Today, we took a grand tour of London, including spending considerable time in Westminster Abbey and walking throughout some of the City of London—which is the financial sector of London. I asked my students to write about what struck them as uniquely British—or at least, different—from the United States in their journals for the evening.
I’ve spend some time pondering this question, and my thoughts keep going back to Westminster Abbey, which was founded in 960. Obviously, the United States is far younger than Great Britain and, as a republic, doesn’t have a hereditary monarchy. But we don’t really have a place like Westminster Abbey either, which simultaneously manages to play important roles in the nation’s politics, religion, and cultural history. The kings and queens of the nation until the establishment of the Windsor dynasty are buried there, as are important military, political, scientific, and literary figures. When Queen Elizabeth dies, Charles, the Prince of Wales, will be crowned there. And the church itself remains an important part of the religious life of the Anglican Church.
There is no similar place in the United States. There is no official state religion per the U.S. Constitution. American presidents are not buried in one place, but scattered throughout the nation per their expressed wishes. We don’t honor our literary or artistic greats in any one place either, and the peaceful transfer of power takes place routinely on the steps of the U.S. Capitol--and rarely upon the sudden death of our head of state. Quite simply, there is no one place that embodies the cultural, religious, and political heart of the American nation like there is in Great Britain.
In the United States, there is no one place which binds our nation together on so many dimensions like Westminster Abbey. The only analog, perhaps, is the Constitution itself which represents the collective hopes and dreams of the American people who are bound together by its enduring principles (and sometimes competing) of freedom and equality.And while the Constitution can be visited in the National Archives and is a remarkable accomplishment, sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have one national building to celebrate what it means to be American in all its varied dimensions.