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Republic of True Believers

On the patroness of America.

Washington, D.C. is a strange city, stranger than New York in some respects. New York is so big that its oddities seem statistically justified—infinite monkeys, infinite typewriters. D.C. isn’t even the twentieth largest city in America; by global standards, it’s a good-sized hamlet. Consequently, its oddities are more pronounced, hint at something more organized, deliberate, even conspiratorial.

One of these characteristic oddities is that Washington has a number of large private or quasi-private estates and quasi-estates. The greatest of these have been turned into museums and public gardens—Hillwood and Dumbarton Oaks—but there are still plenty of moldering Beaux-Arts piles in Georgetown and Gold Coast, hulking behind ivy-ridden brick walls. (Indeed, Dumbarton Oaks’ director lives in one of these, the former residence of John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor.) The particulars of the post-War settlement were decided in the great hall at Dumbarton Oaks, a cavern of medieval German woodwork and dark tapestries. Who knows what is being discussed in the dining rooms and parlors behind these haunted-looking gables and porches?

This is the charm of Peter Sellers’s last movie, Being There, which captures the feel of the place in the late Seventies (although the Biltmore served as the set for the millionaire sage Mr. Rand’s pompous estate). Grandeur, self-seriousness unto silliness, a whiff of the Masonic or occult, endemic mediocrity and incompetence, and the fact that is always about to burst into the open: Everyone, from the greatest oligarch down to Sellers’s mentally disabled gardener, is making it up as he goes along. Even the legendary grandees who stalked Washington’s most rarefied halls of power—George Kennan, Henry Adams, Donald Rumsfeld—were improvisers, syncretists. The American ethos is captured in Rand’s tomb: a pyramid with the All-Seeing Eye, and, below it, the fortune-cookie slogan “Life is a state of mind.”

It is in this spirit of magpie mediocrity that you must approach the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in the northeastern quadrant of the city, in the heart of “the Little Vatican,” a neighborhood dominated by the Catholic University of America and religious houses. It’s a frankly bizarre construction: a mashup of Byzantine and Romanesque, with a gigantic Gothic rose window popped in the front for good measure, a perfect spiritual match for the Second Empire–Greek Revival travesties of the old D.C. It has good points and bad points, pretty chapels and very, very ugly ones. The remaining unadorned portions are constantly being carved up to hand out a little share of the church to every fresh immigrant group and its characteristic Marian devotions. (Even Turkey, Catholic pop. thirty-five thousand, has a tiny oratory next to the appalling chapel built by Bob Hope.) You probably have to have grown up around it to be really fond of it.

Today is its patronal feast, and the patronal feast of the United States—the rest of the Americas get Our Lady of Guadalupe next week. The Sixth Council of Baltimore declared Mary as the Immaculate Conception patroness of the United States in 1846. An odd patroness for this country’s assimilationist hierarchy to choose—the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is most associated with Blessed Pius IX, who promulgated it eight years later in what his critics and enemies regarded as the height of old-world superstition and Romish autocracy.

Maybe they knew what they were doing. There is a fanatical streak in the American spirit—John Brown stalking the frontier with his broadsword, Brigham Young leading war bands across the prairie. Our government is the product of men who followed a few eccentric ideas to their bitter end; our government’s failures come in large part because the American people are insufficiently cynical about the structures of the state. The United States is a republic of true believers. It comes from living on the edge of the world, something we have forgotten that we do in these latter days. The Immaculate Conception is nothing if not a dogma for fanatics.

The old, genteel Washington, with its foibles and self-importance, its eccentrics and imposters, is still there; you just have to look for it a little harder. It’s a capital that fits America, I think—that absurd mix of urbanity (or feigned urbanity) and naïveté and gravity, the sense that the city itself is an improvised conspiracy of great power and dark magic that none of its wielders really understand. And the Shrine and its patroness fit the capital. There is a beauty to that.

Mary Immaculate, pray for us Americans in all our idiosyncrasy and damnedness; pray for our country.