Address. Following a murder by a mob in St. Louis, he argues that the nation’s greatest threat is the “mobocratic spirit” seeking to replace the judicial process with “wild and furious passions.” The only way to curb this threat is with firm resolve to respect the law: “Let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father.” Breaking the law is not a mere breach of social rule but, rather, a violation of the sacrifices of our forebears. When law is revered, not just followed, it forges “the political religion of the nation.” 

Law and democracy for Lincoln form a sacred “fabric of freedom,” which need not conflict with religious observance. Lincoln says that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” our democracy. In the same sentence, though, he makes clear that America’s religious institutions are greater than her political system.

Is this view as antiquated as Lincoln’s language, or does it retain force today? The words of those defending the Capitol—and even of those attacking it—show this view’s continued vitality. While the insurrectionists occupied the Senate chamber, a young police officer approached a “Mr. Black” to ask his group to leave

“We will,” Black assured him. “I been making sure they ain’t disrespectin’ the place.” “O.K., I just want to let you guys know—this is, like, the sacredest place.”

Even this off-the-cuff dialogue shows a political reverence that would make Lincoln proud, as much as he would want to deliver a smart blow to “Mr. Black” with his top hat and chase him from the chamber. 

There is no sacrilege or threat to religion, then, from those who see the Capitol and democracy as sacred. The real sacrilege was the attack that sought to tear into tatters the fragile “fabric of freedom.” Conservatives who claim liberty for religion in the public square should be the first to lay claim to the sacredness of the institutions preserving that right. The political right was more than happy to defend the sanctity of our institutions when they were under threat from riots in the civil unrest this summer after the death of George Floyd; consistency demands, however, that we be at least that vehement in our denunciations of the violence on January 6th.

Cynicism can render us numb us to these dangers, but Lincoln warns that unchecked mobocracy can usher in a vicious cycle of broken norms leading to worse attacks on liberty, with mobs who “pray for nothing so much” as the government’s “total annihilation.”

The immediate danger of the Capitol attack has ended. However, the work of repairing the tear in the fabric of our nation has only just begun, a task we neglect at our peril.

Matt Hoberg earned an A.B. in Philosophy from Princeton University in 2009 and resides in Minnesota with his wife and four children in a 19th century farmhouse. He can also be found on Twitter and Substack.

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