In truth, throughout American history, invocations of hallowed ground - and controversies over what exactly hallows it and what it is hallowed for - are more the rule than the exception. But even as elements of our collective faith shift, what's virtually constant is the core belief that the nation was chosen by God Almighty to illuminate the world. The belief in national elevation and divine election has stirred the souls of presidents from Thomas Jefferson to George W. Bush. The very terrain is streaked with the idea of sacredness - and still, there is an unceasing fight over what to hold sacred. If ground zero is hallowed ground, what is the faith in whose name we deem it sacred?
Indeed, the ground of this continent was hallowed, decreed a "new Israel," before most European settlers ever laid eyes on these shores. In 1630, the Puritan minister John Cotton preached of a "land of promise" to John Winthrop's voyagers aboard the Arbella as they were about to set sail from Southampton, drawing his text from 2 Samuel 7:10: "Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel . . . that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more. . . ."
Even the deist Thomas Jefferson - who was so far from orthodox Christianity as to have taken up a razor to slice out of his own version of the Gospels all references to miracles, angels, and the divinity of Jesus - declared in his first inaugural that Americans "possess[ed] a chosen country," and in his last speech from the White House spoke of "this solitary republic of the world" as "the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government." Sacredness was the coin of the realm.
The territorial idea of America's sacred mission continued through various incarnations. Imperial claims to the entire continent culminated in war with Mexico and the idea of "manifest destiny." But the belief that Americans had been chosen to do the work of God was virtually unexceptionable.
The most striking variation came from the man who is the closest we have to a national saint: Abraham Lincoln. Shortly before assuming the presidency, Lincoln spoke tantalizingly of Americans as "this almost chosen people" - suggesting that we had not quite arrived, that we were a people who must forever work to be found worthy of having been chosen. To Lincoln, chosenness was not a prize or a reward for virtue but an honor and a burden. But the deeply religious Lincoln also made room for the tradition of sacred ground - for example, on Nov. 19, 1863, when he dedicated the soldiers' cemetery at Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke of "the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here" and "hallowed" the land.
So it was very much in the American grain when, on Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and called it "this hallowed spot." King's "I Have a Dream" speech has come to be virtually canonical, if promiscuously brandished. Its genius was in its luminous refashioning of an idea of American destiny that embraced the language of divinity: "Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children. . . . 'And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.' "
War tends to concentrate the mind on the sacred. The proximity of death raises ultimate questions, and ultimate questions tend to elicit transcendent answers. The war that struck home on Sept. 11, 2001, unconventional in so many ways, only reinfused America's cultural and political life with the language of ultimate things - which is, in truth, the primary public language that America has spoken for centuries. No matter how many times "civil religion" and "secular faith" are said to have supplanted old-time religion as the wave of the future - and no matter how scornful the old and new atheists - it should not surprise us to see religious language move back to the center of American political life.
No movement or party has a monopoly, nor should anyone casually yield a claim to it. What then? Rather than embrace the idea of national chosenness unequivocally, or reject it as nothing but dead tradition, let us wrestle with it, understanding that a belief in the nation's exceptional nature can ignite new generations and serve as an engine of achievement, not a force of arrogance and ruin.
If we follow the real Lincoln - not selections from the Great Emancipator tethered to the tea party's political ambitions - and listen to the better angels of our nature, we shall embrace not only privileges but responsibilities. If we do so, we may come to understand that there is nothing our faith considers more hallowed than the freedom to worship without fear or prejudice. Without turning its back on the idea of America's mission, the republic can restore its honor. Downtown Manhattan can become the proverbial city upon a hill.
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