Washington, D.C., As a Pilgrimage Center

Jeffrey F. Meyer
University of North Carolina, Charlotte
Religious Studies

( ) Religious terms have been used to describe the U.S. capital since it was first planned. Thomas Jefferson called the capitol a "temple of Liberty" and made use of analogies with ancient Rome: the House of Congress, modelled on the Pantheon, was considered comparable to the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Both overlooked a Tiber river. Both cities were built as the center and made for the world.

( ) This paper is meant to explore the usefulness of the idea of pilgrimage to interpret the meaning of the ceremonial core of Wahington. It acknowledges the importance of centering, in both space and time, a capital whose major building is a microcosm of the universe. It examines three major axes which constitute the ceremonial core of Wahington: the great axis from Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, the shorter axis from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial, and Pennsylvania Avenue which links the two power centers to White House and Capitol (and Supreme Court). Thwo of these axes have become the loci of important rituals. Some of the rituals, like the quadrennial inauguration, are organized by the political elites. While mentoning these, the paper will focus on other ritual occasions, more spontaneous and ephemeral in nature, which are expressions of certain social groups seeking power and participation in a greater society, and could well be seen as "self-organizing systems". In this sense the Mall espeically, has become a forum for contention, for shaping of social indentity of various formerly excluded groups in twentieth century America.

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