The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why should Americans care about the queen? Her history is ours.

From left to right: Camilla (Duchess of Cornwall), Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Louis, Kate (Duchess of Cambridge), Princess Charlotte, Prince George and Prince William at the Buckingham Palace on June 2. (Paul Grover/AP)

As Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee proceeds — and the only British monarch most of us have ever known takes an unaccustomed bow, and corgis everywhere bask in the reflected glory of the divine right of kings — it is perhaps worth asking why Americans should care for such antiquated pageantry.

My fellow citizens of a more pragmatic bent should be impressed by 70 years of doing a hard thing well. Elizabeth has shown the unfailing dignity, stable judgment and spiritual gravity that befit the Queen of England and Defender of the Faith. Her reign has been an admirable example of “a long obedience in the same direction.” That is worth at least one huzzah.

But for some of us — even with the most tenuous genealogical ties to the mother country — the emotional identification runs deeper.

I have had the experience of taking part in welcoming ceremonies during presidential travels to a variety of nations. The Germans are wonderful people and staunch allies. But hearing a band strike up “Deutschland Über Alles” caused the hair to rise on the back of my neck. In contrast, hearing “God Save the Queen” during a state visit brought stirrings of ancient loyalty and the feeling of arriving home.

Some of this is surely a matter of setting. I’ve been to places that closet royalists might envy. I’ve stayed at Buckingham Palace (and still miss my footman, Russell). I’ve worshiped in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle (where we prayed, if memory serves, for the soul of Richard III). The White House and the Washington National Cathedral are all well and good, but the English have the best stage and setting for democracy, rooted in the glories of the past and pulled toward transcendence.

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Then there is the matter of language. The Book of Common Prayer is the great liturgy written in English by a literary master (Archbishop Thomas Cranmer). Its words and cadences follow many of us throughout our lives. The promise to “love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her, in sickness and in health.” The blunt finality of “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Such words seep into your bones.

Yet the ultimate source of affinity between Americans and their British cousins is historical. It is impossible to tell the American story without understanding the English Reformation.

This history (at least for the geeks among us) is wildly entertaining. There is no drama like Tudor drama. The enormous appetites of Henry VIII. The relentless, modernizing efficiency of Thomas Cromwell. The otherworldly innocence of Cranmer. The silent intransigence of Thomas More. The consuming ambition and dignified end of Anne Boleyn. The heretic-hunting of Bloody Mary — which filled “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” and solidified a sense of Protestant identity. And the difficult religious balancing act of Elizabeth I.

The emergence of an independent, reformed English church created at least three categories of Christian believers. First, there were Anglicans who sought a “middle way” between the extremes of Catholicism and the extremes of Protestantism. Second, there were Catholics who longed for the return of England to the papal fold. And third, there were those who practiced a stripped-down, rigorous, purified version of Protestantism. Their zeal earned this group a nickname: Puritans.

During various persecutions, fleeing Puritans were welcomed in Geneva and other places where the teachings of John Calvin were approved and practiced. The Puritans absorbed the Calvinist belief that both church and state are subject to divine law. But this was different from theocracy. Puritans believed that church and state had discrete and separate functions. And when the state broke its covenant with God, citizens had the right to replace their rulers. A revolutionary principle.

Some Puritans remained in England to fight in a civil war that saw the decapitation of a king and the arrival of a commonwealth. Others decided to start over, writing on the blank slate of a New World.

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The Pilgrims who initially arrived in Plymouth practiced an extreme form of Puritanism that broke with the Church of England. But most Puritans who came to British colonies in North America remained members of the Anglican Church, hoping their “errand into the wilderness” would provide a model for the reform of church and state back home.

The strategy didn’t work. But Puritan New England soon became the intellectual center of the colonies and the main carrier of American identity — which included a conviction of divine calling and a ferocious (though sometimes annoying) sense of righteous purpose.

So, when the strongest American patriots feel the emotional appeal of the queen’s jubilee, there might be several reasons. One, surely, is affection for an extraordinary woman. Another is an undeniable historical reality: More than anyone else, the English made us who we are.

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