Happy Presidents’ Day?

Today’s the bank holiday popularly known as Presidents’ Day, but technically known as Washington’s Birthday. Peter Roff at US News & World Report finds this “a Ridiculous Insult to George Washington,” because we’re celebrating all the presidents, good and bad, rather than just George Washington. The result, he argues, was that the holiday caused George Washington to begin “his slow descent from the pantheon of immortals that have guided this nation for more than 200 years.” The solution Roff proposes is that Washington’s Birthday “must be reclaimed in his honor, and his alone as part of an effort to reaffirm our shared national heritage.” It’s sort of sola Washington for civic religionists. To reaffirm our “shared national heritage,” we have to stop celebrating the other presidents comprising that heritage because some of those presidents weren’t immortals.

Roff’s argument is given in expressly religious terms with a “pantheon of immortals that have guided this nation for more than 200 years.” It reminds me of the painting on the ceiling of the U.S. Capitol Building appropriately titled The Apotheosis of Washington (apotheosis, by the way, means “to make a god”). Here’s what the center of the fresco looks like:


If you can’t tell, that’s George Washington sitting as God in Heaven, with a lot of American angels surrounding him. The fresco is more than mildly unsettling. Washington was a great president, but he had his fair share of serious mistakes which are worth thoughtful consideration rather than idolatry.

Equally disturbing is the Lincoln Memorial. It’s patterned off of the Doric Temple of Zeus in Olympia, and contains the inscription over the statue of Lincoln:

IN THIS TEMPLE
AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE
FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION
THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
IS ENSHRINED FOREVER

In this Temple??? This is civic religion at its most explicit: portraying Washington and Lincoln as gods to be worshiped, rather than civil servants to be admired.

I actually hope that Peter Roff is right, and that Presidents’ Day begins a path towards considering our Founding Fathers more sanely.

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