In the aftermath of the Republicans’ recapture of the House of Representatives, Americans are asking what role the House Republicans will take for themselves as a part of the federal government. Republican organizations such as Newt Gingrich’s Renewing American Leadership and the Congressional Prayer Caucus have made it clear that they will work at “preserving America’s Judeo-Christian heritage”.
What is this Judeo-Christian heritage that the Republicans speak of? Neither Judaism nor Christianity were founded in North America, and the heritage of Native American supernatural beliefs runs much deeper than Christianity or Judaism. Belief in the god of Jews, Christians and Muslims is in sharp decline in the United States. Furthermore, the Constitution, the fundamental law of our nation, has no Christian or Judaic content, but explicitly separates religion from the activities of the federal government. So, what are the Republicans talking about?
Theocratic Republicans believe that, underneath the secular establishment of American government, there is a pervasive Christian identity. They note that some of the Founding Fathers of the United States were Christians, and therefore conclude that the USA was intended to be a Christian nation with a Christian government. They’ve even attempted to rewrite history by arranging for the Christian motto “In God We Trust” to be carved into the new Capitol Visitor Center. In explaining his legislation to require that motto to be engraved in the center, Congressman Randy Forbes acknowledged that he was attempting to use the power of the federal government to push Americans into Christian religious worship. “If we can succeed in getting ‘In God We Trust’ engraved in the United States Capitol Visitor Center, I believe we can succeed in engraving that motto on the hearts of Americans once again,” he said.
As much as Representative Forbes and his Republican followers try to insert the appearance of a national Christian heritage into physical structure of the U.S. Capitol, there’s actually no mention of Jesus Christ in the architecture of the U.S. Capitol. There is prominent mention of other gods from a non-Christian religion in the building, however. Second only to the statue of Freedom in terms of height and architectural prominence in the Capitol building is a painting entitled the Apotheosis of Washington.
Apotheosis is an ancient Greek term for the transformation of human beings into the rank of gods. It’s what the Greeks believed could happen to their heroes, such as Heracles and Perseus, and it’s what early citizens attempted to do with their own hero, George Washington. In the Apotheosis of Washington is the largest piece of artwork in the U.S. Capitol, the painting on the underside of the Capitol Dome, George Washington is shown dressed in a divine purple robe, on the throne of Zeus.
The Christian god isn’t shown in this gigantic mural. Other gods are in the painting, however – and none of them are from the Abrahamic tradition. There’s Poseidon, and Ceres, and Artemis, and Athena. There’s Hermes and Hephaestus, and naked breasted Aphrodite too.
Conspiracy theorists, such as those at the site AboveTopSecret, have attempted to interpret this painting connecting the government of the United States to ancient Greek religion in terms of a sinister anti-Christian plot, asking, “Does the Capital Dome symbolize the entrance to Hades?” Clearly, that’s not the case, because Hades isn’t in the painting. Hades is a god, not a realm anyone could gain entrance to. The underworld of the U.S. Capitol was designed to be the tomb of George Washington, not a mythological underworld.
The more obvious interpretation of the Apotheosis of Washington is that the Founding Fathers regarded the government of the new United State of America as an outgrowth of ancient Greek civilization, in rejection of the Christian civilization of Europe, and without reference to the ancient theocracy of Israel. If religion was to be connected with the USA, that religion would be more like the polytheistic beliefs of the ancient Greeks, including their cults of hero worship. This connection with the ideals of ancient Greece can be seen throughout the oldest buildings of Washington D.C., in the statues outside government offices, and in the form of those offices and monuments, which look like ancient Greek temples, not like Christian cathedrals.
If Republicans want to look honestly at the religious heritage of the U.S. government, they should turn toward the ancient Greeks, not toward Christianity. Of course, the highest ideals of the Founding Fathers were represented not in art or engravings, but in the document of the Constitution of the United States of America, which created the legal structure by which the government of their new nation would be formed. That Constitution forbade any religious test for public office, and banned the “establishment of religion” by government.
The new Republican leaders of the U.S. House should remember that, though the habit of mythological metaphors from the religious sphere persists, the strength of the USA comes from the separation of government from religious affairs.