London Calling: The Religion of Nationalism

For the past week and a half, I’ve been soaking up the sights in London. This is only my second trip overseas, and once again I find myself longing to do this more often. London is an amazing city teeming with excitement, diversity and history (and pubs). As someone who loves art history, it has been a feast for the eyes. I particularly enjoyed exploring both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey – these two houses of worship are very different from one another, but have a common thread which runs between them. As I walked through them, I found myself thinking about politics and religion in the U.S., and how the concept behind the Anglican Church influences us today.

My first stop was at Westminster Abbey. While it was built over multiple eras and has a variety of stylings to show for it, the Gothic signatures are the most dominant – flying buttresses, an enormous rose window, and my favorite – stunning, stretch-to-the-sky rib vaults. The nave is particularly breath-taking; I kept looking upward as I walked along it. The abbey is beautiful and at times seems to defy gravity.

Unlike the churches in America or the cathedrals I’ve seen in Italy, there is an unmistakeable secular feel once you are inside of the church. As I later joked to Chris, who couldn’t join me for the excursion, “anybody who’s anybody is buried in Westminster Abbey!” There are so many tombs here, you are practically tripping over tombs to get to more tombs. Images or statues of the crucifix are lost or forgotten when placed next to these often grand monuments to the rich and the powerful. When I think of the history and evolution of the Anglican Church, I find it interesting to see the theme of placing images of royalty in the church where one would expect to find a Biblical figure.

The Lady Chapel, housing the tomb of Elizabeth I (and is also the burial place for her half-sister Mary I) is an area of exceptional beauty, filled with natural light and elaborately carved pendants and fan vaults. According to the Abbey literature, the room is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but the architecture and positioning of the tomb make it clear that Elizabeth I’s tomb is the main focus of the room. I would even make the argument that there was a conscious effort to equate Elizabeth I with the Virgin Mary in this space.

There is a celebration of the humanities at Westminster Abbey as well, with the famed “Poet’s Corner” as well as monuments honoring Purcell and Handel, who were both buried here. It is only when you enter the older portion of the church – the undercroft – where you feel a sense of piety and quiet spiritual reverence through its simplicity.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, its current iteration constructed in 1675-1711 after the prior cathedral burned in the Great Fire, has a different character than Westminster. It’s built in the English Baroque style, with a Romanesque approach to it’s arches and vaulting systems. Aesthetically, it’s a “heavier-looking” building than Westminster and is more of a celebration of massiveness achieved through an open, rounded horizontal design versus the celebration of the vertical displayed in Westminster. It has a far more religious feel to it than Westminster Abbey, with images on the dome telling the story of St. Paul’s life. Again, though, there is a secular feel on the main floor with the statues featured. The religious iconography is out of reach and at times difficult to see (in part because much of it is so high up on the ceiling of the massive dome), but the secular figures are large and at arm’s reach. This isn’t to say it is a primarily secular space – the high altar, chapel and quire are all very traditional in design – it is just more focused on the secular than one would see in the American churches or Italian duomos.

As I walked through St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, I kept thinking about using art as a way to connect leaders and religion. In these two grand spaces, you see a governing body that intertwined itself with religion to encourage people to equate their nationalism with their religiousness and vice versa. The role of St. Peter and subsequent popes are replaced with a nation’s leader and subsequent leaders, in a way that encourages people to believe their leader has the “keys to the kingdom,” that is, the direct line to God. Supporting your leaders is supporting your nation, and supporting your nation is supporting your God. In return, God will bless your nation, which blesses your leaders and by association, you. God Save the King.

When you look at American history, you see a similar trend of equating nationalism with religiousness, particularly when the nation’s ideology is challenged. Consider the phrase “In God We Trust.” It appears in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, which was written during the War of 1812. When we were a nation divided during the Civil War, the Union added “In God We Trust” to coins as a way to indicate God was on the side of the Union. In the 50s, as a response to the anti-religious sentiment of communism at the height of the Cold War, we changed our nation’s motto from “e pluribus unum” to “In God We Trust” and added the phrase to all paper money. Finally, following the September 11 attacks, posters with the phrase “In God We Trust” filled the schools, again suggesting God is on the side of the United States. Once again, supporting your leaders is supporting your nation, supporting your nation is supporting your God. If we all are patriotic enough, God will Bless America. Whether you believe this or not is entirely up to you, but the parallels in history are fascinating (to me, at least).

There is one noticeable difference between the U.S. and the U.K.: when I look at the reverence placed on kings and queens in Westminster Abbey and the similar VIPs buried in St. Paul’s, I notice a certain secularism to the Anglican Church and to England in general that we don’t have in the U.S. The effect in England seems to give the religious areas a more secular feel, whereas in the U.S. the effect gives our secular areas a more religious feel. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m interested in reading the various theories people may have explaining it.

As I come across other notable things while in London, I’ll share them with you – most will likely they be far more fluffy and touristy than this post. I’ve seen many amazing things here and have a few suggestions to those of you who are considering a visit. Until then – cheers!