North America

Pilgrims to the Shrine of Democracy

August 16, 2007

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Photo credit: Mark Beckman
Mount Rushmore gateA recent visit to Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota had all the elements of pilgrimage about it.  The drive across the barren stretches of Wyoming and the appearance of the Black Hills on the horizon brought the expectation of an encounter with a place "sacred" to Americans.  (The Black Hills themselves were considered a "sacred realm" for many American Indian peoples before Europeans appeared on the continent.)  Seeing images of four of the foundational U.S. presidents carved in stone had all the joyful anticipation of the journeys up to Jerusalem so celebrated in the psalms.

Mount Rushmore plazaAfter entering the Black Hills, the drive becomes slow and windy, the sacred realm hidden by the thickness of the forest.  The fragrance of evergreens fills our nostrils.  Suddenly the mountain emerges in the distance.  One enters the outer gates (to pay the entrance fee and gain access to parking of course!) and soon leaves the car behind.  The approach to the "shrine of democracy," as it has been so named, begins on a broad path flanked by the flags of states and territories related to the people of our nation.  The oldest states are closest to Rushmore itself, antiquity in proximity to the venerable images.  One passes beneath a first great arch.  Where are the fonts of holy water?  The pilgrims become quieter.  We are outside of ordinary time and space.  One passes beneath a second great arch.  The approach to the inner sanctum grows closer.  Finally, a third great arch appears and one enters the portico beneath the carving of Rushmore.

Mount RushmoreThe beauty of nature and the work of human hands merge in a moment of awe and wonder.  Photographs have not prepared me for the unexpected surge of emotion in this place.  The dreams of our young nation, the values of democracy, equality and freedom, the greatest hopes of which we are possible, come flooding in.  My eyes tear up.  There is Washington, the first U.S. president; his gaze seems to radiate quiet confidence and purpose, serene determination.  There is Jefferson, gazing outward beyond the Black Hills with a look of farsighted vision across the area of the Louisiana Purchase acquired during his presidency.  He who wrote: "We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  His vision seems to see beyond the years to these eternal truths.  There is Lincoln, to the far right, with a gaze of reflective serenity, who kept the nation whole and desired its healing after civil war.  Finally, tucked between Lincoln and Jefferson, the face of Theodore Roosevelt appears (he didn't like to be called "Teddy"), radiating a sense of humor and adventure, the father of our national parks.  The four appear together, reminding me of the image of Moses, Elijah and Jesus on Tabor.  It is good that we are here, perhaps we should erect three booths?

Mount Rushmore close upThe "acolyte" appears (a seasonal park ranger who works as a teacher the other nine months) and initiates us into the sacred history of the place.  She leads us around the presidential path that meanders in the trees beneath the founding fathers, sharing stories of their significance to our history as a nation, a veritable liturgy of the word.  We see the figures from various angles, rays of light catching them in different perspectives.  We engage in the ritual of taking photographs, as millions have done before.  (In some of the reflective moments, I am reminded too of some of the shameful ways we Americans have failed to live up to our national values -- thinking of the ways we treated the Peoples native to this continent, to mention but one!  Perhaps a Confiteor would be in order?  However, this is not a day for guilt or sadness, but of rekindling our best hopes.)

George WashingtonAll too soon the journey ends.  We leave the sacred realm past its three arches.  Our car descends the drive, one last glimpse of Washington through the trees.  Sacred time and place have accomplished their purpose.  Though tired from travel, we are renewed, full of gratitude and wonder.  We are reminded of the greater vision of our founding fathers and mothers.  This vision stands before us as a challenge for the future.  Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln seem to say:  "Look beyond these hills to the greater and better good of humanity!"

Rev. Mark Beckman lives in Franklin, Tennessee.