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The Prince, the President, and the Providence of the Temple

Prince William, the second-in-line to the British throne and its future heir, visited the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem Thursday. His visit was the first official visit by a member of Britain's royal family to Israel, and his appearance at the Kotel has enormous significance. So did the earlier visit of Donald Trump, the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Kotel. The two heads of state of the English-speaking world thus acknowledged the undying connection of the living Jewish people to the ancient Jewish Temple, as well as the State of Israel's sovereignty over Judaism's most holy site. This is of such high moment that no American head of state ventured to do so before.

The prince and the president did more than validate Israel's claim to its holy sites in Jerusalem, though. They came not only as rulers but as pilgrims, offering prayers at the retaining wall of the Mount on which the Temple once stood. By doing so they did homage to the most importance pillar of Western governance, namely that government itself depends on a sense of the sacred.

What makes governments legitimate? What makes it possible for a nation-state to rise above the mere affinity of tribe and clan and assert its permanence as home and refuge of its people? What entitles it to inflict violence on those at home or abroad who would harm it, and require of its youth that they shed blood in its defense? In one form or another the nation-state must embody a sense of the sacred, by which I mean the aspiration to eternity that makes possible our individual hope of transcending earthly existence, and in extreme conditions takes precedence even over the bonds of family.

In an essay for the London journal Standpoint earlier this year I argued that Britain and the United States, mother country and daughter, embody a sense of the sacred in different ways. In America the locus of sanctity is the individual, an extension of the Protestant belief that every individual receives revelation directly from Scripture without mediation; in Anglican Britain, the monarchy is the locus of the sacred. As I wrote in Standpoint:

The sanctity of the British Constitution is embodied in the monarch, who is anointed in emulation of the ancient kings of Israel for this reason. The sanctity of the sovereign rises above race; Elizabeth II reigns in Barbados as well as in Birmingham. The rites and rituals of the monarchy infuse Britain’s popular culture. Popular support for the monarchy bespeaks a perception that it protects the rights of Britons against the prospective tyranny of passing parliamentary majorities, by incorporating the distilled experience of centuries of British political life. The sense of the sacred that Britons attach to their Constitution provides the basis for a wholesome and successful nationalism, without making excuses for sometimes sordid acts undertaken by the British Empire in the past. The monarchy is the filter of Britain’s collective memory through which its people forms its sense of identity.