by Curtis Ramsey-Lucas for The Christian Citizen

Editor’s Note: Following yesterday’s failed coup at the U.S. Capitol, we decided to republish this 2019 article on the symbolism and sanctity of a building designed to reflect and serve a quasi-religions function—to be nothing short of a civic temple. While this is not the first time in our nation’s history that violence has been visited upon the Capitol and those who work there, it is the first time such violence has been motivated and encouraged by the President of the United States and by his enablers in the Republican Party. In the words of the prophet Hosea, “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7 KJV).

Words may not soon quell the storm that has been unleashed, but perhaps remembering the ideals of those who have come before us will help make a start. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who influenced the design of the original building, believed the Capitol should symbolically perpetuate the goals of the Revolution and the Constitution—among these the political union of people whose history, livelihood, and attitudes varied greatly; equal justice under law, economic and national independence, and the protection of individual liberties. This challenge is yet before our nation and before the Church. May we rise to meet it and not be found wanting in the attempt.

On the day that Congressman Elijah E. Cummings lay in state in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, October 24, 2019, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote, “There are moments when the U.S. Capitol feels like a sanctified space, a holy temple dedicated to ideals that transcend the partisan squabbles of the politicians who work there.”

Robinson is right. The Capitol was designed to reflect and serve a quasi-religious function. It was to be nothing short of a civic temple.

Following the decision of Congress in 1790 to select a site for a federal city near Georgetown, Maryland, George Washington hired Pierre L’Enfant to design the city and many of its public buildings. Chief among these were a residence with office for the president and a “Congress House,” to be made ready by the first Monday in December 1800, the date Congress had mandated to move the government to the federal city. Prior to this, the Continental (1774-1778) and Confederation (1779-1788) congresses met in eight cities with Philadelphia and New York serving as the primary meeting places.

A city to reflect the country

Though L’Enfant was dismissed within a year, many of the central ideas of his plan remained to guide future development of the city including the location of the Capitol and the president’s house, diagonal avenues imposed upon a grid work of streets, and the city’s park-like atmosphere. Pamela Scott writes, “L’Enfant’s Capitol was integral to his city plan, which he regarded as a microcosm of the country, ‘this vast Empire.’ Accordingly, he designed the city on an unprecedented scale and arranged the state avenues to reflect the geography of the United States and the history of its national union. He located state squares, as well as every kind of public building (from cathedral to market halls), on topographically prominent sites, then laid out direct state avenues between them, and finally arranged an irregular grid of streets as an underlying infrastructure—the whole a unique city in the country plan.” [Pamela Scott, “Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation” (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 46]

L’Enfant’s successors to design the new Capitol building were chosen through an open competition. Through their suggestions to some of the competitors, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson influenced the Capitol’s overall form—separate wings to accommodate the Senate and House of Representatives joined together by a domed rotunda. 

Washington and Jefferson believed that the Capitol’s appearance should reflect the fundamental ideas of the new government—national union, the bicameral legislative bodies it housed, and accessibility to all Americans.  “Washington and Jefferson wanted the Capitol to symbolically perpetuate the goals of the Revolution and the Constitution: political union of people whose history, livelihood, and attitudes varied greatly; equal justice under law; peace or domestic tranquility; economic and national independence (the common defense and general welfare of the Constitution’s Preamble); and protection of individual liberties.” [Scott, 19]

From Congress House to Capitol

Jefferson was also likely instrumental in the identification of the building as the “Capitol” as opposed to the “Congress House” as it had earlier been referred. This is significant given the political implications of the word’s meaning and its close connection to the Roman Republic of antiquity. The original Capitol was Rome’s national temple located on the Capitoline Hill.  Among the ancient and modern republics studied by the Founders, the Roman Republic was often cited as the most suitable model for America’s government. On the earliest map of the city, Jefferson replaced L’Enfant’s designation “Congress House” with “Capitol” and subsequent printed maps of the city followed suit. 

In effecting this change, Scott suggests “Jefferson subtly shaped the public’s conception of the nature of America’s national legislative building by having its official name resonate with historical associations of Roman republicanism and hence Roman civic virtues. His intention was to forge a chain among America’s political system, the ancient traditions in which it was rooted, and the building where American laws would be enacted.” [Scott, 23]

A civic temple

The choice of a dome as the Capitol’s central feature is also significant, implying that the building was to serve a quasi-religious function; that it was to be nothing less than a civic temple.  As Scott notes, prior to the time of the Capitol’s construction, domes “were generally reserved for pagan temples in antiquity and for churches in the Christian world.” [Scott, 44] The Capitol’s first domes over the rotunda and the House and Senate chambers were inspired by Pantheon in Rome.  When the rotunda dome was replaced during the expansion of the Capitol beginning in 1850, it was modeled on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 

Of the rotunda and its meaning, Jeffrey Meyer writes, “From the earliest version of the building to the current one, the rotunda was meant to visually suggest the ideal unity sought by the new nation, the place where the two houses of Congress are united, where the ordinary people can join with their representatives, where the three branches of government come together on ceremonial occasions” as when Rep. Cummings lay in state. [Jeffrey Meyer, Myths in Stone: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C. (2001), p. 39]

To achieve this ideal unity was a challenge to the new nation given the diverse histories, livelihoods and attitudes of the people. This challenge is yet before our nation given our increasing diversity in these and other regards.

The symbolism of the Capitol’s art and architecture can inspire and encourage those who work there to seek that which is just and right for our country. Reflecting on the grandeur of Statuary Hall, Robinson noted, “The enormous paintings that tell the story of America, normally like wallpaper to those who work in the building, demand attention as if they are being seen for the first time. The marble likenesses of great men — and too few great women — seem to come alive.”

Citizens with the saints

Washington and Jefferson believed the Capitol should symbolically perpetuate the goals of the Revolution and the Constitution; among these the political union of people whose history, livelihood, and attitudes varied greatly. As the church faces similar challenges of diversity, including the diversity of political conviction among Christians, it does so on a foundation more secure than that of political union—faith in Jesus Christ.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes that we are no longer strangers and aliens, but “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). This imagery suggests a way of being in the world that is at once political and familial.

The church is both a body politic, or polis, whose members share a citizenship more enduring than the temporal, or temporary, citizenship of the nations of this world, and a household built not on loose rock and shifting sand, but on the firm foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself the cornerstone. “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Ephesians 2:21).

Robinson identified the U.S. Capitol as a space that only occasionally and fleetingly “feels like a sanctified space, a holy temple dedicated to ideals that transcend the partisan squabbles of the politicians who work there.” How much more consistently ought the church, a holy temple in the Lord, be a sanctified space in which men and women of diverse political and even partisan convictions are able to transcend their differences?

Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is editor of The Christian Citizen and The Christian Citizen Weekly and host of the Justice. Mercy. Faith. podcast. His book #InThisTogether: Ministry in Times of Crisis is available from Judson Press.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.