If one looks at a map of all the illustrious Gothic cathedrals in Western Europe, it would resemble a preschooler’s attempt to put sprinkles on a sugar cookie – the map would be covered in locations. However, glance at a map of grand Gothic cathedrals in the United States, and only one would be present on the map. This is not necessarily bad, for a cookie is surely overpowered by too many sprinkles.
The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., may well be one of the last great Gothic cathedrals built, and while it is similar to the famed cathedrals scattered across Western Europe, it stands alone, without others to distract from its glory. It differs not only in its lone status, but also in its message.
The National Cathedral was not built for purely religious reasons; it contains messages of the religion of America – a concept Charles Haynes, a senior scholar on religious liberty and religion in America at the First Amendment Center, would call “freedom of conscience.” The Cathedral was erected to commemorate this religion of the United States and our shared history.
One difference between the National Cathedral and others in its class lies in the small details within the walls. The National Cathedral has vivid stained-glass windows – as do many other cathedrals – yet its windows do not just depict religious scenes. Many of the windows tell stories of American triumph and struggle. For example, there is a window depicting biblical conflict juxtaposed with a scene from the American Civil War. There is also a brilliant window devoted to space that actually contains a piece of the moon.
While the typical Gothic cathedral has statues of saints, the National Cathedral has statues of its own heroes, such as Abraham Lincoln. Also, while the grand European cathedrals were indicators of the wealth and might of the Catholic Church, the National Cathedral stands to bind the Christian faith with religion, as Karen Armstrong explained it once used to be. The National Cathedral stands as a testament that within a free democracy, Christianity can prosper and grow alongside science and freedom of conscience.