In his initial plan for the city of Washington, Pierre L’Enfant envisioned a secular church, equidistant from the White House and the Capitol, that would enshrine the nation’s civic ideals. That church was never built. Instead, we ended up with the National Cathedral, a private Episcopal institution that often hosts state funerals but isn’t connected to the federal government.
The cathedral is an impressive structure that packs in the tour buses, but it’s hardly what L’Enfant proposed. In the new book American Kairos, Brigham Young University professor Richard Benjamin Crosby makes an odd and intriguing argument: that the absence of L’Enfant’s national church has done real harm to America’s social fabric.
In the late 18th century, L’Enfant believed that the government should create a national civic identity to help bind the US’s fractious populace. “The nation wanted to build at its founding a grand church—a civic temple to the Republic,” says Crosby. “But they had no intention of making it a Christian cathedral, let alone a medieval Christian cathedral in the English tradition.”
Opponents of the national-church idea—including Thomas Jefferson—thought the government shouldn’t tell Americans how or what to think, and that notion won out in the end. Crosby believes this left American civic identity to be defined by private interests—including the Episcopal Church, which began building the National Cathedral in 1907.
At the cathedral’s inception, its goal was to place Episcopalianism at the heart of American spirituality and to vanquish Roman Catholicism, which the cathedral’s bigoted founders saw as a scourge. And while the church has since become far more inclusive, it remains a distinctly Christian place. Crosby doesn’t think that’s appropriate for a civic temple—and he believes L’Enfant would agree.
But the author doesn’t just want to critique the National Cathedral—he thinks we should actually build the secular church L’Enfant had planned. “It would be a fascinating project to imagine what it would look like, what its purpose should be, who should be enshrined within it, what rituals should take place there, and to what end,” he says. “I honestly don’t know if it would solve many of our ills, but I think it’s a step in that direction.”
This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Washingtonian.