The Temple of Liberty

Lincoln E. Steed March/April 2021

Well into the woods of a new year, we babes of the third millennium might well take note of the dried leaves already littering the landscape. Indeed, it was only a week into 2021 that a surging crowd broke down the doors of “the temple of democracy,” to use Speaker Pelosi’s term, and pillaged its contents. 

Moments earlier a journalist had jokingly asked one demonstrator why he had a pitchfork with a flag attached. “It’s symbolic” was the gist of his reply. The interviewer thought it clever to remark that in the movies he remembered, the crowd with the pitchforks were usually the bad guys. The ironic observation was not well taken! A crowd unleashing its fear/anger puts me to mind of an old painting showing peasants pitchforking a Montgolfier hot-air balloon that had come down in the French countryside. It was an event only 10 years before the cornerstone was laid to the U.S. Capitol; only five years before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution; and, ominously for the French,  only six years before the French Revolution.

In the last years of the second millennium, before the panic of September 11 changed the terms of access, I remember wandering around the lower level of the Capitol building in the time between a press conference and an appointment elsewhere and coming upon a glass case with artifacts clustered like those in an ark. There was the actual Masonic apron George Washington wore while laying the cornerstone! There was, as I remember it, also a little votive plate used to leave the offering for the occasion. There was also a contemporary newspaper account of the day, describing the lodge members standing behind the president/lodge master and singing hymns. Not the usual image of the early days of the republic, to be sure.

That moment popped into my head shortly after the events of January. Much footage has come out since that day; much of it taken by the participants themselves. In many ways the displays of the day were a pastiche of the icons of American history: flags of a nation and the lost cause that lingers; slogans of intolerance that speak as much of fear as  hate; crosses and gallows; and military hardware, which signals a lack of dialogue and recourse to force. Obviously, many saw the day as more than just a spontaneous eruption of electoral enthusiasm. 

The sequence that most impressed me was taken about midpoint in the desecration. As members of an advance team combed through state papers in members’ desks, a few gathered enthusiastically around the speaker’s podium and prayed. It was heartfelt and joyous and introduced religion to the day’s proceedings. Of course, there is often an ambiguity and self-justification when we mortals invoke God to our causes. To the Israelites watching from the heights as their enemies foundered, joyous prayer was certainly in order. But one can also conjure up a vision of the Crusaders having swathed their way through the streets of Jerusalem, kneeling on the red stones to praise God for it all. Were those prayers  in the chamber any more “American” than the Masonic hymns and prayers at the building’s dedication? And just what is this temple really dedicated to?

It’s easy, visiting Washington, D.C., for the first time, to be overwhelmed by the theme park evocation of Greek and Roman icons. No doubt the captains of a new republic wanted to invoke those historic models. I sometimes wonder if Masonry did not play a big role in this tendency; certainly the yeoman soldier of the Revolution was more inclined to pioneering cabins than marble monuments. But the minds that framed the republic were versed in the philosophy of Greece and Rome. They were familiar with the Roman historians and knew the reasons for the downfall of Rome; and as inheritors of English Protestantism, they knew much about Rome’s fall and its devolution to the force of religious compulsion. Greece attracted them by its proto-democratic ideals. But Greece was never fully democratic in the way we wish things now; property, class and varying human value qualified it too much. 

I like the comment of Erin Shaler in a compilation “Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America,” printed by the University of Virginia’s press in 2011. “For Jefferson,” she wrote, “the classics remained a venue of cultural escapism.” Yes, why not? After all, this novus ordo seclorum, or new world order, envisioned by Jefferson and his peers in the new and old worlds had to rise above the old, not copy it.

To me and many who have studied these things, it is obvious the American republic owes much more to the Enlightenment/Protestant Reformation views that had already shaken Europe than to an old order of legend and chipped columns. They were simultaneously establishing an ideal of human self-determination that had been birthed in the Reformation and  aiming at a governmental structure that would keep at arm’s length humanity’s tendency to use political power to enforce religious dogma. That risk was imminently obvious in France, even as the Constitution came together. And the fall of a Rome riven by factions was a lesson they had noted and debated vigorously. 

Which brings me back to a point that has long motivated this magazine: separation of church and state and the call to avoid the siren call of Christian nationalism. In calling for a separation of church and state, we are not against religion but desperate to protect it. In decrying the easy invocation of God in partisan squabble and crowd tumult, we warn against both the persecutions of pagan Rome and the zealous persecutions that followed an emperor’s vision. And I would warn also to heed the final fall of Rome. Rome was indeed sacked by Germanic warriors; but they were not pagans—they were Christian allies of a different doctrinal view. And doubtless they prayed grateful prayers as they ransacked that city.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."