Apotheosis of Washington

God & Capitol on January 6

Will Derrick on January 12, 2021

The jarring events of January 6 warrant anger, disappointment, and action. They also require an honest look in the mirror.

If the mob that breached the U.S. Capitol revealed anything, it revealed we are a nation of contradictions. Two segments of America believe in two distinctly different “truths” regarding the nature of the 2020 Presidential election. Americans are disturbingly losing sight of how to find and define truth.

Even so, more contradictions abounded. Images of rioters violently entering were juxtaposed by the same people walking through the halls of Congress, neatly staying between velvet ropes. Like many of my colleagues who work in Congress, I have conducted tours through those same halls. Whenever I led tours, I would recommend people look up at the ceilings.

“The best views of the Capitol are up,” a former boss once told me. If the rioters had taken the time to look up, perhaps some did, they would have seen the remarkable piece of art adorning the Capitol rotunda’s ceiling: “The Apotheosis of Washington.”

George Washington sits among figures from ancient mythology, deified and enthroned. While awe-inspiring, this piece reveals America’s deepest and most concerning contradiction. Despite our founding commitment that “all men are created equal,” we idolize singular individuals in history, deifying them.

The word apotheosis means, “the elevation of someone to divine status.” Rather than this piece of art celebrating the culmination of a life in service, it has been twisted into idolatrous worship.

A sign at the Wednesday rally read, “Jesus is my God, Trump is President.” In the eyes of some, President Trump is deified, seated with Washington among gods. Many have rightly condemned the idolatry present in the Christian nationalist movement. However, truly, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9).

This is not a new phenomenon in American life and it is not limited to the person of Donald Trump. In “The Democratization of American Christianity,” Nathan Hatch writes, “Over the last two centuries, an egalitarian culture has given rise to a diverse array of powerful religious leaders, whose humble origins and common touch seem strangely at odds with authoritarian mantle that people allow them to assume.”

While focusing on religious leaders, Hatch’s larger point should not be lost. In American culture, our egalitarian impulse allows leaders to rise. They are then exalted and can so easily assume a dangerously deified position in society.

Evidence how those on the Right praise President Ronald Reagan and those on the Left praise President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even in response to this crisis, Vice President Mike Pence has been repeatedly heralded and lauded. The day after the riots at the Capitol, a headline read, “Pence rises to the occasion, to truly save America.” The book currently sitting atop The New York Times’ bestseller list is President Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land.”

Admiration of great men is warranted, but we slip into unhealthy worship without fail. Even now, we obsess with our leaders: quick to fall in love, quick to worship. As someone who loves a good presidential biography, I am particularly guilty of this.

To address the crisis we face, we cannot merely stop at condemning the events of January 6. We must be willing to look at the heart and soul of our nation. We must recognize that idolatry has long penetrated our national identity. Psalm 146:3 reads, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.” As a nation, we must repent from idolatry. We have put our trust in mortal men who will only disappoint. We mistakenly allow them to define our truth, construct our identity, direct our purpose.

On January 6, I sat locked with colleagues in our office building, disturbed and distraught. Days after, I remained distraught. The violence had been suppressed, but it shed a light on a level of brokenness, of internal contradictions that remain unsolved. At some unknown moment, however, my despair was overtaken by a conviction that we must move forward and build a better future. As we look to build, we must come to grips with our brokenness. My earnest hope is that I, like so many others, can turn away from idolizing my fellow man.

Mistakenly, we have looked to our mortal leaders of the past and present for rescue, dangerously exalting them. Yet our savior remains exalted above all.

Christ alone can set our hearts free from idolatry and allow us to look at our nation and our leaders rightly with clear eyes and clear hearts. Then, the Christian can freely love and build unity in our broken world.

Will Derrick is a congressional staffer on Capitol Hill.

  1. Comment by Robert Hulse on January 12, 2021 at 6:35 pm

    Rarely, if ever, have I agreed with a writer published in this JE forum.

    Mr. Derrick, however, is completely on point with his notion that humans have a tendency to deify “leaders” (and this is as old as civilization itself). He further speaks truth in refusing to limit this assessment to one end of the political spectrum – thus underscoring the HUMAN tendency to do this.

    My conversation with Mr. Derrick would begin with a challenge to the mythology that we are a country founded on “equality” of men – there is simply no historical evidence that this was part of our ethos. While there has been (arguably) SOME progress in the evolution of this, we are far from “equality” and the gospel we claim as our own is the only one that can facilitate the repentance required for cultural transformation.

  2. Comment by Richard L. Hardison on January 12, 2021 at 8:34 pm

    There is nothing wrong with being a Christian and a nationalist. God deal with nations, and the nations will continue into eternity. It is when we place the nation on a par, or above God, then we get trouble.

    Christian Globalism, however, is an oxymoron. Globalism is a philosophy that seeks global unity and government. Anyone reading the Book of Revelation will understand where that leads.

  3. Comment by David on January 13, 2021 at 6:47 am

    Well, Pence is now on the drop dead list of some for his part in ratifying the votes. It is also coming to light that some in the police and military withheld force to allow the rioters in enter the Capitol. Their favoritism towards the Republican Party is well known.

    In his description of what has become known as the “Big Lie,” Hitler spoke of the common people:

    “It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”— Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, vol. I, ch. X

    We see Americans acting like Germans of the 1930s believing the tale of massive voter fraud despite the inability to provide evidence of such in the many court cases brought. Recently Trump claimed the rioters were Black Lives Matter protestors, yet people still believe.

    Essentially, all of this goes back to the “culture wars” that can be traced to the debate over slavery. The Civil War map and the current political map have much in common.

  4. Comment by Gary L Wine on January 14, 2021 at 6:28 pm

    I read earlier that the Capitol is a Sacred symbol of our Democracy. I believe that the Sacred objects in the United States, after our different beliefs, is We The People.
    We need to come together as a family, in Peace. God is Sovereign, He knows exactly what is happening, I pray for peace and understanding,

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