Red Mass in Washington

On Sunday at 10 a.m., St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. will host its annual Red Mass. This Roman Catholic service is a votive mass of the Holy Spirit for members of the judiciary and the legal profession. It takes its name from the red vestments worn by clergy for masses of the Holy Spirit. One has been held in Washington annually since 1939, but both its place and its timing has changed.

The president of the United States does not usually attend the service. But on Sunday, October 2, 2005, President George W. Bush attended with the newly confirmed chief justice, John Roberts.

President George Bush walks out of St. Matthew’s Cathedral with Theodore Cardinal McCarrick and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts after attending the 52nd Annual Red Mass in Washington, DC, Sunday, October 2, 2005. White House photo by Shealah Craighead

Since Judge Brett Kavanaugh is both a practicing Catholic and a member of the Washington judiciary, I expected he has attended many times. If the Senate had already confirmed him, I’d expected to see President Trump joining him at the cathedral to celebrate his confirmation. This would have been the third D.C. church Trump had visited for services as president. (The other two are St. John’s Episcopal Church and Washington National Cathedral.) As it is, it is doubtful that the president will attend.

The Red Mass tradition dates to the middle ages but was first brought to the United States only in 1928 with a liturgy held at St. Andrew’s Church in New York City. The Washington tradition began in January 1939 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the campus of the Catholic University of America. As Thomas Tweed explains in America’s Church, the dean of the university’s law school organized the liturgy in conjunction with the beginning of the new congressional term. The honored guests were members of congress and the executive branch more than they were members of the judiciary. Harry Truman attended when he was a senator and again as vice president in 1945.

The liturgy was moved from the National Shrine to St. Matthew’s Cathedral at the beginning of the beginning of the Eisenhower administration in 1953. At the time, the shrine consisted of only the crypt church, while St. Matthew’s had long been a completed building and became the cathedral of the newly created Archdiocese of Washington in 1940. It was located several blocks from the White House, around the corner from the National Presbyterian Church which President Eisenhower attended on the morning of his inauguration and in which he was baptized on February 1, 1953. The first Red Mass at St. Matthew’s was organized by the John Carroll Society and held two weeks later, on February 15. Eisenhower attended the service the following year.

The liturgy continued to be held in January or February another two decades. On January 26, 1975, President Gerald Ford attended and heard a sermon strongly objecting to the legalization of abortion by the supreme court a year earlier. The drama of the situation generated some controversy and subsequently the service was moved to its present position on the Sunday prior to the opening of the supreme court’s new term on the first Monday in October. The opening of judicial terms has been the customary time of the liturgy for centuries. The Washington service’s move to that date, however, is linked to the Catholic church’s objection to Roe v. Wade.

A World Civil Religion

“A world civil religion could be accepted as a fulfillment and not a denial of American civil religion. Indeed, such an outcome has been the eschatological hope of American civil religion from the beginning.”

So wrote Robert Bellah near the end of his famous 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America.” I regularly read this text with students and always find Bellah’s vision of a “world civil religion” arresting. Even more so, his observation that “so far the flickering flame of the United Nations burns too low to the focus of a cult.”

I’m not surprised that Bellah thought that the UN could not do this symbolic work. But I am struck that that the UN figured so prominently in the social consciousness of his day that he thought it worth mentioning. Recently the U.S. President denounced “globalism” in favor of “patriotism” before the United Nations General Assembly. Bellah’s world was clearly different from ours

If a world civil religion with the United Nations as a focus were to develop, one of its sacred sites would surely be San Francisco, the UN’s birthplace. The UN already figures prominently in the iconography of one of the city’s sacred shrines, Grace Cathedral.

Entering this Episcopal cathedral by its main doors, one of the first things that draws a person’s attention is a mural commemorating the UN’s founding.

Founding of the United Nations 1945
Image from

Painted by Polish émigré, Jan Henryk de Rosen (1891-1982), it depicts individuals involved in the founding of the UN above the city’s Ferry Building. They are flanked by representations of Peace and Victory. Tellingly however, Victory is depicted by a representation of the Winged Victory of Samothrace in its surviving, headless, form. This underscores that the founding principle of the UN is not victory, but peace. The quotation from the preamble to the UN charter underscores this point, “We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war . . .”

Just to the left of the mural a metal casting makes the UN’s religious significance more explicit.


Potentially sacred verses of a global civil religion ring the UN emblem symbols of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Daoism, and Hinduism are arranged below.

Venturing further into the cathedral, careful observers may also see the UN symbol shining like a silver moon in a clerestory window honoring President Harry S. Truman.


It is not surprising that the United Nations should be so celebrated in the city of its birth in a mainline Protestant church. As Heather Warren showed in Theologians of a New World Order, Protestant ecumenists were instrumental in its founding. Yet, I can recall only one church in which I have seen the United Nations flag displayed in honor, St. Luke’s Episcopal in Atlanta, Georgia. Grace’s sister Episcopal cathedrals in Washington and New York are among the many Protestant churches of the twentieth-century with expansive iconographic schemes celebrating the unity of humanity. Yet, as far as I recall, neither of them give a prominent role to the United Nations.

A world civil religion, especially one in which the United Nations plays a central role, seems to be something we are only able to explore in fiction. In the 1982 movie The Wrath of Khan, the Star Trek franchise introduced the UN-inspired emblem for the United Federation of Planets for the first time. It was a ritual redolent with civil religious meaning, the funeral of one who had given his life for his friends, Commander Spock.

Paramount Pictures image via Memory Alpha

Since then the Federation and its emblem and have been treated with more religious-like ceremony in Star Trek shows and films. The idea that the United Federation of Planets is the future fulfillment of both the United States and the United Nations is evident throughout the Star Trek franchise. Here perhaps we can see an image of the global civil religion Bellah imagined.

Gothic Churches and Gothic Literature

When the American Academy of Religion met in Baltimore in 2013, I was invited to speak on Gothic revival architecture in an arts, film, literature, and media session on “The Gothic.” I believe the topic was chosen because of Baltimore’s association with Edgar Allen Poe, and most of the other panelists were discussing Gothic literature. While all our papers were well received, I didn’t think we were successful in connecting the different senses of Gothic.

Thus while catching up on publications on church architecture, I was excited to discover a new book that promises to make this connection., Ghost Storeys: Ralph Adams Cram, Modern Gothic Media, and Deconstructive Microhistory at a Canadian Church by Cameron Macdonnell. I always find Cram facinating. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

Welcome to the journey!

I’ve been pursing the history of religion in America for almost thirty years. It is high time to offer a blog of that journey.

On our road trips across the U.S., particularly between Alabama and New England, my wife, Martha, and I often “chase churches.” A phrase we coined one memorable day in Petersburg, Virginia, as we spotted one spire after another in the distance and went zipping along the city streets to discover and photograph them.

Of course church buildings rarely move. To say we “chase” them might seem odd. But in the thrill of the hunt, it does seem like you are chasing them. And they do disappear.

Disappeared Churches in D.C.

Much of my attention is focused on Washington, D.C. The Library of Congress has preserved a marvelous 1892 bird’s eye view of Washington by Currier and Ives.


A careful look at the central area of Northwest Washington shows the prominent place of churches. At least twelve identifiable churches are located between Massachusetts Ave. (running horizontally across the center of the frame) and Pennsylvania Ave. (along the bottom).


Of these only four still stand. (Two are at the eastern end of the area, St. Mary’s (Catholic) and Fifth Presbyterian (now housing the Chinese Community Church. Two Episcopal churches are at the western end, Epiphany and Ascension (now Ascension and St. Agnes).) The congregations of two others (New York Avenue Presbyterian and First Congregational) have new buildings on the same site. The rest of the buildings have disappeared and been replaced by other structures or parks.

Still other churches belong in this 1892 view, but were not included by the artist. These include Luther Place Memorial Church and Vermont Avenue Christian Church (now Mt. Olivet Lutheran).

Chasing churches requires a lot of detective work both on the ground and in the archive. I hope you’ll follow my journey.

–David Bains