April 18, 2023
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v2.1 Reference

American Kairos

Washington National Cathedral and the New Civil Religion

A history of Washington National Cathedral and the theory of an American civil religion.

In 1792, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the first city planner of Washington, DC, introduced the idea of a "great church for national purposes." Unlike L'Enfant's plans for the White House, the US Capitol, and the National Mall, this grand temple to the republic never materialized. But in 1890, the Episcopal Church began planning what is known today as Washington National Cathedral.

In American Kairos, Richard Benjamin Crosby chronicles the history of not only the building but also the idea that animates it, arguing that the cathedral is a touchstone site for the American civil religion—the idea that the United States functions much like a religion, with its own rituals, sacred texts, holy days, and so on. He shows that the National Cathedral can never be the church L'Enfant envisioned, but it can be a starting point for studying the conflicts of belonging, ideology, and America's place in the world that define the American civil religion. By examining correspondence between L'Enfant, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others, and by diving into Washington National Cathedral's archives, Crosby uncovers a crucial gap in the formation of the nation's soul.

While L'Enfant's original vision was never realized, Washington National Cathedral reminds us that perhaps it can be. The cathedral is one of the great rhetorical and architectural triumphs in the history of American religion. Without government mandate or public vote, it has claimed its role as America's de facto house of worship, a civil religious temple wherein Americans conduct some of their highest, holiest rituals, including state funerals and National Day of Prayer services.

About the Author

Richard Benjamin Crosby (Provo, UT) is an associate professor of English at Brigham Young University.


"This is a phenomenal book. Insightful and engaging, American Kairos is a brilliant analysis of the Washington National Cathedral, tracing its history, design, and operation through the lens of American civil religion and the sacred symbols that have long shaped public life in the United States. Crosby argues that the complex history of the Cathedral parallels the complex history of American civil religion; but more than that, the Cathedral illustrates how American civil religion has always been tenuous and conflicted, from the founding era through the present."

- Paul Henry Stob, Vanderbilt University, author of Intellectual Populism: Democracy, Inquiry, and the People

"American Kairos makes a powerful case for rethinking the basics of American democracy. Cosby deftly synthesizes history, theory, and applied criticism to open vistas more compelling, more timely, more necessary than ever."

- Stephen Howard Browne, The Pennsylvania State University, author, The First Inauguration: George Washington and the Invention of America
Johns Hopkins University Press
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9781421446424 : american-kairos-crosby
April 18, 2023
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