I just got back from a trip to Washington DC, and man, that city is covered in quotes.
Every important building, memorial and monument is hallowed by words that designers chose to guard the integrity and guide the morality of America’s people, from generation to generation.
Spend a few hours visiting attractions in the capital, and you’re struck by how thoroughly DC is a city stamped by aspiration. Our seat of government is covered in words about who we hope to be as a people. The words may not testify to who we actually are as a nation, at any given time; Rather, they speak to the kind of nation we want to be, and believe we can be.
For those willing to study and pay attention, our national monuments remind us how different our personal and national conduct has been from our engraved ideals, over the course of our history.
There’s a lengthy anti-slavery quote from Thomas Jefferson engraved at his memorial, despite the fact that Jefferson himself enslaved 609 (!) human beings (whom he did not free during his lifetime) and built his fortune on their exploitation.
Lincoln’s memorial features his entire second inaugural address, which casts a vision for peace and vitality in America, which he says would only be possible after the eradication of slavery from the nation. Lincoln’s first inaugural address, in which he explicitly stated that neither he nor the congress would take any action to abolish slavery, didn’t get engraved onto his legacy, go figure.
On the wall of the Holocaust Museum, there is a quote from Jimmy Carter, expressing confidence that America would never allow such an atrocity to happen again. The 39th President spoke these words before the US and the international community allowed genocide to proceed in Bosnia and Rawanda.
So yeah, our national ideals don’t necessarily represent our actions.
And because of this uncomfortable truth, because our nation often does not abide by the principles we enshrine in quotes on our monuments, it’s a deliberate choice for me to call these words ‘aspirational’ and not ‘hypocritical.’
I do choose to call these words aspirational, because despite the fact that our leaders throughout history have failed to fully embody the ideals we claim to uphold as Americans, the words we’ve chosen to immortalize on our monuments are not congratulatory statements about our own inherit righteousness (for the most part).
Rather, the words on our monuments are essentially words of judgment – imploring us to always compare the ways we are conducting ourselves in society and government to the eternal principles of honor, fidelity and justice that we believe should undergird the life of our nation.
“Each of us bears responsibility for our action and for our failure to act. Here we will learn that we must intervene when we see evil arise. Here we will learn more about the moral compass by which we navigate our lives and by which countries will navigate the future.” – George H.W. Bush, from the Holocaust Museum
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we have provided enough for those who have too little.” – Franklin Roosevelt, from the FDR Memorial
“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, from the Capital Building
Monumental quotes are bold assertions, not of who we are, but of who we are called to be as Americans.
In DC, I never saw an engraving of the statement “America is the greatest country on earth,” despite the popularity this sentiment among elected officials on t.v. (If such an engraving does exist on a national monument, memorial or building, please send me a pic, so I can adjust my claims!)
Instead, I read quotes time and again that insist that American peace and vitality depend on her people choosing in every generation to live lives of honor and hard work, and to rise valiantly to meet the highest standards of moral courage.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
– From the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
The wisdom we’ve etched in stone is about striving to be who are meant to be.
If indeed a community ought to immortalize any common commitment, it seems altogether fitting and good to me, that we’d engrave at our most sacred sites, not a law or a label, but a common calling.
This post was written as a devotional for The Table, where Rob Leveridge is pastor.
The Table is a Christian church in Davenport, Iowa pursuing transformation:
from greed toward generosity
from violence toward peacemaking
from isolation toward neighborliness
from fear toward faith
Worship Sundays at 5pm
102. E 2nd Street, Davenport, Iowa